Russia’s brain drain leaves its best and brightest scrambling to build a new life away from Putin’s war – Published in “i”

‘I won’t be able to go back to Russia until this is over,’ says Elizaveta, one of thousands seeking refuge elsewhere

Photo: Elizaveta Miller’s sons, Ilya and Yakov, on recent travels

 

Elizaveta Miller and her husband, Leonid Dzhalilov, compare themselves to burning amphibians.

“They say that if you put a frog into boiling water, it will have this reflex to jump out,” said 38-year-old Miller, until last month an assistant music professor at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory.

“But if you put the frog into cold water and you start to heat it, then it will not have this reflex and it will boil.”

On 24 February, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, “that was the boiling water reflex”. The couple booked the first available flight out of Moscow, and fled to Armenia on 1 March with their three young sons, aged between two and seven – leaving behind their flat, their car, Miller’s prized collection of instruments, and Koshka, the family cat.

They are among the estimated 250,000 Russians to have left since the war broke out. Within a week of the invasion, Google searches for “How to leave Russia?” hit a 10-year high.

Russian economist Konstantin Sonin has described the brain drain as a “tragic exodus not seen for a century” – at least since the wave of White Russians, nicknamed after anti-Communist forces, who left following the 1917 revolution and civil war.

In 2022, some have fled for fear of forced military service and a dwindling quality of life as international brands have deserted the country and sanctions have begun to bite.

But for Miller and her family, who after a brief stay in Georgia are now living in Montenegro, it was moral principle that precipitated their exile. She told i that when she woke up on 24 February, “and I read the news and knew the war had started, my first reaction was that it’s like 1 September, 1939”. The world had irrevocably changed and she found herself and her country on the wrong side of global events.

On the same day, her 43-year-old husband, a Russian Orthodox deacon and a school maths teacher, was arrested for the first time when he attended an anti-war demonstration. After a night in jail, said Miller, “it was obvious he was going to get a fine. And then we started counting what proportion of a big bomb this fine would mean. We would actually be sponsoring the war. The fact is that even when you protest, you are contributing to what’s happening.”

She added: “We thought, if we go into exile, we at least are sharing the exile that the people in Ukraine haven’t chosen. I felt that it was an act of solidarity.”

Miller and Dzhalilov had become increasingly uncomfortable with instructions from their bosses regarding political lines to deliver to their classes. She said: “I couldn’t lie to my students.” Another fear was that her children would become “victims of the propaganda”, and “will end up telling me, ‘Mum, you got it all wrong, and actually, our government is right.’”

Instead, the family is facing a different set of challenges. Her tearful two-year-old kept saying he wanted to go home, but couldn’t remember where that was. “He tried to describe his home using colours. That was quite painful. At one point he stopped talking.”

The concert musician, who teaches fortepiano, harpsichord and chamber music, says that now she is in Montenegro, where her husband has secured a temporary job at a school, she wants to start volunteering to support Ukrainian refugees: “When I was in Russia, I definitely couldn’t do much to help people in Ukraine, without going to jail.”

But the end of the war may not be enough for the family to return. “This is a difficult realisation. It has come gradually. Once Putin is gone, I am afraid that it won’t mean that it’s going to get better. There are some people who are even more extreme, if it’s possible, and who have a lot of power there.

“I won’t be able to go back to Russia until this is over. That is obvious, because I think I’ve said enough for a couple of sentences.”

 

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