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Russian academics who have fled the country in recent weeks say there’s no future left for them there amid a clampdown on free speech and severing of international ties.

Three scholars who spoke to Times Higher Education after fleeing their home country in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine could be the tip of a new brain drain, with Western sanctions also set to crush the Russian economy.

One academic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had been leading a team at a top Moscow-based institution for a decade. Then, days after the war began on Feb. 24, he fled to Armenia, leaving behind his life and work.

“Officially, I’m still in Moscow,” he laughed. But soon the amusement left his voice. “Academic freedom is very important. I think that it’s coming to an end.”

On March 4, Russia’s Parliament effectively criminalized free speech about the Ukraine war. Those who express opinions contradicting the official government line face up to 15 years in prison.

For the academic, who had signed antiwar petitions, this was the tipping point. But he said that scholars were being squeezed from all sides. In recent weeks, many Western universities have severed ties with Russian institutions, and some journals no longer accept submissions from Russian scholars. “We’ll lose any opportunities to collaborate,” he said.

Ilya, a Russian scholar who asked that only his first name be used, was in a similar position, speaking from a hostel room in Uzbekistan, which he shares with his wife and young child.

He said that if nothing changes soon in Russian politics, those who have left in recent weeks are “very likely to be just the first wave of emigration.”

He also felt that he was unable to continue speaking out against the war after the passage of the new law barring free speech.

“This was for me the most frightening thing, because I knew it would be hard to keep silent. I haven’t officially quit my job, but I don’t really believe I’ll have chance to continue there, because in science, communication is everything, and it’s ruined already.”

A third academic, who also asked to remain anonymous, said the realization for him had come sooner, when the government cracked down on protesters in 2011.

“I realized there is no future for me in Russia. There is no intention to listen to people there,” he said. “It’s not like something happened in one year. It happened in 10 years. It just took that long for people to realize all their rights were taken from them.”

But also in his case, recent events were the final straw. Now, he is in Georgia and looking for a postdoctoral post in Europe. While his colleagues are largely sympathetic to his antiwar stance, university leadership were unlikely to look the other way, and he knew he could be fired at any moment.

Recent weeks have seen a proliferation of grassroots efforts in the West to help scholars fleeing Ukraine, but some also extend assistance to at-risk Russian researchers. One such initiative by cognitive scientists offers to whip CVs into shape, get scholars in touch with relevant labs and give advice on academia-related topics.

Still, even with such help, the decision to seek work in Europe has its own drawbacks.

“I’m in a much better position than my Ukrainian colleagues,” said Ilya. “Maybe I can take someone’s place if I run to Europe right now, so maybe this is a selfish thing to do. There are people in a more disastrous situation.”

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