On the evening of February 23, just a few hours before Vladimir Putin’s army crossed into Ukrainian territory, a message from Amazon arrived in the inbox of Vladimir Smirnov, a programmer from St. Petersburg. It was a work permit for a software engineer position in Ireland. Smirnov had begun interviewing for the position at Amazon in January, when U.S. intelligence first stepped up its concerns about Putin’s plans for war in Ukraine.
The fact that war was truly coming became clear to Smirnov two days earlier during Putin’s televised address to the nation, in which he recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Ukrainian territories that have been under Russian control since 2014.
“He gave his verdict to the nation and, indirectly, declared war,” Smirnov said. “My whole family watched that vicious speech and trembled.”
It’s one thing to know that war has been declared. It’s quite another to wake up on February 24 to the news of bombings.
On the very same morning, Smirnov was in no doubt that he needed to leave Russia. Having dressed, he went to take a COVID-19 test so he could fly to neighboring Georgia as soon as possible, after which he would travel on to Ireland.
Nik Shevchenko, the 22-year-old chief executive of the startup WeLoveNoCode, also decided to leave Russia. Fearing that martial law would be introduced in Russia, forcing the borders shut, Shevchenko bought a plane ticket to Portugal, where he remains now. “First they close the borders,” Shevchenko said, “and then they force you to kill. I’m fit for military service, unfortunately, but I don’t want to kill innocent people.”
Natalia Chebotar, a former top manager at Yandex and one of the leading Russian specialists in edtech, left Russia with her family when Putin ordered the placement of “all nuclear deterrence forces in a special regime,” a veiled threat of nuclear posturing not seen since the Cold War. Yuri Malyugin, a former lead product designer at technology company SberAutoTech, bought a ticket to Georgia — where Russians can stay for up to a year without a visa — when, one by one, IT companies and services began leaving Russia.
A user experience designer from Moscow who wishes to remain anonymous recounted how, a couple of days into the war, his work computer became “a useless piece of plastic.” The software stopped working, and his company could no longer receive payments from foreign colleagues or pay its employees in Europe after Russia was disconnected from SWIFT in early March.
“The last straw was when we tried to transfer the salary to our employee in Ukraine,” the designer said. “At that moment, he was at home in Mariupol. The city was already under bombardment and a curfew had been imposed. The last message we received from him was: ‘I have no money left. I’m looking out the window and see mobile crematoria approaching my house.’ After that we heard nothing more from him.”
According to estimates by the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, or RAEK, some 70,000 IT specialists fled Russia in February and March. RAEK experts predict that Russia may lose a further 100,000 specialists in April, who are currently held back by the need to tie up affairs in Moscow, as well as high ticket prices. (After the start of the war, more than 30 countries closed their airspace to Russian aircraft, while Boeing and Airbus stopped servicing Russian fleets and began recalling leased aircraft.) Behind the scenes, Google is already pulling its team out of Russia. The British startup Arrival relocated its Russian employees to other countries. The Miro platform, according to Kommersant, transferred its team from the Russian city of Perm to Amsterdam.
“After February 24, charter flights began taking IT professionals out of Russia,” said Anastasia Mirolyubova, co-founder of Immigram, an immigration platform for IT specialists and entrepreneurs.
But the second wave of emigration, anticipated in April, may not come to be. From the very beginning of the war, departing tech IT specialists have attracted the special attention of Russia’s FSB — a government organization associated with contract killings and poisonings of Russians who oppose Putin’s regime.
“Let’s leave the motherland’s secrets in the motherland”
Once the war had started in Ukraine, interrogation of IT specialists crossing the Russian border became commonplace. One CGI artist from Moscow recalls how on February 28 he was detained by customs officers at passport control in Sheremetyevo Airport, where he was taken to a room and questioned by an FSB officer. He was asked about his opinion on the “special military operation” in Ukraine and whether he knew anything about hackers associated with Anonymous.
