‘Cream of the cream’: Russia’s high-tech brain drain
Nikita Shevchenko, 22, bought a one-way ticket out of Russia on February 24 – the day the invasion of Ukraine began. “I opened my phone and the first messages that I saw were like, you know, booms and bombings and dead bodies,” he said. “As soon as the war happened, all of my plans changed completely within basically 30 minutes.”
Portugal seemed like a good place to start. He’d been there before, it was beautiful, and seemed like a base from which he could make other plans. He bought a ticket and headed for the airport. But it turned out there was a hitch: The flight to Portugal had a stop in Poland, and a border guard stopped him and said he couldn’t go through.
“I like what the f***,” he said later. “And she’s like, Poland doesn’t accept Russian people anymore.”
He called friends and family and his assistant and found a flight to Greece. It took him two days of hopping flights and stopping at border crossings to get to Portugal. Shevchenko was part of the first wave of IT professionals who headed for the exits in the days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Tethered to the global digital economy and unable to do their work amid sanctions and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly hard line on dissent, a wave of digital nomads have fanned out across the globe to watch events unfolding in Ukraine from a distance.
Their rush to leave and perhaps never return presents an enormous challenge for Putin, who has introduced a roster of financial incentives for tech companies and their workers in a bid to keep them home. The incentives range from lower tax rates to favorable mortgage deals to promises not to draft them. It doesn’t appear to have been enough.
The Russian Association for Electronic Communications – a tech trade association – said last month that as many as 70,000 tech workers have fled the country so far, and their economists expect that number to more than double by this summer. If their estimates are correct, that would mean some 10 percent of Russia’s IT workforce will have decamped to far-flung places around the world.
“I don’t think Russia will be the same for decades to come,” Shevchenko said, “all my friends have left.”
While the staples of Russia’s economy are oil and minerals, Putin has tried to diversify by encouraging IT workers to code for Mother Russia. Partly as a result, Russia produces some of the world’s most talented software engineers and web developers. Telegram and Yandex – Russia’s answer to Google – were created by homegrown entrepreneurs, the very kinds of tech workers who, like Shevchenko, are heading for the exits.
Click Here spoke with three members of the Great Russian Migration: a nimble entrepreneur, a corporate leader with her family, and a high school computer whiz who can't wait to leave. Shevchenko says it’s bleak: “Russia won’t be the same for decades,” he predicted.
‘We love no code’
Shevchenko’s new San Francisco home has shiny wood floors and smells like new furniture. There are bottles of wine on the kitchen counter and a new microwave, still in the box, unopened by the kitchen island. He arrived just a few days before, but it looked like he intended to stay awhile.
Before the war, Shevchenko had founded a small tech company called WeLoveNoCode. It helps businesses build websites with blocks of code, sort of like Lego, instead using developers and web designers. As a result, it is much cheaper to build a website from scratch. Shevchenko says he doesn’t need coders, he just needs people who know how to put the blocks together. “So we help companies to build products without code, basically, as simple as that,” he said.
He says it is hard to be a Russian businessman right now. He was in the process of going back to investors for more seed capital when the invasion occurred. A potential investor turned on him and told him to “go burn in hell” because he was Russian. He said it was a reaction to the war. All Russians are tarred with the same brush, he said: “People make assumptions.”
Shevchenko lived and worked in Ukraine for years and has been spending a lot of his time trying to help his 50 employees there leave. “I understand the pain, it's like very, very, very sad for me. We spent 10 percent of all of our revenue to help Ukrainians and I don’t support the war,” he said. “A lot of Russians don’t support the war.”
While he wouldn’t go so far as to say he saw the invasion coming, he does allow that he was afraid it would happen, so he began moving employees out of Ukraine months ago. “We paid for the tickets to different countries in Europe so that they will just leave and so that they can work and their families will be safe,” he said. “Back then we had 10 or so working in Ukraine and almost all of them left.”
