Putin’s war prompts Russian tech workers to flee the country in historic numbers

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RIGA, Latvia — In his two-bedroom apartment in Moscow, 35-year-old designer Pavel Telitchenko has spent years pondering leaving Russia, fearing the gradual rise of a police state. Then, three days after the Kremlin tanks arrived in Ukraine, he made the difficult choice – to pack up his young family, along with his precious collection of vinyl records, and join in a historic exodus that includes a mass exodus of the best and Russia’s brightest minds in technology.

“I didn’t want to make an emotional decision, but I couldn’t raise my son in a country like this,” said Telichenko, who moved back to neighboring Latvia in March with his wife and 3-year-old son. . He spoke in their comfortable two-story Riga walk-up, standing by a high shelf with a white statue of Santa Claus from his childhood – a reminder of what he had left behind.

“The war made me realize that Russia will not change,” he said.

Western attention is focused on the millions of refugees who have fled Ukraine since the Russian assault began on February 24. But Russia is also in the midst of a wave of emigration that is disrupting its artistic and journalistic spheres, and in particular the world of technology. .

The Russian Electronic Communications Association told Russia’s lower house of parliament last month that 50,000 to 70,000 tech workers had fled the country, with another 100,000 expected to leave within the next month, for a total approximately 10% of the sector’s workforce. Ok Russians, a new non-profit group helping emigrants, used a sample of data from neighboring countries and social media surveys to estimate that almost 300,000 Russians in total had left since the start of the war .

Mitya Aleshkovskiy, co-founder of Ok Russians, said some of those leaving are opposition activists, artists and journalists – people President Vladimir Putin is likely happy to see go and whose departure could reduce active dissent in Russia. But nearly half of those leaving are from a tech background — a highly transient and globally sought-after workforce, many of whom fear Russia’s global isolation, newly unfavorable business climate and almost total authoritarianism.

The Russian government is “really scared and shocked,” Aleshkovskiy said. “The Russian Prime Minister begged these guys to stay. He tells them, “Don’t worry about Apple leaving, we’re going to build our own Apple Store.” Please don’t go. … But I would say the best people are leaving right now. … The highly skilled, highly educated and highly paid specialists.

Thousands of Russians who left, initially fearing Putin would seal Russia’s borders, have left in recent weeks. But at least some are expected to leave, as experts predict another wave of departures in the weeks and months to come. Global migration and Russian population experts call the current exodus from Russia the fastest since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when millions of intellectuals and economic elites fled the rise of the Soviet Union.

“In some ways this is a first,” said Jeanne Batalova, global migration expert at the Migration Policy Institute. “We are talking about a lot of people in a very condensed period, a matter of weeks. In 1917, Russia was in the midst of civil war. But this is happening at a time when there is no war in Russia itself.

The departure of so much talent threatens to undermine a host of Russian sectors, from state media to the aerospace and aviation industries already reeling from Western sanctions. The tech and start-up ecosystem was already withering under escalating government interference and censorship.

Desperate to stem the tide, the Russian government has passed an unprecedented package of incentives offering IT companies tax breaks and reduced regulation. Computer scientists, meanwhile, are promised subsidized housing, pay raises and no income tax for the next three years. Notably, the decree signed by Putin also grants IT workers an exemption from conscription for military service, which many young Russians have sought to avoid by fleeing the country.

Mikhail Mizhinsky, who runs Relocode, a London-based company that helps tech companies relocate, said its Russian customers have grown to more than 200 since the war, a 20-fold increase. The biggest are looking to relocate 1,000 employees. Most are relocating 100 to 200 staff.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

Cracks are emerging in the Russian elite as tycoons begin to lament the invasion

The tech exodus is also due to Western sanctions and the downsizing or ending of operations by Western companies such as IBM, Intel and Microsoft. Smaller Russian tech companies or companies run by international Russians are also leaving. Meanwhile, major Russian tech players like Yandex, often referred to as “the Russian Google”, have rushed to retain employees fleeing Russia.

A person close to Yandex who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose internal discussions said the company was considering setting up new or expanded offices in Armenia, Georgia and Turkey, where “many” of its engineers have recently moved.

The company has also been trying to find ways to overcome logistical challenges, including paying relocated staff, as Western sanctions have largely cut off Russian bank cards from the international financial system. In March, Yandex issued a one-time cash bonus for employee retention and began offering its staff psychological counseling.

“The question is, as a company, should we set up local offices to support engineers who have left Russia, because brain drain is seen as a big problem? ” the person said. “Russian engineers are pretty cool, and it’s not a big deal for them to get into Facebook or Google, so we have to compete with those tech companies.”

Interviews with logistics companies and tech workers themselves suggest they are overrepresented in the exodus as they rank among the few workers in Russia who can easily leave. International remote work, especially in the pandemic era, was already common in the industry, while foreign demand for their skills makes them good candidates for work visas outside of Russia.

Many of them are also younger, recent college graduates who would be at risk if they stayed.

“I thought I might be sent to war in Ukraine,” said Maxim Nemkevich, a product manager at a major Russian IT company who fled to Turkey in March after being invited by his university, where he was a consultant. , to fill out a form with the “skills” it could offer the military.

“And then I thought, [Putin] would start stopping IT people from leaving Russia, because so many of us are leaving and they need us. That convinced me it was time to go.

Russian tech workers, he said, are now “everywhere” in Istanbul. Temporary office spaces, restaurants and sidewalks are “full of Russian speaking people. There are so many Russians here. He said he plans to stay in Turkey as long as possible and apply for graduate programs elsewhere in Europe.

“I fear that Russia will become like North Korea. The national course will be self-isolation, and it will close any connection with the Western world and be closely tied to China,” Nemkevich said. “I don’t want to live in that kind of country.”

Russia lacked qualified IT personnel even before its invasion of Ukraine. Last year, Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development estimated the shortage of tech workers in the country at between 500,000 and one million, with a shortfall of 2 million expected by 2027.

And many departing Russians – like Telichenko – had considered emigration long before the invasion. After launching a Moscow-based platform in 2019 for large online conferences, he legally established a new company in Latvia in 2021 and obtained a resident visa. His longer-term plan was to shuttle between Moscow and Riga, but he had no immediate plans to move.

Then came the war. He was alarmed by what he described as a herd mentality of people no doubt accepting the invasion. Others, he said, were too afraid to voice their disagreement. He remembers meeting with an employee in a coworking space he was renting in Moscow.

“I could see in his eyes that something was wrong,” he said. When he asked her how she was, she burst into tears, confiding her fears of the invasion.

With the ban on flights between Russia and the European Union, getting to Riga meant first flying to St. Petersburg and then riding a 14-hour bus ride. Then, like so many Russian emigrants, renting an apartment was a hardship, in part because Western sanctions made it difficult for him to withdraw money or open a bank account.

His mother at home feared that everyone in Latvia – a former Soviet republic that is now a member of the European Union and NATO, and whose government is fiercely anti-Putin – “hates Russians”. But instead, Telichenko said, he and his family found a warm welcome among a people who lived under Soviet-era Moscow.

“Latvians understand,” he said.

Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.

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