The Costs of Exile

Leaders in countries of the former USSR are increasingly driving their best and brightest into emigration. No one wins.


These days, the authorities in post-Soviet countries are making a habit of persecuting their opponents in order to maintain social control. In many cases, the victims — intellectuals, activists, artists — prefer to leave their home country before their governments have a chance to arrest them. Even those exiles that manage to find a comfortable and safe refuge abroad end up dreaming of the day they can safely return home.

Not everybody lives to see that day. On Nov. 13, Georgia lost one of its most progressive reformers and corruption fighters, Kakha Bendukidze. His passing affected thousands of Bendukidze’s students and friends. Though he was a powerful political figure who engineered important reforms under ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, he was perhaps most proud of the two educational projects he founded: the Free University of Tbilisi and the Agricultural University of Georgia. Bendukidze made sure that both universities had state-of-the-art programs. He bought equipment for new labs, worked to improve campus life, and tracked the careers of the students who graduated. But though his schools were highly acclaimed in some circles, they also won him the disdain of Georgian law enforcement authorities.

Two years ago, Georgian elections transferred power from supporters of Saakashvili to a new elite dominated by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, and Bendukidze’s life turned into a struggle for survival. When I spoke to him two months ago, the reformer explained to me that the Ivanishvili-controlled governmnet had launched a criminal case against him, accusing him of illegal privatization "in order to take away our university." The authorities launched similar attacks on others associated with Saakashvili; the former president’s wife, Sandra, for example, left Georgia after the authorities seized her apartment. The new government considered Bendukidze’s universities a private business that he had developed into a prosperous enterprise — so they, too, became a target.

Last June, authorities brought Bendukidze in for an 11-hour-long interrogation about the property he had allegedly "illegally privatized" to fund his institutions. He left the country the very next day, and spent the last five months in Europe as one of two dozen Georgian political exiles. When he died in London at age 58, he was completely heartbroken, his friends told me. (The photo above shows his friends, family, and supporters paying their respects at Bendukidze’s funeral in Tbilisi.) He blamed the Georgian authorities for depriving him the chance to visit the universities that were so close to his hear.

Georgia isn’t the only country in the region to see the talents of its people squandered in this way. A number of other post-Soviet states are also losing many of their brightest minds to exile. This brain drain is perhaps most significant in Russia. More Russians have left the country, both voluntarily and involuntarily, in the last eight months than in any year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency: 203,659 Russians have left since April 2014, compared to 186,382 total last year, according to Rosstat, a state statistics agency. Some members of the liberal-minded middle class worry that they’ll soon find themselves behind a new iron curtain. But not all the reasons for leaving are political; many emigrants are reacting to an economy that’s sagging under the weight of the West’s economic sanctions.

Last week, Putin called on Russian law enforcement agencies to join together to prevent popular uprisings and "extremism." "All the signs point toward growing pressure on freedom of expression and freedom of speech," Marat Guelman, a prominent modern art expert and political consultant, told me on Thursday. He said that he recently made the decision to move abroad with his family for at least two years, motivated by the fear that Russian may soon be facing "a chaotic social crisis."

Many Russians are having similar discussions. My friend Anna Shpakova, a psychologist and curator of international cultural projects, warned that the departure of these exiles is bad news for their home countries: "Political exiles cause a damaging loss to the flora and fauna of their home country’s cultural life. Most exiles are creative and professional people who might managed to re-establish themselves again abroad — but the empty space left behind them will never be fully filled in."

One of the best examples of what she’s describing is Sergei Guriev, one of Russia’s most prominent economists, who decided to leave the country last spring for exile in Paris. A supporter of the anti-Putin demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, he finally called it quits after a series of official threats and interrogations. "Life in Paris is great," he told me recently. "I certainly can’t complain — especially when compared to the lives of people in prison or under house arrest."

Perhaps no country exemplifies the problems of exile better than Belarus, which has been run for the past 20 years by the same man, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Old folks tend to like the president, who makes sure that their pensions get paid on time and plays up the nostalgia for the old USSR. But for the young and independent-minded, it’s a stifling place. The news about Bendukidze’s death happened to reach me when I was in Vilnius to interview Pavel Marinich, a Belarussian political exile. Last month, Pavel lost his father Mikhail, a famous oppositionist, who died of a stroke. Pavel’s friends later told him that a police patrol had attended his father’s funeral along with about 100 friends and family members who had come to say goodbye.

Pavel wasn’t able to attend his father’s funeral. Four years ago, when President Lukashenko was arresting his opponents one after another, Pavel escaped by walking across the border to Lithuania, leaving his family in Belarus. Just as with Bendukidze, for Pavel to return home would mean years in jail. Over the past four years he’s started a new life as a successful entrepreneur in Lithuania, enabling him to support his family back home. But at the same time he’s gradually drifted away and has drifted away from political life in his home country — mostly because he has lost faith in the possibility of change. "By repressing several generations of politicians, Lukashenko has got rid of the all strong opposition parties, of any signs of grassroots democracy, so at next year’s election he will be the only presidential candidate," Pavel told me, gloomily. He blamed Europe for underestimating Lukashenko’s power. "The EU should be know that if there’s a big war, tanks will come across the border from Belarus," he added.

Political exile is always a tragedy for the individual concerned. But it’s also an indicator of the failure of society. In a properly ordered world, leaders should be able to disagree with their political opponents while still allowing them to put their talents to use for the common good. Forcing talented people to renounce their homeland might be a good way of preserving power, but it’s a terrible way to run a country.

One of Kakha Bendukidze’s colleagues, Shota Utiashvili, told me that it took the death of their great reformer to understand what they’d lost. "Even those who criticized Kakha before his death admire him now. The entire [Georgian] parliament stood up for a moment of silence." It was, Utiashvili observed, "a heartbreaking moment in Georgia’s modern history."

Anna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award. Twitter: @annanemtsova