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She had a dream job. Now, she's part of a massive brain drain hammering Russia

Alexandra Prokopenko poses at a marathon event back in Russia. She used to run in Moscow's Meshchersky Park all the time: It was her favorite place in the city. But she's doubtful she will see it again, at least for the near future. Shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, she left her country, along with hundreds of thousands of her peers.
Alexandra Prokopenko
Alexandra Prokopenko poses at a marathon event back in Russia. She used to run in Moscow's Meshchersky Park all the time: It was her favorite place in the city. But she's doubtful she will see it again, at least for the near future. Shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, she left her country, along with hundreds of thousands of her peers.

Alexandra Prokopenko grew up in Moscow. She was always fascinated by economics: money, business, the way economies worked.

A few years ago, she landed a dream job as an adviser at Russia's central bank in Moscow.

Prokopenko loved Moscow. The city was vibrant and beautiful — full of restaurants, music and culture. But by far, her favorite place was Meshchersky Park, a giant forest in the city, where Prokopenko would go running.

"It was my favorite place. I always felt really great in there," she recalls.

But Prokopenko's Meshchersky runs are a thing of the past. She left Moscow, as well as her job at the central bank, shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Prokopenko now works at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Her focus is still the Russian economy — she publishes new analyses and data every week.

She says she's glad to be there, but it isn't home.

"I'm missing Moscow a lot," she says. "I miss Moscow every day."

Prokopenko is part of a massive wave of young Russians who have fled their country. Though hard numbers are hard to come by, hundreds of thousands are estimated to have left Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.

That has contributed to a reduction in Russia's labor force.

According to one estimate, more than 1.3 million Russians under age 35 left the Russian workforce just last year alone, though that number could include other factors such as workers taking jobs not officially captured in statistics.

Alexandra Prokopenko had a dream job at Russia's central bank in Moscow, a city she loved.
/ Alexandra Prokopenko
/
Alexandra Prokopenko
Alexandra Prokopenko had a dream job at Russia's central bank in Moscow, a city she loved.

Especially among those who have fled the country are educated workers with in-demand skills like engineering or computer programming. This massive loss of talent looks to be one of the biggest economic consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"I don't think Russian authorities will admit it, but we've seen a massive brain drain," says Prokopenko.

A "full-blown demographic crisis"

Even before the invasion, Russia was experiencing a labor shortage: Businesses and factories complained that they couldn't find the workers they needed.

"Now it's a full-blown demographic crisis," says Oleg Itskhoki, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Itskhoki says this poses a huge problem for Russia's economy: Without workers, many companies and businesses are having to scale back or even shut down entirely.

But the labor shortage is not the only problem facing the Russian economy.

In 2022, Russia's economy held strong in spite of harsh sanctions, earning the nickname "fortress Russia." A lot of this economic toughness came from oil prices. The invasion of Ukraine caused a global panic that pushed the price of oil way up.

Russia was able to sell its oil to China and India, among others. And a lot of the sanctions against selling oil and natural gas to Europe didn't kick in until the end of last year.

2023: the "year of difficult choices"

But 2023 is a very different year for the Russian economy. European sanctions have kicked in, so oil revenues are way down and now the war is costing Russia hundreds of millions of dollars a day.

"2023 is the year of difficult choices for Russia," says Itskhoki.

He says right now Russia needs money, which means President Vladimir Putin will have to either raise taxes (most likely on businesses) or force people to buy war bonds — or both.

That could erode support for the war, which Putin desperately needs.

The Russian economy managed to thrive in 2022, in spite of sanctions, earning the nickname "fortress Russia," but 2023 has been a very different year.
Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The Russian economy managed to thrive in 2022, in spite of sanctions, earning the nickname "fortress Russia," but 2023 has been a very different year.

"The Kremlin obviously is paying attention to what's particularly unpopular among the population," says Itskhoki. "They're trying to navigate what's least unpopular."

Fortress Russia is starting to feel the heat.

Russian manufacturing: back to the future

2023 has also started to reveal some cracks around Russia's production and manufacturing.

The lion's share of resources and technology is being funneled to weaponry. At the same time, sanctions mean Russia can't import goods from many countries and manufacturers often can't get products or parts.

"For example, air bag technology is not available in Russia," says Itskhoki. "And so the cars that are assembled in Russia are assembled without air bags."

Or anti-lock brakes.

Many of the trains, planes and other high-tech goods that are made in Russia are using technology from decades ago.

Russia can still import a lot from places like China, but that takes business away from Russian companies and it also risks creating an even greater economic dependence on China, which Putin doesn't want.

Russia's people problem

Still, Itskhoki and Prokopenko stress that the biggest issue facing the Russian economy isn't products or sanctions: It's people.

A generation of skilled workers who are now fighting on the front or who have fled the country.

Skilled workers like Prokopenko herself, who says she still dreams of going on long runs in the forests of Meshchersky Park but isn't convinced that this will happen anytime soon.

"I'd love to go back, but I don't feel it would be safe for me," she says. "People in Russia can become prisoners for nothing."

Prokopenko says she's in touch with many fellow Russians who have left, most of them young skilled workers like herself. She says the consensus is that as long as Putin is running the country, there's no going back.

And that is a huge problem for Russia not just right now but also going forward.

After all, while sanctions and restrictions on manufacturing could affect Russia's economy for years to come, losing a generation of its best and brightest could damage the country's economy for generations.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stacey Vanek Smith
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
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