Mass flight of tech workers turns Russian IT into another casualty of war

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RIGA, Latvia — In his two-bedroom Moscow apartment, 35-year-old start-up wizard Pavel Telitchenko spent years mulling a move from Russia, fearing the gradual rise of a police state. Three days later, the Kremlin invaded Ukraine with tanks. Telitchenko made the difficult decision to leave Russia. He packed up his family and his valuable vinyl records and joined a historical exodus of the best and brightest tech minds from Russia.

“I did not want to make an emotional decision, but I could not raise my son in a country like that,” said Telitchenko, who resettled in neighboring Latvia in March with his wife and 3-year-old son. In their Riga walk-up two-story, he spoke from a comfortable Riga room. He stood near the Santa Claus statue that he had grown up with as a reminder of his past.

“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 Feb. 24. Russia, however, is also experiencing an emigration wave which is disrupting its arts and journalism spheres and particularly tech.

The Russian Association for Electronic Communications told the lower house of Russia’s parliament last month that 50,000 to 70,000 tech workers have fled the country, with 100,000 more expected to leave over the next month — for a total of about 10 percent of the sector’s workforce. Ok Russians, a new nonprofit group helping emigres, used a sampling of data from neighboring nations and social media surveys to estimate that nearly 300,000 Russians overall had left since the war began.

Mitya Aleshkovskiy, co-founder of Ok Russians, said some of those leaving are opposition activists, artists and journalists — people whom President Vladimir Putin is probably happy to see go, and whose departure could reduce active dissent within Russia. Nearly half the people who are leaving Russia come from technology — an in-demand, transient workforce, many of whom fear Russia’s isolation and new business climate.

The Russian government is “really scared and shocked,” Aleshkovskiy said. The prime minister of Russia begged these men to stay. They are being told by him that Apple will leave, but not to worry. We’ll build our Apple Store. “… The highly skilled, educated and highly paid specialists.” … The highly skilled, highly educated, highly paid specialists.”

Thousands of Russians who left, initially fearing that Putin would seal Russia’s borders, have gone back in recent weeks. Experts predict that there will be a new wave of Russians leaving in the weeks and months ahead. Experts on global migration and Russian population are calling the current exodus Russia’s single fastest since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when millions of intellectuals and economic elites fled the rise of the Soviet Union.

“In some ways, this is a first,” said Jeanne Batalova, a global migration expert at the Migration Policy Institute. We’re talking here about many people within a short time span, just a few weeks. In 1917, Russia was in the midst of a civil war. But this is happening at time when there is no war within Russia itself.”

The departure of so much talent threatens to undermine a host of Russian sectors, from the state media to 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 passed an unprecedented incentive package offering IT firms tax breaks and reduced regulation. In the meantime, IT workers are promised subsidised housing and salary increases, as well as no income taxes for the next three-years. The decree, signed by Putin, also exempts IT workers from military service. This is something that many Russian youth have tried to escape by leaving the country.

Mikhail Mizhinsky, who runs Relocode, a London-based company helping tech firms relocate, said his Russian clients have surged to more than 200 since the war, a 20-fold increase. The largest are looking to move 1,000 employees. Most are relocating 100 to 200 staffers.

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

The tech exodus is also due to Western sanctions and the curtailing or ending of operations by Western companies including IBM, Intel and Microsoft. Russian-owned tech firms and companies that are headed by foreigners are also departing. Major Russian tech companies like Yandex (often called the Russian Google) have been trying to keep hold of employees fleeing Russia.

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

The company has also been trying to figure out ways to overcome logistical challenges — including paying relocated staff, given that Western sanctions have largely cut Russian bank cards off from the international financial system. Yandex offered a psychological counseling service to its employees in March and gave an employee retention bonus.

“The question is, shall we as a company maybe create local offices to support those engineers who left Russia, because brain drain is considered to be a big problem?’ ” the person said. “Russian engineers are kind of great, and it’s not a big problem for them to get into Facebook or Google, so we need to compete with those tech companies.”

Interviews with logistics firms and tech workers themselves suggest they are overrepresented in the outflow because they rank among the few workers in Russia who can easily leave. Remote work in international settings, particularly in times of pandemic, is a common practice in this sector. However, foreign employers are looking for these workers to work in Russia.

Many are also younger, recent university graduates who faced risks if they stayed.

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

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

Russian tech workers, he said, are now “everywhere” in Istanbul. Russian-speaking people are now “everywhere” in Istanbul, including temporary office space, restaurants, and even sidewalks. Many Russians live here,” he said. He plans to stay in Turkey for as long as possible, and then apply to other European graduate programs.

“I’m afraid that Russia will become like North Korea. Nemkevich stated that the national plan will lead to self-isolation and will cut all connections to China and connect to the West. “I don’t not want to live in that kind of country.”

Russia was running a deficit in skilled IT workers even before its invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Digital Development last year placed the country’s shortage of tech workers between 500,000 and a million, with a deficit of 2 million projected by 2027.

And many of the Russians leaving — like Telitchenko — had contemplated emigration long before the invasion. After starting a Moscow-based platform in 2019 for large online conferences, he legally established a new company in Latvia in 2021, and obtained a resident’s visa. While his long-term goal was to commute to Moscow from Riga, he didn’t have any immediate plans to leave.

Then came the war. He was alarmed by what he described as a herd mentality of people unquestionably accepting the invasion. He said that others were afraid to speak out against the invasion. He recalls a conversation he had with an employee of a Moscow co-working space.

“I could see in her eyes that something was wrong,” he said. He asked her how she was doing. She burst into tears and confided her worries about the invasion.

With bans on flights between Russia and the European Union, getting to Riga meant flying first to St. Petersburg, then riding 14 hours on a bus.

His mother back home worried that he would be unable to rent an apartment because of Western sanctions.

His mother back home fretted 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 — would “hate Russians.” But instead, Telitchenko said, he and his family have found a warm reception among a people who lived under Moscow’s yoke in Soviet times.

“The Latvians understand,” he said.

Mary Ilyushina contributed to this report.

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