The brain drain

The brain drain

Our analyst, Alexander Smukler, looks at this week’s war in Ukraine

This is a still from Little Big’s video, “Cancellation Generation.”
This is a still from Little Big’s video, “Cancellation Generation.”

Last week, Little Big, a widely popular Russian singing group, came out with what Alexander Smukler called “a bomb.”

A metaphoric bomb, that is; it was a video, available on YouTube and pretty much all over the place, called “Generation Cancellation.” It’s been seen by millions of viewers, and “it is one of the strongest clips I’ve seen since the war started,” Mr. Smukler, the formerly Russian, now American, always Jewish entrepreneur who lives in Montclair and has been analyzing the war in Ukraine for us, said.

“This is another crack in Russian society,” he said. “It’s such a strong antiwar message.” And Little Big is putting its money where its mouth is. The group announced that it’s leaving Russia and will make its new base in L.A.

This is a hugely symbolic move, Mr. Smukler said, because it’s indicative of what the young Russian professional class wants to do. They see what’s going on, they want no part of it, and they want out.

“We’ve talked before about how this war isn’t only about Russia invading Ukraine, but also about a war between generations,” he explained. “The Ukrainian leaders are a young generation, generally between 35 to 45, who grew up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Putin’s government and leaders is a generation that was educated during the Soviet period. They’re between 55 and 75, and they represent the Soviet dragon” whose thrashing death they are working out in the war they started.

“It’s a war between a generation that grew up free and one that grew up under the Soviet regime,” Mr. Smukler said.

Little Big’s video – snarly punk, not particularly sophisticated but clear in its message – “is so symbolic,” Mr. Smukler said. “As far as I know, from all of my sources, all of my business contacts, talking with my business partners, my friends, friends of friends — everyone is calling me to help them find a way to send their children out of the country.

“This isn’t just Jewish friends. When I was a young person, living behind the Iron Curtain, every Jewish family was sitting in their kitchen in Moscow talking about whether or not to apply to leave. To try or not to try, to leave or not to leave.” Every choice carried its own perils. “But today, in the Russian population — not only Jews but everybody — there is a massive intention to get their children out.”

The only time when there were comparable numbers of Russians — particularly but not exclusively Muscovites — trying to flee was in 1918, “right after the Bolsheviks took power during the revolution and the civil war,” Mr. Smukler said. “In 1918, one million people left Russia.” Something similar is going on now, he said.

“I’m talking about the generation that’s between 25 to 40 years old,” he continued. “Some of them already have children, some just graduated from college, but they’re all educated. They’re engineers, doctors, IT personnel, artists — and they’re all trying to flee the country.” And their parents, who feel that they’re too old to leave, to restart in a strange country, speaking a language they may know but imperfectly, want to help their children go.

But wait. We’ve heard so much about how Putin and his minions have controlled the media, and how the news stations show only the doctored version of events — perhaps a less kind way to put it would be the untrue version, the series of lies — that Putin wants them to know. How does anybody know enough about what’s really going on to want to get out?

“These people grew up in the internet era,” Mr. Smukler said. “They’re sophisticated. They know how to get access to VPNs” — virtual private networks — “and how to use them. They know how to avoid the social media blockade. They have access to alternative sources of propaganda.

“So they’re less poisoned by the propaganda than older people, who are lazier and less sophisticated, so that when the Russians blocked the internet and other sources of information except government media, they let it go.

“This is basically history repeating itself. I remember that when I grew up in the Soviet Union, in a very assimilated family, the only little windows to the West from inside the Iron Curtain were the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, the BBC, and Kol Israel, the shortwave Israeli radio station.

“We all tried to get those stations, and if we were able to get sophisticated radio equipment, we could hear Kol Yisrael” — literally and figuratively the Voice of Israel — “every day.

“Now, of course, the young generation in Russia has many more tools to avoid Russian propaganda.”

There’s another way in which truth can break through the blockage Russia has installed to keep it out. “Lots and lots of Russian families have relatives or friends in Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. “Especially when we’re speaking about IT people.

“People who work in the IT industry are the children of globalization. They can work at any place in the world. The engineer in Moscow, for example, has a team in Ukraine and also has a team in Moldova. They are used to communicating with the whole world. And lots of American companies, are like my own son’s company, Flow; he has his headquarters in London but his programmers and engineers are in Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova. That’s because they are very professional, and it’s much cheaper to use them.

