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Will Russians Care about Brain Drain?

Vadim Nikitin has an op/ed running in the New York Times today on the departure of economist Sergei Guriev from Russia.  Will the persecution of the best and brightest attract popular sympathy?  Or have these liberal elites already benefitted too much from the system?

 But another key characteristic many of these men share is their former loyalty to the government they are now leaving: a stark reminder that Putinism was built with the massive complicity of the country’s liberal elite, much of which has stood by the regime through its worst excesses of the past decade.

Apart from the anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny and a few other exceptions, like the leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov, many of the high-profile victims of Putin’s latest purge had been enthusiastic fellow travelers, even enablers of the regime.

Guriev was a long-time ally of Medvedev. Surkov was the Kremlin’s chief ideologue in Putin’s first term who constructed the entire ideological carapace that is now being deployed against him. Browder and Pavel Borodin spent years accumulating shady money while talking up Putin to foreign investors until their game was up. For years they reaped the fruits of such collaboration: prestigious government and academic positions, lucrative consultant jobs, the freedom and money to buy property abroad (including, in Guriev’s case, a Paris apartment where he is now hiding out).

Is it any wonder that as they begin to turn away from Putin, he would try to destroy them?

As more and more former insiders fall foul of the Kremlin, parallels with the Stalinist purges have begun to appear in the media. In the 1930s, nearly everyone in the government was vulnerable to blackmail for having colluded in earlier rounds of witch hunts against old friends. And those few who hadn’t could be safely rounded up anyway — because no one would believe the possibility of innocence.

East Germany also springs to mind, where Putin’s service as a K.G.B. agent may have taught him some old Stasi methods.

Yet there is a key difference between those historical episodes and the present situation: the absence of force. Under communism, people were forced to collaborate with the security services (even then, there were thousands who refused). But in the absence of such totalitarian means of coercion in today’s Russia, who or what, apart from his own greed and ambition, made Guriev and those like him shill for the Kremlin for all those years?