MOSCOW — Over a bottle of vodka and a Russian salad of pickles, sausage and potatoes tossed in mayonnaise, a group of friends raised their glasses and wished Igor Irtenyev and his family a happy journey to Israel.
Irtenyev, his wife and daughter insist they will just be away for six months, but the sadness in their eyes said otherwise.
A successful Russian poet, Irtenyev says he can no longer breathe freely in his homeland, because "with each passing year, and even with each passing day, there is less oxygen around."
"I just can't bear the idea of watching (Vladimir) Putin on television every day for the next 12 years," the 64-year-old said of the Russian leader who has presided over a relatively stable country, though one awash in corruption and increasing limits on personal freedoms. "I may not live that long. I want out now."
Irtenyev and his family have joined a new wave of Russian emigration that some here have called the "Putin decade exodus."
Roughly 1.25 million Russians have left the country in the past 10 years, Sergei Stepashin, of the national Audit Chamber, told Russian radio. The chamber tracks migration through tax revenues.
He said the exodus is so large, it's comparable in numbers to the outrush in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.
"About as many left the country after 1917," he said.
They don't leave like their predecessors of the Soviet 1970s and '80s, with no intention to return. They don't sell their apartments, dachas and cars. They simply lock the door, go to the airport and quietly leave.
Reasons vary. Some, like Irtenyev, chafe at life under Putin's rule, which seems all but certain to continue with the prime minister's expected return to the presidency next year. But for others, economic strictures are the prime motivation. With inflation on the rise, and the country's GDP stuck at an annual 3 percent growth rate the past three years — compared with 7 percent to 8 percent before the global economic crisis — Russians feel pinched.
Russian nuclear physicist Vladimir Alimov, who now works at the University of Toyama in Japan, said he couldn't survive on the $450 monthly salary of a senior researcher at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"I miss Russia, but as a scientist I couldn't work there with the ancient equipment which had not been upgraded since the Soviet times," said Alimov, 60. "In Japan, I have fantastic work conditions. I can do the work I enjoy and be appreciated and valued for it — everything I couldn't even dream of back in Russia."
The wave of emigration, which includes many educated Russians, has grave implications for a country of 142 million with a death rate significantly higher than its birthrate. A study published this year by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development called Russia a waning power and predicted its population would shrink by 15 million by 2030.
Experts believe 100,000 to 150,000 people leave the country annually and warn that the exodus reached dangerous dimensions in the past three years.
"People are going abroad, believing they will come back someday, but very few do," said Dmitry Oreshkin, an analyst with the Institute of Geography. "The intellectual potential of the nation is being washed away."