Putin’s Unwitting Gift

By Shlomo Maital

        Russia is again offering a priceless gift to the free world:  Brilliant educated minds.  I know because 20-30 years ago, my country Israel reaped a crucial invaluable windfall of Russian human capital.

        Question is, will the US accept this gift?  If not – which country will benefit most?

        History not only rhymes, it does repeat itself.  Following the 1976 U.S. Jackson-Vanik amendment, Soviet Jews were defined as political refugees, hence not subject to US quotas.  During 1970-1988, of 291,000 Soviet Jews given exit visas, 43% emigrated to the US.  In large part, they were well-educated and productive.    

        Then in 1989, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev opened the floodgates.  Most emigrés chose the U.S. as their desired destination.  But in October, the Reagan Administration redefined Soviet immigrants as economic refugees, subject to a small 50,000-a-year quota.  

       The quota was quickly filled. And so most Russian Jews went to Israel, whose Law of Return offers any Jewish person citizenship at once, on entry.

        In some 17 years, between 1989 and 2006, over a million-and-a-half Soviet Jews  left the former Soviet Union.  Fully a million migrated to Israel.   Around 300,000 migrated to the United States. 

        The result: “The Russians saved Israel, big time”  noted Shlomo Maoz, a leading Israel economist.   Maoz said the infusion of a million educated Russians fueled Israel’s high-tech industry precisely at the moment skilled manpower was desperately needed and in short supply.   Nurses, doctors, engineers, scientists —  a priceless windfall of human capital.   

        Largely as a result of hi-tech, Israel’s per capita GDP is today some $43,000,  four times larger than that of Russia.    

      The US, like Israel, was built by immigrants.  In 2019, 45 million immigrants lived in the US, one American in every seven, very close to the peak ratio reached in 1890.   

          On Thursday March 24, President Joe Biden said in Brussels that the US would accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Sadly, credit the Russians with that gift.  And expect a flood of young educated Russians to follow.  

          The one thing Russia and the former socialist republics did supremely well was to educate people.  They still do.  Russia could have leveraged the creative entrepreneurial energy of its young people to grow wealthy, like Israel.  But in kleptopia, a nation of corrupt thieves, why launch a startup when a Putin henchman will simply steal it, backed by Putin?

         Many young Russians oppose Putin’s war and are leaving.  It is not easy to do so. For now many have gone to Georgia or Armenia –a temporary stop on their way to the West.   By one estimate, “up to 70,000 computer specialists, spooked by a sudden frost in the business and political climate, have bolted the country since Russia invaded Ukraine five weeks ago. Many more are expected to follow”, according to Associated Press journalist   Liudas Dapkus.   

      “The main reason,” an information technology specialist named Artyom Saprykin told Radio Free Europe, “was the realization that Russia has no future.  …With the beginning of the war, I understood that the situation in the country was much worse than I thought.”  

      According to the financial weekly The Economist, “over the past 10 years, Russians have begun to die younger and are becoming fewer, poor and more miserable

     The elderly will likely stay.  Many of the educated young will leave.

     A Kodak ad once famously called its cameras “the gift that keeps on giving”.  That phrase fits immigrant human capital to a “T”.  They brought energy, skills and ultimately wealth to Israel.  And they can do the same for any country willing to accept them. 

      It could be the US.  A 2021 Cato Institute poll found that 68% of Americans favor a “low level” of immigration and 23% prefer a “high level”.  

      Putin, a murderous war criminal, is unwittingly offering America and the West a priceless gift. Wise nations will grab it with both hands, as Israel did.