As the war rages on, Shevchenko says his Russian employees are asking to leave too. Shevchenko says 80 percent of his Russian workforce wants to go elsewhere and while he’s tried to relocate everyone “with the amount of cash that we have, it’s just not possible. We are trying our best.”
He says that by just encouraging and enabling this exodus of talent from Ukraine and Russia, he’s running afoul of Moscow. “If we count the number of laws that I broke, it would be the minimum of 20 years,” he said, laughing. “Starting with helping Ukrainians and ending with propagandizing an anti-Russian vision.”
The so-called anti-Russian vision is calling the invasion of Ukraine what it is: a war. Moscow’s preferred language is “special operation.” Shevchenko has also dared to suggest that Russia isn’t winning, which is a crime too. Needless to say, he says he has no plans to return.
Natalia Chebotar’s daughter turned 9 years old on March 1. A video from the day shows her wearing a princess dress from the movie Frozen, looking embarrassed while the adults in the room are singing to her.
Originally, there was supposed to be a big birthday party, with friends from school, party dresses and lots of cake. But Ceobotar canceled it after the invasion and had a small family affair instead. The very next day they were on their way to Tbilisi, Georgia.
“I left my car; we left our house, it just stays there,” Chebotar said. “My husband still has business there and he doesn't know what to do with this business.” He works for an e-commerce company with a long list of international clients. Because of the sanctions, business has cratered.
Chebotar is very well known in Russia, at least in tech circles. She was the chief strategy officer in Yandex’s education division. “Yandex is a kind of Russian Google,” she explained, “ and I was in charge of big educational projects.”
Yandex offers Russian language search and, like Google, has dozens and dozens of other products, including a virtual assistant named Alice, a news portal which, recently, seems to only link to a lot of state news sites, and the education products Chebotar managed.
Among other things, she ran a popular tech conference called Ed Crunch and was behind a series of online classes that were like the Russian equivalent of Khan Academy. She also helped introduce digital textbooks into Russia. “My textbooks are now used by 20,000 schools in Russia,” she told me. “That's half of all schools in Russia.”
All of which makes it particularly striking that Chebotar left. While she quit Yandex last year to do education consulting on her own, her departure was noticed. By her reckoning, Russia’s big tech exodus actually started before the war, when Putin began to crack down on dissent and the war only made people leave faster.
‘Not every road is open’
Tech people who had jobs that were portable and could speak English just took off, Chebotar said. Their natural connection to the global digital economy meant they felt the squeeze of the sanctions and departure of American companies almost right away. It also provided a natural avenue to leave.
“We have the expression, cream of the cream,” she said, speaking of IT executives who departed, though “the bigger problem that everyone is talking about is with technology, with hardware, not with people and software,” she said. “I’m not into hard technologies, I’m from the soft part but this problem is quite serious and this can pause lots of initiative and lots of businesses.”
The thinking is that as the war grinds on, Russia may have to retool its homegrown computer chip and integrated circuits industry just to keep the nation’s war machine humming. Though, at this juncture, It’s unclear how local production could possibly make up for the worldwide suppliers who had been providing chips and servers in the past.
Chebotar’s daughter, even though she’s in Tbilisi, continues to attend her old school – she’s taking classes online. Her mother says half of her classmates have moved to different countries and half the teachers have left too, so “now it's kind of a blended classroom. The school doesn't know whether it will open in the same condition in September.”
Chebotar is looking for a local school, in Tbilisi, to send her daughter to in the Fall.
The growing discrimination against emigrating Russians has surprised her, too. One Democratic Congressman from California has suggested we kick every Russian student out of the United States. Meta temporarily allowed Facebook and Instagram users in certain areas to post hate speech against Russia. And while many of the Russians who have left, like Shevchenko and Chebotar, are against the war — they’re being discriminated against anyway.
“It's kind of a strange thing because no one is bombing Russia and Ukrainians have this kind of help in different countries,” she said carefully. “And it's totally understood. But that means most of the Russians who flee can't even think about asking for help and no one wants to help us.”
