When pollsters ask Russians if they like the United States, the answer is a resounding nyet. In a survey released this week by the independent Levada Center polling group in Moscow, 71 percent said the U.S. played "a negative role in the world," up from 50 percent who held that view two years ago.
But the number of Russians trying to emigrate to the U.S. has never been higher. The State Department says Russian applications for the U.S. green-card lottery hit an all-time high of 265,086 this year, even though only about 4,000 of 100,000 slots in the drawing were set aside for Russians.
Separately, State Department data show that some 245,638 Russians last year got visas allowing them to work or study temporarily in the U.S. That's more than double the number a decade ago, and Russia's population, estimated at 143 million, hasn't increased since then, according to the World Bank and other sources. An additional 3,622 Russians were allowed to settle permanently in the U.S. last year for familial or other reasons, including 56 who were given visas after agreeing to invest at least $500,000 in job-creating businesses.
"People I spoke to a few years back, who were happy with Moscow, are now looking for an exit strategy," said Marina Fooksman, an immigration lawyer in New York who emigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union. As the economy sputters and President Vladimir Putin shakes up his circle of favored business people, wealthy Russians increasingly see the U.S. as a safe place to "park their money, maybe park their spouses and children," Fooksman said. Less wealthy Russians simply want to earn more money, she said—for example, by applying for U.S. visa programs targeting skilled professionals.
Those going to the U.S. are part of a broader exodus of Russians, especially those in academia and in sectors such as high technology, banking, and law. Putin complained in June that foreign organizations were "working like a vacuum cleaner" to lure them abroad. The government's statistics service shows a spike in departures over the past two years, but its numbers greatly underestimate the total because they include only people who formally notified the government they were leaving, which many emigrants don't do.
Besides the quarter million Russians who got U.S. visas last year, some 75,300 obtained residence permits in the European Union and Switzerland, up 25 percent over 2010. Britain, Germany, and Spain are the top destinations. Israel says applications for citizenship from Russians are up 30 percent during that period, though the numbers are well below those of the post-Soviet peak in the 1990s.
Maxim Kiselyov, a venture capitalist who has worked with the government-backed Skolkovo technology-startup incubator in Moscow, said that project increasingly has become "an incubator of emigrants." Persuading high-tech entrepreneurs to remain in Russia has always been difficult because financing is scarce and the local market for innovative technologies is limited, Kiselyov said. The problem has worsened significantly as the ruble has plunged and Western sanctions have frozen Russia out of capital markets.
"For companies in earlier stages of development, it's much easier to find money in the U.S., Europe, even Brazil," he said.
Russia's increasing isolation and Putin's crackdown on political opposition and the news media also figure in the exodus. "Kremlin policy is forcing the educated class to choose: Either line up under the banner of war with the West or leave," Alexander Morozov, a Moscow political scientist who recently moved to Germany, told Bloomberg News last month.
Immigration lawyer Fooksman said many of her clients are afraid to talk openly about their interest in emigrating.
"When you speak to them on Skype, when they're calling from Russia they're always very careful to say there are no issues, they're just curious. Or sometimes they'll say they're just calling for a friend," she said. "Then, when they come in face to face, it's a different story."