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Can Russian emigrants return home?

More and more Russians who emigrated in the early 1990s are returning to their historical homeland. "I could not settle in the USA. Evidently, my expectations were too high. I lived well materially, but always felt isolated. Nobody considered me an American," says Alexei, a doctor, who immigrated in 1998 and returned to Russia in 2002. "My education was not recognised in Germany. I had to work at a nursing home and earned very little money. I felt humiliated," says Galina, a maths teacher. "I married an American but they have a different way of thinking. I got divorced and came back," says Anna.

According to official data, more than seven million people emigrated from Russia between 1991 and 2002. Experts at the Demography and Human Ecology Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences regard this wave of emigration as a kind of brain drain, a loss of professional scientists and hi-tech specialists. By the turn of the century, the number of these specialists had reached 1.5 million. For instance, Moscow State University "exported" 10% of its professors. Moreover, programmers, chemists, physicists, biologists, mathematicians, geologists and doctors are frequently among the emigrants. Their talents and qualifications are highly valued abroad, especially, if they are graduates from prestigious universities that have gained their reputations over a considerable period of time.

Since the early 1990s, Russian science has lost many venerable and young scientists. According to Lyudmila Ledeneva, an expert at the Demography and Human Ecology Centre, about 70% of Russian students studying abroad are not intending to return to their homeland. "We have serious grounds to say that, without a proper solution to the staffing crisis in the scientific and technical sphere, any programmes for Russia's scientific-technical and innovation development will remain empty words, because there will be no one to implement them," said Valery Sobolev, the chairman of the Russian Academy of Sciences' trade union. Each year the country loses at least three billion dollars on this "gratis" export.

There are several reasons for the brain drain. Although funding for science increases every year, there is still not enough money to guarantee scientists' decent life. Cerebral work is prestigious, but underpaid. Accordingly, there are fewer possibilities for scientific growth. The system of grants and contests with monetary awards provides substantial, but irregular support. Therefore, few scientists who emigrated from Russia are coming back.

If the brain drain from Russia still concerns society, data about ethnic emigration points to a sharp decline. The so-called traditional immigration destinations, i.e. Germany (50% of emigrants), Israel (more than 25%) and the USA (10%), which started after the fall of the "iron curtain", had become considerably less popular by the start of the 21st century. Those people who wanted to be reunited with their relatives abroad had done so in most cases, while those who did not believe they could start a business in Russia had also already done so.

Meanwhile, other countries do not always encourage Russian emigrants to settle down or lose their appeal. The expanding European Union is far more hospitable to citizens of its member-states, while the United States has had a more selective attitude to foreigners since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Indeed, the tragic events halved the flow of emigrants from Russia (9,500 Russians emigrated to America in 2000 and only 4,500 in 2001). Israel is not attractive to potential emigrants because of the sharp deterioration of the political situation there.

"In spite of its economic growth, Russia will not soon become a comfortable country with high living standards like Western Europe," says sociologist Nikita Mkrtchyan. "Emigration will hardly end, but in the future Western countries will be more willing to attract Russians, who are closer to them historically, than people from Muslim countries.".

According to sociologists, 51% of Russians believe that their children will find a better life in Russia. Naturally, this figure is not as high as one might like, but five years ago, it was only 35%.

Olga SOBOLEVSKAYA, RIAN