While her family is luckier than most, Chebotar says this is all very hard. “We have some savings, we know how to find work,” she said, “but it's hard to change countries in one day. We’re in a better situation than Ukrainians, we've had different kinds of groups with Russian people helping each other. But it's not like every road is open for you. It's not.”
‘No to war’
When Chebotar was a little girl she used to watch the military parades for Victory Day – May 9 – on television. The day is a special one in Russia. It is seen as the day the world triumphed over Nazism; the day Germany surrendered, ending World War II in Europe.
Every year there is an over-the-top government-orchestrated show of military might: tanks and missiles cross through Red Square, leaders make speeches, and there are local receptions held across the country for veterans of the war. “Each family has veterans; you don't have to look for some, because usually each family has some,” she said. She remembers the dinners as solemn occasions.
She worried what this year’s May 9 celebrations would set in motion and how President Putin would rally Russian support for the war. “They need to show at least some victory, I wonder how they will show it,” she said leading up to Victory Day.
Putin used his speech this year to tell the Russian people that invading Ukraine was the right thing to do and they would stay the course.
Funny thing about that though: the program descriptions on several major Russian television networks changed for part of the day. According to the BBC, in every time slot of the online schedules for one of the state-run channels, for example, the names of the programs had been changed. Instead the guides read: “TV and the authorities are lying… no to war.” Hackers are suspected of being behind the switch.
A computer olympian
Putin added a second military parade to coincide with the one in Moscow this year. It
took place in the captured Ukrainian city of Mariupol and seemed sad and hurriedly planned in comparison.
Music blared out of loud speakers, army vehicles drove down the boulevards in single file. No goose-stepping troops or bright uniforms to be seen. The preparations were haphazard. Moscow dispatched people to the city to change road signs into Russian ahead of the ceremonies and to clean unexploded bombs from the streets. They were also instructed to remove the dead bodies.
The Mariupol parade was broadcast on state television to millions of Russians, many of whom saw the pummeling of Mariupol not as a victory, but as a tragedy. We met one of them: an 18-year old high school student we’ll call Kirill. Last month, he won a national computing competition.
“I'm finishing school now,” he said. “I really like computers and IT and I’m really good at it. Two weeks ago, I won an Olympiad and now I can enter university without any exams and I don’t need to pay for my education.”
When his mother woke him up for school on February 24, she told him that the war had started. He said he couldn’t describe how it made him feel aside from saying that he stood in the shower and his body started to tremble. “It was the worst morning in my life,” he said.
Things went downhill for his family from there. They had just started construction on a new house and then his father was laid off. He worked for a foreign company that left Russia in response to the sanctions. His mother has a PhD in economics and works for a local company – her salary has been cut in half. His winning the collegiate Olympiad was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal Spring.
“All my classmates do not support the war, except for three people,” he said, though he said everyone is being careful because standing up against Putin’s actions can get you in trouble. “In Russia, pigeons are a sign of peace. You're not allowed to paint pigeons for example, on the walls. If you paint a pigeon on the wall, in half an hour, it will be painted over again.”
He says he can’t wait to leave Russia. “I really want to leave,” he said. ”My dream is Latvia because there are lots of IT specialists. Latvia is my dream.”
Low level IT specialists have been leaving since the war began, Kirill said. A lot of senior programmers left before that.
“That's a generational impact when you talk about the talent walking out the door,” said Mieke Eoyang, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy. She sees Russia’s brain drain as having long term strategic implications.
“If you are involved in the technology industry and you are interested in developing better products to improve the lives of people around the world, I think Russia has made itself a very difficult place to work and live,” she said. “The export controls and other things that limit their access to Western technology will be really difficult for Russia to reconstitute its military and to maintain its technological edge.”
She says homegrown technology won’t be enough and the great migration of tech workers will only make it harder.