“At the same time, they’re used to working in a global world, and getting paid.” As all workers who are not enslaved expect, they feel that they should be renumerated for their services. Right? “But right now, they can’t get paid, because all the financial channels are blocked,” Mr. Smukler said. “So no one in the world can use their professional services, they can’t get work, and basically they are cut off from the world.”

Therefore, he said, “as far as I understand it, from different sources, almost 300,000 very sophisticated young IT people are looking for a way to flee Russia and continue their professional lives.

Alexander Smukler, center, is in the Knesset IN 2019; he is holding copies of his mentor Yuli Kosharovsky’s book, “We are Jews again.” He’s standing next to his friend Yuli Edelstein, who was speaker of the Knesset then, and other National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry officials. Mr. Smukler was the group’s president.

“They are prepared to live anywhere in the world. They are English-speaking. Their skills are universal, and everybody needs them.

“Last week, I had probably 20 to 25 conversations with my friends who are my age” — he’s in his early 60s — “calling me to ask how they can help their children escape from Putin’s regime.

“They want better lives for their children and grandchildren.”

Mr. Smukler thinks that this is a symptom of a much larger problem. “I am talking to my friends, my relatives, my community, but this is a sign to me that people do not believe in the future in Russia. They think that the war will not be over soon, that the situation will not improve.”

Mr. Smukler thinks that there is a strong possibility for hope if the American government changes direction.

“I think that the strongest sanctions and pressure that the West can put on Putin is to accommodate these young professionals who want to leave the country,” he said. “That will hit Putin’s economy much more than any other kind of financial sanctions or embargoes will. If this generation can flee the country, there will be a huge brain drain, and I don’t think the regime will be able to survive that mass emigration of young professionals out of Russia.”

Accept them temporarily if it’s too hard to give them permanent residency, Mr. Smukler continued, but understand that these young people, with their technical skills and sense of themselves as part of the ever-widening outside world rather than Putin’s backward-looking, 17th-century-inspired Russia Empire, can be the future. They can bring Putin down, he said.

The resistance to allowing these young people into the West comes from the idea that it is they who will bring down the government from inside if they are allowed to stay is faulty, Mr. Smukler said. “It is a brutal regime, and these people will not sacrifice their lives on the barricades, on in a war with Putin’s thugs. They will not choose to become political prisoners for years, to be sent to labor camps. They will not sacrifice their lives.

“Based on my knowledge, in the last few months Putin’s regime has become stronger. Most of the population supports him unconditionally. Even though he’s murdering thousands and thousands of Ukrainians, even though everybody knows about what happened in Bucha and Mariupol, I don’t see any strong movement that could overthrow the regime.

“So I think that the strongest hit to the regime would be to throw open the doors, to create visas for people who want to come to work.

“We wouldn’t have to spend any money on them. They are sophisticated professionals who can find their way easily in the global world. They easily speak two or three languages, because that is the Russian custom. Good Russian schools teach two languages — English and French, or English and Spanish — as well as Russian.”

There are very few places people can go, Mr. Smukler said. There are very few international flights. Yes, they can go to Turkey, or to Erevan, the capital of Armenia, “and they can stay in a hotel room there – but how long can they do that? They can’t come to Western countries; the embassies are not processing visas. They are totally stuck.”

It’s different for Jews. “They do have a chance to go to Israel,” Mr. Smukler said.

“The Israeli embassy is accepting applications in Moscow, but as far as I know applicants have to wait eight to 12 months before the embassy calls them for an interview.

“If people want to speed up the process, they have to fly to Israel and apply for citizenship there. That system works very quickly — the waiting period is between one and two months — but they have to be able to get there.” The vetting that must be done takes time, Mr. Smukler said.

Israel’s law of return mandates that Israeli citizenship is available to anyone who can prove to have at least one Jewish grandparent. (That does not allow that immigrant to be accepted as a Jew in Israel, but that’s another story

Not all Russians who want to emigrate are eligible to go to Israel. Many more would like to be able to get to the United States, but this country is not accepting them. “I know tens and tens of family, Jewish families, who are eligible to come to the United States, because they have direct relatives here, and based on the Lautenberg Amendment, they would be eligible to apply, but nobody in the United States will process the documents.” (The Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1990 and amended since, allows members of persecuted groups, chief among them Jews, to leave former Soviet republics to be reunited with family members who already live in the United States. It was named after Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from northern New Jersey.) “They’re all too busy to process Ukrainians, let alone Russians.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Zooms to Hebrew University in Jerusalem on June 23, 2022. (Screenshot from YouTube)

“As far as I know, a large group of Jews in Erevan is trying to reach the United States, but as far as I have heard no one has succeeded,” he said.

