Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Scientists Want Out of Russia

Deepening paranoia and prominent arrests are crushing morale.

By , a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington, D.C.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) listens to Dmitry Rogozin (left), the head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, as they visit the Vostochny cosmodrome in the Amur region on Sept. 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) listens to Dmitry Rogozin (left), the head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, as they visit the Vostochny cosmodrome in the Amur region on Sept. 4. Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian government recently announced an ambitious project: convincing half a million emigrants to return to Russia by 2030.

For those familiar with lavishly funded projects such as this one, it is clear that it’s yet another financial opportunity for Russia’s spectacularly corrupt elite to utilize a chunk of the state budget.

Many projects conducted seemingly for the good of the people in Russia are giant corruption schemes. Take the corrupt monopoly over burial services in Moscow, which nearly cost the journalist Ivan Golunov his freedom back in 2019. If you’ve ever had to plan a funeral in Moscow—as I have, once—you know exactly how the monopoly, ostensibly created to “clean up the market” and “help the bereaved,” is a cash cow for shady officials.

The Russian government recently announced an ambitious project: convincing half a million emigrants to return to Russia by 2030.

For those familiar with lavishly funded projects such as this one, it is clear that it’s yet another financial opportunity for Russia’s spectacularly corrupt elite to utilize a chunk of the state budget.

Many projects conducted seemingly for the good of the people in Russia are giant corruption schemes. Take the corrupt monopoly over burial services in Moscow, which nearly cost the journalist Ivan Golunov his freedom back in 2019. If you’ve ever had to plan a funeral in Moscow—as I have, once—you know exactly how the monopoly, ostensibly created to “clean up the market” and “help the bereaved,” is a cash cow for shady officials.

Corruption in public services in Russia takes many forms, but what all experts can agree on is that it’s extremely high.

Yet the new repatriation scheme in particular is more depressing than it initially seems, even by Russian standards.

In spite of the Kremlin’s lofty pronouncements that Russia has triumphantly “gotten off its knees” due to Putinism, brain drain continues—and has picked up speed again. In fact, the number of scientists who have left Russia has risen fivefold since 2012.

The Russian Academy of Sciences explains this as a funding problem. And while it does have a point—if scientists can get paid much better abroad, why wouldn’t they leave—there is another problem lurking under the surface, one of fear. The pervasive paranoia of the Russian state means that anyone in sensitive sectors is in real danger of being accused of espionage—even if it’s just by an ambitious underling who wants their job.

Speak to anyone working in the Russian space industry or adjacent industries such as defense, and you learn that stories of witch hunts for “traitors” and “foreign agents” are just the tip of the iceberg.

Since Russia was rocked by unprecedented protests against election fraud in 2011-2012, the Kremlin has been on a steady collision course with the very idea of freedom of speech, assembly, and freedom in general. Repressions, previously more random, have taken on distinct and troubling patterns—including the adoption of more and more draconian legislation.

Today, the mere act of speaking to an employee working in Russia’s space sector can land that employee on a list of foreign agents, as per the updated rules issued by the Russian security services.

Russia’s laws on so-called foreign agents are deliberately broad and specifically designed in such a way so any undesirable can be targeted. Much like the way that treason laws are enforced, they are unlikely to ensure Russian national security and increase competitiveness.

Why? The Russian space sector is notoriously corrupt, even by Russia’s abysmal standards. And in spite of a proud Soviet legacy that involved putting the first man in space—not to mention the first woman—corruption has stymied Russian talent and has negatively affected performance. The genuinely scary debacle of the Nauka module is just one recent example.

This creates a dilemma: Space and defense programs are a major source of prestige for the Kremlin. Yet allowing the elite to steal—to the point of Russia achieving the dubious honor of being the world’s most unequal major economy in 2019—is an important cornerstone of Putinism. Thus, failures must be explained away by pinning the blame on scientists and experts who consort with “evil foreigners” and are otherwise letting the country down.

A famous, ongoing case involves Ivan Safronov, a former advisor to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. More recently, Alexander Kuranov, a prominent hypersonic rocket specialist, was snatched up by the security services and charged with treason. Kuranov is in his 70s, and his colleagues privately remark that charges against him are even more absurd and Kafkaesque than charges against Safronov. None of that matters, of course. What matters is the atmosphere of paranoia that allows stealing to continue while everyone dutifully keeps their mouths shut.

One of the most insidious ways that corruption affects Russian space and defense programs is how unqualified yet well-connected people are given projects to run. Journalists are loath to write about this phenomenon, knowing that they might get frozen out from their usual beat, but if you do enough reporting in this sphere, the stories really do add up over the years.

I briefly worked for a space journal founded by a former Russian defense official in London, back in 2015, when witch hunts against so-called foreign agents had not yet reached fever pitch. In those days, I frequently spoke with Russian scientists who grumbled about nepotism—and then asked me to keep it off the record.

After Kuranov was snatched up, I reconnected with a source from those days, just as he was, in his own words, getting himself and his family “the hell out of Russia.”

“You do realize I could be arrested just for speaking to you,” my source snapped at me when I first got in touch. He hadn’t had a connection to the government for years, but he was still extremely wary. I couldn’t say I blamed him.

Once he was safely on foreign soil, we were able to speak again, although he still asked for anonymity. He told me that since 2015, an atmosphere of stukachestvo (“informing”) had become extremely normalized in the Russian space sector and beyond. In late-stage Putinism, more and more paranoia radiates from the Kremlin—and projects deemed strategically important, such as in space and defense, become breeding ground for backstabbing as the officials who oversee them grow more nervous themselves.

A stukach—a term coined back in Soviet times—is a person who rats out colleagues or neighbors to the government; this is done either for personal gain or as a way of deflecting suspicion. “There’s a stukach in every office. We’re not children. We have always known that,” my source said. “But it just started getting worse. Especially if there’s a government contract and some [wealthy official]’s nephew is suddenly in charge of the contract. And everything’s going downhill because the goddamn nephew doesn’t know how to run things, but if you have a problem with that, you just might wind up on a list [of possible traitors].”

This kind of raw frustration with what’s going on in Russia is not to be expressed publicly—especially if you’re trying to hang on to a job or stay out of the infamous Lefortovo prison—but it simmers beneath the surface.

Back in the Soviet Union, at least the lines for Russian scientists were very clear. One simply didn’t have contact with foreigners unless expressly permitted. One didn’t go to conferences abroad unless heavily supervised. One didn’t have social media accounts through which contrary opinions could be expressed.

Today, the Kremlin spokesperson practically foams at the mouth when he insists that Russia is a modern democracy, with every citizen’s rights enshrined by a relatively progressive constitution. But there are lofty words, and then there is reality.

All of this is especially sad when you recall just how many brilliant, extremely dedicated people work in the Russian space program. Consider their latest project—sending the wonderful Yulia Peresild to the International Space Station to film a movie. Propaganda or not, it’s the kind of move that can inspire a generation of actors and other artists. And it is only possible because Russia remains committed to space—at this point, in spite of, and not because of, its rapacious ruling class.

The brilliant people already out of the country might miss their homeland, but they have little desire to return. “Something drastic has to happen for me to even consider going back,” my source told me glumly. “I can say the same for many people whom I know or know of.”

“And you know what?” he added after a pause. “None of this is happening because of an idea. Or an ideology. It’s just everything [in Russia] revolving around money. Kind of embarrassing, when you think about it.”

Natalia Antonova is a writer, journalist, and online safety expert based in Washington, D.C.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.