Russians confronted by the ultimate test of loyalties

Courtney Weaver
Moscow, with the Kremlin in the background.
Alexander Zemlianichenko | AP

As Russia became embroiled in the war in Ukraine last summer, Olga Talalay jumped at the chance to escape the politics of Moscow and move to Stockholm with Ericsson, her employer.

"Almost nobody in Russia protests no matter what the president does," says Ms Talalay, 40. "I don't believe there is any possibility of change in the foreseeable future."

But the events of last year stirred the opposite impulse in Irina Fomina, a Moscow-based manager for an importer of Italian furniture importer who grew up in Hong Kong. Ms Fomina, 35, who speaks several languages, decided to put off a move to Australia after seeing how perceptions of Russia were changing abroad.

"I trust [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and believe he has some sort of vision for the country," says Ms Fomina. "I don't want to go abroad and be in a position where I have to constantly defend my beliefs."

EU to blame for Crimea annex: Marine Le Pen
EU to blame for Crimea annex: Marine Le Pen

That two people of similar socio-economic and educational backgrounds could end up on opposite sides of Russia's ideological spectrum typifies a polarization in Russia's urban middle class more than a year after the annexation of Crimea.

As relations with Europe and the US continue to fray, data and anecdotal evidence suggest that more people are leaving Russia than before. But even as they go, a new wave of patriotism is steeling the resolve of others who are choosing to ride out the economic crisis at home.

"The situation that began last year with the propaganda, the anti-Ukraine rhetoric and most importantly the annexation of Crimea has divided the middle class," says Lev Gudkov, head of Levada center, the respected Russian pollster. "The percentage of people who approve of Putin has gone up and the percentage of people who disapprove of Putin has gone down."

Read MoreItalian luxury CEO still believes in Russia, China

Those who have changed their mind in favor of Mr Putin are now less likely to emigrate. According to a poll by Levada in March, 12 per cent of Russians say they want to emigrate — down from as much as 22 per cent in May 2013. However, there are signs that among the minority who want to leave are some of the most educated and affluent Russians, Mr Gudkov says. "If you look at who these people who want to emigrate are it seems that they are the most educated, the most financially secure and from Moscow where the strongest anti-Putin sentiment is."

Concerns about a new wave of emigration emerged last year after Russia's Federal State Statistics Service announced that more than 203,659 people had left the country in the first eight months of 2014 — up 70 per cent on the same period a year earlier. Demography experts attributed the sharp increase to a change in the agency's methodology. But there are signs the number emigrating may indeed by increasing even if fewer overall want to leave.

Mikhail Denisenko, a demography expert at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says about 5,000 Russians emigrated to Israel last year against about 4,000 in 2013, according to Israeli migration data.

Yuri Mosha, who runs a consultancy in New York for Russians trying to emigrate to the US, says his business has three times as many clients now as it had a year ago. Last year the consultancy had 60 Russian clients but this year it is signing up as many as 30 a month, he says.

"For the creative class, the middle class, for those who demonstrated on Bolotnaya in 2011-12, the war in Ukraine and what accompanies it inside the country I think pretty much spells the end of any hope," says Leon Aron, head of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think-tank. "In private, personal conversations, people talk about the children," says Mr Aron, himself a Russian émigré.

Alexander Nikitich, founder of Carfax Education, an education consultancy, says his company has seen an increase in Russian families who want to send their children abroad. But highlighting the divide in the middle class, Carfax also knows Russian families who no longer favour an overseas education because it is considered unpatriotic.

"There is clearly an uptick in those who, as a result of the recent economic and political developments, have decided to send their children to be educated abroad or even finally decided to emigrate themselves. But there is also a new trend of families who can perfectly afford any education in the world deciding to return their children back to Russia."

More from The Financial Times:

Isis advance blows hole in Obama's Iraq strategy
Credit derivatives deserve a revival but only if financiers grow up
Horse-loving Goldin tycoon Pan Sutong takes a tumble

Ms Fomina feels she is better off staying at home in Russia. "I don't have a portrait of Putin hanging in my home or anything but I believe he's done a lot of good for the country," Ms Fomina says. Her views often lead to arguments with her brother who lives in the UK and she worries she would find herself constantly on the defensive if she moved abroad.

While Ms Talalay, now in Stockholm, identifies squarely with the anti-Putin camp, she understands that point. She says she prefers not to answer questions about where she is from because inevitably "some political conversation starts". "People ask: 'why did you let [Crimea] happen?' And you say, but I couldn't do anything!"

This month, Ms Talalay saw Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the tycoon turned dissident, speak about the opposition movement he plans to launch from abroad. "Khodorkovsky thinks Russian people are ready for democracy and that this will happen," Ms Talalay says. While she should be one of his constituents, so far she is unconvinced. "I would not agree with him on that but maybe he knows more than I do," she adds. "All the info I get about people from outside Moscow is from television."