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HomeLatest NewsEnemies of the people, Ramon Aymerich

Enemies of the people, Ramon Aymerich

For more than a century, Russia has periodically expelled its more educated classes. It is a brain drain that is a response both to the difficulty in creating good jobs and to pressure from the authorities to kick out the wayward ones.

Ruslan Bely, a popular comedian accustomed to long tours across Russia, explained in a recent interview that one of the cities he felt most comfortable performing in was Magadan. “The audience is polite and smiles at the most subtle jokes, which does not happen to me in other cities.” Magadan, according to him, it’s cool.

The statement comes off as black humor: if this city, founded in 1930 in the Russian Far East, is known for anything, it’s that it was the heart of the Gulag, a complex of labor camps created by Joseph Stalin and officially dissolved in 1953. Magadan was built as a transit center for thousands of prisoners on their way to the many forced labor camps in the region.

Stalin sent more than eleven million people to the Gulag, of which 30% had higher education.

How can a city that has been the scene of so many misfortunes have a population with such a sophisticated sense of humor? Where is the secret? The answer lies in the Gulag itself, in those who inhabited this prison universe. It is estimated that 30% of the prisoners in the camps (up to eleven million people passed through them) were “enemies of the people.” That is, they were engineers, teachers, artists, company executives… The term “enemy of the people” came from the French Revolution. Stalin generalized it to justify the repression of the more educated elite, whom he considered hostile to the revolution. As a consequence, the population of the Gulag was far more educated than the average for the Soviet Union.

The Gulag accepted millions of well-educated people who began working in the mining, forestry, agricultural or manufacturing industries. But when the camps closed, many of them chose to stay close to them, even if it was in cold and deserted cities like Magadan. One historian, Stephen Cohen, put it this way: “Millions of survivors simply had nowhere to return to. Years of imprisonment destroyed everything that was connected with the home, family, career and property … some of the exiles created new families … they developed strong psychological ties with the areas in which they were imprisoned for so long.

The relationship between growth and skilled immigration is well documented, including in a Russian internal link.

Now a study by two economists, Gerhard Toews and Pierre-Louis Vezin, published in Vox.Eu, shows that “enemies of the people” have passed on their interest in learning to their descendants. The Gulag was created to exterminate its inhabitants, but today the areas near the Gulag in which these groups have settled are more prosperous than the Russian average. This is a fact that shows the importance of human capital in the growth of countries. And this is also a joke of history: it is very likely that among those who laugh at the jokes of the humorist Bely, there are grandchildren of those “enemies of the people” whom Stalin put in prison.

The correlation between wealth and skilled immigration is well documented. This was tested in European settlements in Brazil and Argentina (early 20th century); the French Huguenots in Prussia (17th century) or the Cultural Revolution in China, which sent up to 16 million university students as punishment deep into the countryside.

More than a million people marched in the 1920s, tens of thousands in the 1990s, and now they are marching again.

What makes Russia special is its tendency to periodically expel the more educated classes. In some cases, an internal reference, such as “enemies of the people”. In others, abroad. This is a brain drain (brain drain), which is connected both with labor reasons (the inability of the economic structure to create these jobs), and with the desire of the authorities to get rid of the wayward ones. The recent use by the Kremlin of the description “foreign agent” for all those people who receive funds from abroad for their work (and there are journalists and activists, as well as scientists, technologists, designers or actors) is the latest evidence. this tendency to be suspicious.

This is how Russia has been acting for a century. In the decade following the 1917 revolution, about a million people left for Western Europe or the United States, with big names like Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky or Sergei Rachmaninov. The bleeding continued into the 1940s and 1950s, and tens of thousands left in the 1990s as Russia made its hasty transition to capitalism. It is noteworthy that at the top of the US administration, responsible for the affairs of Russia and Eastern Europe, are the descendants of those who led these migration waves (with such names as Mary Yovanovitch or Alexander Vindman).

Russia will soon have fewer software engineers and more skilled locksmiths

The exodus resumed with the war in Ukraine and will continue for many years to come. Russia today has a highly educated population in post-industrial activities. But according to the latest directives from the Kremlin, the new economic policy priority after Western sanctions will be to restore traditional industries (automotive, avionics, oil and gas…) that have been neglected for thirty years.

In short, in a war-long future, Russia will need fewer software engineers and more skilled locksmiths.


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