On March 8, before departing from an airport in Novosibirsk, a staff member in plain clothes questioned a manager from another IT company. “He asked what languages I can write in, if I can hack into programs, if I know about white, gray or black hats. I said that I’m not involved with hacking, to which he answered: ‘That’s a pity.’”
Following the news about interrogations on the border, a channel titled “Russian Border Control” appeared on Telegram — at the time of writing, it had more than 24,000 subscribers — to allow users to share their experiences. The channel’s administrator, who wishes to remain anonymous, said he posted more than 500 border crossing stories in the course of a month, most of which featured the IT industry in one way or another.
“IT people who have fled Russia do not want to waste their abilities on war and other crap that negatively affects humanity. IT is the internet, and the internet is freedom.” Nik Shevchenko, WeLoveNoCode CEO
On March 8, more than a week after the war broke out, a programmer who flew from Moscow to Tbilisi noted that “everyone is allowed through the border, but if guards hear the word ‘IT,’ then people are taken away for questioning.”
Another programmer recalled a scene at the airport in the southern Russian city of Mineralnye Vody on March 9: “There were six of us flying out, but when two of us uttered the phrases ‘software tester’ and ‘online platform’ while talking with the border guards, they were immediately sent to some room.” A system administrator flying from Russia to Bahrain on March 12 said that airport employees in plain clothes pressed him for the names of the services for which he works and also checked his phone, looking for “protest,” “Ukraine,” “Putin,” and “war” in his chat and browser history.
Another traveler, who asked not to be named, said that once the war had started in Ukraine, interrogation of tech workers crossing the Russian border became commonplace. One IT specialist said his devices were taken away from him, with the promise to return them upon arrival and the words: “Let’s leave the motherland’s secrets in the motherland.”
The FSB has not commented on these inspections. A former employee of Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs “K” Department — the ministry’s unit dedicated to investigating cybercrime — said he knows nothing about it. According to him, such checks can only be explained if they concern public officials. The ongoing registration of IT specialists at the border looks like an orchestrated campaign that, like the war, may quickly escalate to something worse.
Nailya Aglickaya, a public relations manager from Moscow, said she left Russia on March 8, and after a two-hour interrogation, the border guard told her: “So you’re not an IT specialist? You should have said so. We only detain IT specialists.”
A programmer from St. Petersburg, who relocated to the Armenian capital Yerevan in early March, recalled how a computer monitor with an open Excel sheet was slightly turned toward him during his interrogation, so he could see the border guard entering data. “The table listed the names of all those interrogated, their phone numbers, addresses, and attitude towards the situation in Ukraine,” he recalled. “But in the column marked ‘type of activity,’ they entered only one of two options: ‘IT’ or ‘not IT.’”
“I don’t care about being arrested”
The rise of the IT sector in Russia is widely attributed to the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, the “geek president” who took office in 2008. Medvedev traveled around the U.S., where he toured Silicon Valley, dined with then-U.S. President Barack Obama, and marveled at the possibilities of the recently debuted iPhone.
In 2010, Medvedev initiated the construction in Russia of something in between California’s IT mecca and Soviet science cities: the Skolkovo Innovation Center. One technocrat at the top was followed by more. Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich became the president of the Skolkovo Foundation. The head of the Federal Tax Service, Mikhail Mishustin, digitized the bureaucratic system under his control and soon became Russia’s prime minister. The policy of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was aimed at making the capital a technological city, the example of Singapore providing a source of inspiration.
But since February 24 — the day Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine — the rhetoric of the authorities has changed. Medvedev, who in 2009 declared that the most important thing in life is love, now no longer precludes the possibility that the death penalty may return to Russia. On March 18, Arkady Dvorkovich left his post as head of Skolkovo after giving an anti-war speech. Anatoly Chubais, the head of the Rosnanotech state corporation and Putin’s climate envoy, became another émigré; journalists found him trying to withdraw money from an ATM in Istanbul. On the Moscow metro, people no longer have to wear masks, allowing the “Sphere” facial recognition system to identify the faces of citizens who attend anti-war protests. Under a recently enacted anti-“fake news” law, Russians can face up to 15 years in prison.
