MOSCOW (Reuters) - Most of Vladimir Paley’s clients want him to dig up their family history with one goal in mind: making a case to obtain foreign citizenship and leave Russia.
Six months ago the soft-spoken genealogist had few such requests, but this month he hired an assistant to help him with the flow of would-be émigrés.
Most just want a better life, with some seeking more political freedom than under President Vladimir Putin and others keen to escape an economy that has been hit by Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis and is on the verge of recession.
“They are people who have already made money and are now scared to lose it,” Paley said.
Putin’s popularity is soaring in Russia over the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine despite pressure from Western leaders over what they say is his support for rebels they accuse of shooting down a Malaysian airliner in east Ukraine.
But thousands of people from the minority in Russia who disagree with his policies are voting with their feet.
“I don’t share the opinion of 90 percent of the country: I feel like a foreigner here now so why not leave?” said Tatiana Konkova, a Russian literature teacher and singer, giving her last concert in Moscow this month.
She is trying to sell her home in the Moscow suburbs and move with her seven-year-old son to Georgia, a former Soviet state where she hopes to work as many people speak Russian.
The number of Russians emigrating in the last two years was some five times higher than in the two before Putin began a new six-year term in May 2012, official figures show.
Russia’s statistics service Rosstat data shows 186,382 moved abroad in 2013 and 122,751 in 2012, compared to 36,774 in 2011 and 33,578 in 2010.
But experts say the real number is much higher.
“The official statistics on migration are very low,” said Mikhail Gorshkov, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology (ISRAS), a state-funded body.
“It’s a wake up call for our politicians when someone wants to leave their home country: What is missing for him?”
Echoing the post-Soviet brain drain, sociologists say Russia is bleeding exactly the kind of people it needs to plug a skilled labor shortage and diversify the economy away from reliance on energy exports.
“We are losing the most educated, most active, most entrepreneurial people,” Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Moscow-based Levada Centre pollster. “The Kremlin sees this in a cynical way - as a way to let off steam.”
He estimated that three million Russians have left over the last decade, as many as in the first few years after the Soviet Union collapsed when Russia was in political and economic chaos.
Although those packing their bags account for less than 1 percent of Russia’s 143 million people, every second person among the middle class in Moscow and St Petersburg polled by the ISRAS knew someone who had opted to move abroad.
Leading the exodus are many well-known names: Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s top social networking site VKontakte, prominent economist Sergei Guriyev and world chess champion turned opposition activist Garry Kasparov.
Paley says he has four times more clients than last year.
Undeterred by his more than 1,000 euro ($1,350) fee, they are professionals who prospered in Putin’s first spell as president from 2000 to 2008 when a surge in the oil price helped power an average of 7 percent annual economic growth.
“People are looking for a better quality of life: from medicine for older people, education for children, legal and economic guarantees for businessman,” the genealogist said.
Reasons for leaving vary. Corruption, red tape and allegedly crooked courts are driving the exodus among entrepreneurs. Young people seek higher education and job opportunities. Families want better health care and schools. Some hanker after greater freedoms.
The “disillusioned emigrants” is how prominent journalist Leonid Bershidsky described himself and others who have left.
Like many, his hopes for modernizing reforms were galvanized by Putin’s choice of Dmitry Medvedev - a technically savvy lawyer who wooed urban intellectuals - to replace him when constitutional limits barred him from a third consecutive term.
Putin’s return to the Kremlin, and the ascendancy of spy and security agency veterans in his entourage who are driving what the opposition sees as a Soviet-style clamp down on dissent, has brought disillusionment for some and disempowered them.
“I was not a rat who jumped ship at the first sign of trouble,” Bershidsky wrote in an op-ed from Germany. “I am more a sailor who, seeing that the captain had changed course toward a port of ill repute ... lowered the lifeboat and began rowing.”
Gudkov, whose Levada Centre polls track the public mood, said the center’s research showed the number of Russians wanting to move abroad swelled to 22 percent in 2011-2013 after Putin’s re-election, from 13 percent in 2009.
Among the population as a whole that figure has flagged to 17 percent this year amid euphoria over Putin’s annexation of Crimea, which has shored up the president’s sagging ratings.
But it remains as high as 40 percent among Putin’s critics Gudkov says.
Unlike earlier waves of émigrés fleeing Soviet-era political repression or those who fled poverty in the 1990s, many today keep one foot in Russia, by holding onto flats or businesses. That makes the size of the outflow hard to quantify.
IT entrepreneur Leonid Volkov once criticized people for leaving rather than fighting for the changes they wanted to see at home.
He did that as a campaign manager for Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who sought to build on his leadership of mass street protests against Putin in the winter of 2011-12 to challenge a Kremlin ally in Moscow mayoral elections last year.
The protests have since fizzled, Navalny is under house arrest and Volkov moved to Luxembourg in October.
“For me it was very painful because I really didn’t want to leave and I was proud of the fact that I hadn‘t,” he said by telephone from his new home, where he said he works alongside 20 other young Russian emigrants. “My ability to influence the country’s political life is exhausted.”
Despite falling foul of investigations targeting Navalny, Volkov rejects being called “a political emigrant.”
He says he sees better career opportunities in the West, especially after $75 billion in capital flight from Russia so far this year.
Russians are increasingly feeling the pinch. Only 14 percent of the middle class believe their financial situation has improved under Putin’s leadership since 2000, while 29 percent say it is worse, the study published by ISRAS this month found.
Compared to a decade ago, “everything is exactly the opposite,” the study’s authors wrote. “Then ‘backwardness’ in people’s quality of life was seen as a ‘temporary difficulty’.”
As some of Russia’s self-starters flee, sociologists say the country’s middle class is no longer growing but changing in a way that differs radically from the West, by increasingly becoming dominated by bureaucrats.
“If the most creative segment of small and medium-size business entrepreneurs is being washed away, it’s a sign of the maladjustment of the economy as a whole,” Nikita Maslennikov, an adviser to the Moscow-based think tank the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR), said.
Up to 68 percent of the middle class are state employees, the ISRAS estimates, fuelling support for populist politics such as proposals for a big pay increase for public sector ordered by Putin last year to help him ride out the street protests.
“It’s strange but we have more state officials now than the Soviet administration for a population that is two times smaller,” Gorshkov said.
Putin’s tough talking in response to U.S. and European Union sanctions over Moscow’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis has boosted his popularity to its highest point since 2008, a month after Russia’s success in a five-day war with Georgia.
Eighty-three percent of Russians approve of Putin’s management, a Levada survey last month showed, and that has made his critics feel more isolated than ever in their home country.
“There are many like me who feel unneeded now,” Alexei Ivanov, 42, a former activist from the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg who moved to Kiev to launch a web retail business.
“The authorities have means of squeezing any businessman who doesn’t support them ... so why risk it?”
Since he moved to Paris, so many people have asked Sergey Kuznetsov and his wife for advice on emigrating that he begun charging 700 euros ($940) for his services this month.
“We help them decide where to move to,” he said.
Paley’s clients are mainly looking west. If he can trace their ancestry to Poland, Israel or Bulgaria, they apply for passports there. If not, Paley directs them to partners in Latvia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus or Bulgaria, where investments can pave the road to citizenship.
“It’s more about where they’re leaving from, than where they’re headed,” he said.($1 = 0.7427 Euros)
Editing by Anna Willard