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

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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. Then, three days after the Kremlin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, he made the hard choice — packing up his young family, along with his prized vinyl-record collection, and joining a historic exodus that includes a massive outflow of Russia’s best and brightest minds in tech.

“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. He spoke in their comfortable Riga two-story walk-up, standing near a high shelf with a white Santa Claus statue 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 Feb. 24. But Russia is also in the midst of an emigration wave that is upending its spheres of arts and journalism, and especially the world of 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 emigrates, 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. But nearly half of those leaving hail from tech — a highly transient, globally in-demand workforce that includes many who fear Russia’s global isolation, newly adverse business climate and near-total authoritarianism.

The Russian government is “really scared and shocked,” Aleshkovskiy said. “The prime minister of Russia has been begging these guys to stay. He’s telling them, ‘Don’t worry that Apple leaves, we will build our own Apple Store. Please don’t go.’ … But I would say that the best people are leaving right now. … 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. But at least some are expected to leave again, as experts predict a fresh wave of departures in the coming weeks and months. 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 about a lot of people in a very condensed period, a matter of weeks. In 1917, Russia was in the midst of a civil war. But this is happening at a 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 firm tax breaks and reduced regulation. IT workers, meanwhile, are being promised subsidized housing, salary bumps, and no income tax for the next three years. Notably, the decree signed by Putin also grants IT workers an exemption from conscription into military service, something many young Russians have sought to avoid by fleeing the country.

Mikhail Mizhinsky, who runs Relocode, a London-based company helping tech firms relocate, said his Russian clients have emerged 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.

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The tech exodus is also due to Western sanctions and the curtailing or ending of operations by Western companies including IBM, Intel and Microsoft. Smaller, Russian tech companies, or companies headed by international Russians, are also leaving. Meanwhile, major Russian tech players like Yandex, often called “the Russian Google,” have scrambled to hold on to employees who are 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. In March, Yandex gave a one-time cash bonus for employee retention, and has started offering its staff psychological counseling.

“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. International remote work, especially in the pandemic age, was already common in the sector, while foreign demand for their skills makes them good candidates for work visas outside 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. Temporary office spaces, restaurants and sidewalks are “filled with people speaking Russian. So many Russians are here.” He said he planned to remain in Turkey as long as possible and apply to graduate programs elsewhere in Europe.

“I’m afraid that Russia will become like North Korea. The national course will be self-isolation, and it will close all connection to the Western world, and be closely connected to China,” Nemkevich said. “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. His longer-term plan was to commute between Moscow and Riga, but he had no immediate plan to move.

Then came the war. He was alarmed by what he described as a herd mentality of people unquestionably accepting the invasion. Others, he said, were too afraid to voice dissent. He recalled an encounter with an employee at a co-working space he rented in Moscow.

“I could see in her eyes that something was wrong,” he said. When he asked how she was, she burst into tears, confiding her fears of her 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. Then, as for so many Russian emigres, renting an apartment was an ordeal, in part because Western sanctions made it difficult for him to withdraw money or set up a bank account.

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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