After leaving Russia, WeLoveNoCode’s Shevchenko announced that 10% of margin revenue in March would go to Ukrainian charities working with refugees and the wounded. Under the treason article of Russia’s Criminal Code, the startup’s actions could lead to a 20-year prison sentence.
“But fuck it,” Shevchenko said. “I feel very sorry for the people who are dying. I don’t care about being arrested.”
According to a migration specialist who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from the Russian government, interrogations at the border are another way of intimidating citizens. “Intellectuals are leaving Russia — people who have access to a great amount of information and critical thinking. 99.9% of them are IT professionals. What does this mean for the government? It views them as extremists and enemies of the state who need additional checks,” she said. “Besides, the situation in the country will be much easier to control once the brains are abroad.” The migration specialist said they are certain that IT specialists who left Russia in February and March will return to the country in the coming months. “Those who are unable to find international projects will return, as will those who lose hope.”
But the old life they knew in a country abandoned by AMD, Adobe, Apple, General Electric, IBM, Intel, MasterCard, Visa and others no longer exists.
“Russian IT people face a new reality,” said a senior machine learning engineer who worked in Moscow remotely for an American company. “The best way of describing it is as a ‘digital gulag.’”
“The internet is freedom”
To keep specialists in Russia, Putin signed a decree on incentives for IT companies on March 8. Income tax will be reduced from 3% to zero and IT workers under the age of 27 will receive deferments from military service — a major incentive in a country where all men aged 18 to 27 are subject to Russia’s obligatory military conscription, especially in a time of war.
Following this news, the leading online education platform in Russia, Skillbox, noted a sharp rise in interest in courses relating to programming. “In other areas such as management, marketing and design, we did not see a similar increase,” said Artem Kazakov, Skillbox’s commercial director.
But concessions for IT are of no interest to those who have already left Russia.
“IT can no longer exist in its usual form,” said Yuri Malyugin, a lead product designer. “Russia’s attractiveness for corporate investment has been lost for a long time to come. We will not have access to familiar technologies. Software will not work. We are talking about a rollback to 10 to 15 years ago.”
Anastasia Mirolyubova also talked about an isolated and government-controlled IT cluster inside Russia. “The examples of North Korea and Iran show that it is possible to create new technologies within closed countries, but they will not go beyond the country’s borders.”
WeLoveNoCode CEO Shevchenko predicts a similar lunge backward in Russia’s tech capabilities: “Theoretically, we could return for a while to ordering a taxi over the phone, rather than online,” he said.
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Shevchenko interviews Russian “no-coders” for jobs every day. And, according to him, the people who left Russia after February 24 display better skills than those who do not plan to leave the country. “IT people who have fled Russia do not want to waste their abilities on war and other crap that negatively affects humanity. IT is the internet, and the internet is freedom.”
According to the recruitment service HeadHunter, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the government demand for IT specialists in wartime Russia has already increased by 100%. The shortage of specialists, according to former Yandex top manager Natalia Chebotar, will be easy to remedy.
“I have been aware of the federal program for [the] digital economy for three months now,” she said. “A goal of this program is to have 1 million IT specialists in Russia. But the experts are leaving, so what needs to be done to prevent [key performance indicators] from decreasing? Stop IT specialists from leaving the country. I think this could happen in a few days or weeks. So far everything that I predicted has come true.”
On March 24, Concord — the company owned by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and the alleged owner of the “troll factory” in St. Petersburg that is believed to have interfered with the U.S. presidential election in 2016 — published on the social network Vkontakte a version of a proposed bill to keep IT people in Russia. On the same day, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, called Prigozhin’s project “a groundless rumor” and explained that a ban on the exit of citizens would be a violation of constitutional rights. Curiously, the same Putin spokesman publicly stated on February 20 that Russia had no plans to invade Ukraine.
“According to our president, those leaving Russia are people whose hearts already live in the West,” concluded Vladimir Smirnov, the programmer from St. Petersburg who left for Ireland. “But we’re just afraid of losing contact with the wider world.”