The result of all of this is that Russians who want to leave Russia are pretty much out of luck.

“The strongest sanctions against Putin’s regime would be to at least temporarily open the doors for Russian professionals,” Mr. Smukler continued. If both the United States and other Western countries allowed those professionals to escape Russia, “the regime will suffer from the brain drain more than from the oil embargo.”

Mr. Smukler discussed some of the ramifications of last week’s news. The European Union’s offer of EU candidacy to Ukraine is a serious symbolic matter, he said. There are seven steps a country must take to gain entry, and it takes years to fulfil them. Then all the EU members — right now, that’s 27 countries — must vote unanimously to allow the candidate in. That is a long and hard process. “But it is a symbol that Ukraine is moving away from Russian global influence, and that it does not belong to Russia anymore.”

Next, Mr. Smukler moved to the siege of Kalingrad, the Russian city once part of Germany and known as Konigsberg, then called East Prussia and now part of Russia, home mainly to Russian-speaking ethnic Russians, but still not touching Russia. “It is an enclave unconnected with Russia, and the only way to supply it is by railway from Russia, which means that it would have to cross Lithuania, or by truck through Belarus and Lithuania, by sea through Russian ports on the Baltic Sea, or by air. But Kalingrad Oblast, the province whose seat is Kalingrad, is “a huge area, and Russia will not be able to supply it by air. That’s especially true because they don’t have planes now.” That’s because the West will not allow the material necessary for repairs into Russia.

“This week, something extremely dangerous happened. Lithuania cut off the communication between the Russian mainland and the enclave, cutting off their railroad tracks and trucking roads. Lithuania is explaining that it cannot let Russian goods cross their territories, because most of those goods are under sanction.

“This would have a huge impact on the Russians.

“First, Kalingrad is one of the most militarized areas in Russia, because it is on the Baltic Sea. It has the biggest Russian naval base, and it has the most missile, because it is so close to Europe, and to NATO.

“The Russians are taking this Lithuanian step very seriously. They do understand, and already have announced, that this was not a Lithuanian but an EU decision, and they are saying that both Lithuania and the EU are crossing a red line.

“There already is huge tension between Russia and the EU, and I worry that cutting off the supply to Kalingrad could easily lead to war.”

Not war with the EU, or even with NATO, but with all the forces of the West, Mr. Smukler said.

“The spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs” — it’s actually the spokesperson, Maria Zakharova — “already said that because of this blockade, our response will not be in diplomatic terms. It will be very practical and very painful for the European Union.

“That’s very scary,” he added.

“We understand — we are meant to understand — that the escalation of tensions is tremendous today, and we are on the very dangerous verge of a bad situation. If Lithuania will continue to block the supplies, I don’t think that Russia will tolerate it.”

Finally, Mr. Smukler turned to the HIMARS, the high-mobility artillery rockets that the United States sent to Ukraine. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and its defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, announced their arrival. (Coincidentally, both men, like many others in the Ukrainian government, are Jewish.)

The rockets have reached Ukraine, and that’s good, Mr. Smukler said. But “according to the ministry of defense, if Ukraine is to be on the same level as Russia, it needs hundreds of them. But they got four. They need at least 300.

“So I am asking myself, when the U.S. government sends only four rockets, and Biden’s administration announced that four others will reach Ukraine very soon, I ask myself, ‘What are these people thinking? Will eight systems make a difference? Will it help the Ukrainians defend themselves? Or will it only expand the war, and lead to more casualties. How will this allow Ukraine to defeat the dragon?”

War is very expensive, Mr. Smukler said. He worries that the combination of other pressing issues at home, and the sort of numbness that can express itself as lack of depth, has caused many people to stop thinking about the war in Ukraine. They may become less interested, and therefore less likely to help. He worries that the United States and other Western countries will stop being able to support Ukraine, because it often cost huge sums of money that could be put to good use domestically.

According to a report by the USAID, Ukraine now needs about $6 billion dollars a month to cover only its military expenses; it needs more for all the other needs its people face. Most of that huge sum is coming from the United States, with some help from other Western countries.

“This is a very scary time,” Mr. Smukler said. “I don’t know how the administration will sustain spending $6 billion a month to support Ukraine.”

Meantime, Vladimir Putin, the angry dwarf, is bombing Ukrainian shopping malls, places whose military value is nonexistent. He is killing civilians who are trying to resume their lives, as he did on Sunday, in Kremenchuk. Who knows what’s next?

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