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Russia has been facing troubling demographics ever since the Soviet breakup two decades ago. The population has contracted by several million people over this period. The birth rate is low. Life expectancy for men is still less than 65 years.

And there is also a sense that many educated, talented people are leaving the country.

To take one example, the world of science lit up in July, when a billionaire Internet investor named Yuri Milner announced nine prizes for some of the world's most innovative thinkers in physics.

Each of the Fundamental Physics awards came with $3 million, making it the most lucrative prize in science.

Like Milner, three of the nine prizewinners were Russian-born. And like Milner, the three currently live and work outside Russia.

Writer Yulia Latynina says the scientists are a highly visible example of talented Russians who chose not to remain in their home country.

"When I come to the United States, when I see people from Russia — they may be physicists, they may be physicians," she says. "The majority of them just left because they don't want to live in a country to which the decent rules don't apply."

Latynina is not a part of the Russian diaspora herself. She's a novelist and host of a political talk show on Echo of Moscow radio.

She says it's not just billionaires and academic superstars who are leaving, but middle-class people who should be part of the backbone of Russian business and civic life.

Latynina cites estimates that more than 2 million people have left Russia during the nearly 13 years that President Vladimir Putin has been in power.

Hard To Measure

But Vadim Radaev, an economic sociologist at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says it's hard to measure whether there's a middle-class exodus now.

Recent polling, he says, shows that about 10 or 11 percent of young Russians say they'd be willing to leave the country to work or study.

That, he says, is roughly the same as in the United States or East Asia, and less than in Europe.

The picture is different among Russia's well-educated young people, though.

"In this group, the number of those who are thinking about emigration is high — it's about one-quarter," he says.

What puzzles Radaev is that there's been an apparent surge in people talking about leaving despite the fact that life can be good in Russia, especially for graduates of prestigious universities like his.

He says most are managers who make good money.

"Everything is good, but the same time many of them talk persistently about their willingness to live elsewhere," he adds.

Radaev himself says he chose long ago not to leave, even though, like many of his colleagues, he received offers of scholarships to study abroad.

"And I decided to stay here in this country and do things in this country," he says, tapping the table forcefully. "And I'm not going to leave, and I will not."

Now, he says, his university is actively recruiting promising scholars from abroad — and of the handful hired each year, about half are returning Russian expatriates.

A Difficult Choice

For Russians with experience working aboard, the decision to return or leave can be complicated, as it is with one couple, Sergei and Masha.

Both work in Russia for international employers, and they asked that their last names not be used, so that their employers won't be identified or involved in the story.

Each has worked outside the country before; Masha for four years and Sergei for nearly 20. But when Masha is asked where she would like to settle permanently, she says plaintively, "I would say, it would be Russia, but with a little bit different political system."

As it is, she and Sergei are strongly considering leaving again, despite the fact that they have aging parents living in Russia.

"Unfortunately we don't see, you know, a bright future for this country until the political system changes," says Sergei.

The couple say they also have to consider the needs of their high-school-age son, and they're concerned that he will get a sub-par education in Russia.

Neither of them is optimistic that Russia's political situation will change any time soon.

"I hope that this will happen at some point in future, but probably not during my life," Masha says.

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