September 30, 2023


Unlimited Technology

Tech companies racing to get their employees out of Russia

“We moved some of our employees as a primary objective” after the invasion, he recounted, “and then I helped coordinate flights for employees at several tens of other companies.” Initially, he chartered flights to Armenia; by this past weekend, he was trying to charter them anywhere.

How many Russians have fled their country is unknown. Russia does not require its citizens to have government permission to exit the country, and the United Nations is not tracking the total.

But anecdotal evidence suggests the number is at least in the tens of thousands, amid reports of burgeoning Russian-speaking émigré communities arising in Dubai, Istanbul and other places where air service from Russia still exists. More than 20,000 Russians have entered Georgia in recent days, the country’s economic minister said Monday.

Konstantin Sonin, a political economist at the University of Chicago’s School of Public Policy, estimated the overall Russian exodus at 200,000 in 10 days.

The tech companies provide a particular view into this flight. Powered by strong engineering education, Russia’s tech industry has exploded in recent years. More than 1.3 million were employed in tech in 2019, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Many of them, including those working for the Russian émigré’s Swiss firm, stand apart from the average Russian worker — better educated, often speaking multiple languages, and accustomed to consuming news from across the world, even when that means overcoming technical obstacles.

Some told The Washington Post that they had colleagues and friends in Ukraine, heightening their concerns about the war. Most quickly accepted the opportunity to travel outside the country, many taking their families, though some stayed behind, citing responsibilities to care for elderly parents.

Russian officials are trying to stem the brain drain, dropping the tax on tech company profit to zero, offering reduced-rate mortgages for their employees, and pledging that information workers will not be conscripted before age 27, according to Borenius, a Finnish law firm.

That promise backfired among some workers who have grown so distrustful of government that they feared it meant they would be drafted, said a Russian-born principal at a global investment firm that extracted its few Moscow employees.

“When the war started, we wanted to emigrate people,” he said. “Psychologically, it’s a hard period for everyone.”

While moving a handful of employees was a relatively simple logistical matter for smaller companies, larger ones have faced a daunting task. One executive at a tech company with about a thousand Russian employees said the CEO made the decision easier for workers by quickly declaring that the firm would cover hotels and airfare for all, encouraging them to tell airport security officials who asked that they were leaving on vacation.

About 300 have made it out so far, a process that is growing more difficult as credit card companies refuse to process transactions on Russia-issued cards and flights get canceled. Many countries are no longer accepting Russia planes, and most of those that do are requiring visas that can be hard to obtain. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are key exceptions.

One of the 300, a researcher in his 40s named Vitaly, said he and his wife decided to leave after the war began and bought tickets to Turkey for them and their young children, knowing that he would be reimbursed.

After hearing that a friend had his phone searched by security for signs he had looked at unapproved media, Vitaly cleaned up both of the couple’s devices.

Then the airline canceled the flight without explanation. Co-workers in another country bought him one set of backup tickets while he stood in line to get another set, unworried about the cost.

“There were hundreds of people at the ticket office,” Vitaly said. “We are in the line buying a new ticket, a colleague was buying one through Tashkent for 4,000 euros, and someone [not from his company] was in line trying to buy ticket to anywhere. He was trying to use all of his cards and cash and bitcoin to pay to get to Armenia.”

Once aboard a new flight to a different city in Turkey, Vitaly looked around and saw that everyone looked like him. There were hundreds of people on the nearly full 777-300, and none looked like vacationers. They were mainly young men in corporate shirts and hooded sweatshirts, some typing on laptop computers, he recalled.

“They looked like normal IT guys,” not people dressed for fun, he said. “They could have been going to a tech convention.”

The executive at Vitaly’s company said colleagues were also leaving by train or car to Georgia, Uzbekistan and anywhere else they could get to.

Those without corporate help are scouring crowded Telegram channels with tips on how to get out.

The choices are agonizing.

Some are leaving spouses behind, hoping to be reunited later. Parents of teenage boys are afraid they will be pressed into military service. And some conservative parents of tech employees support the war and don’t understand why their children are leaving, employees said.

While many people in the new countries have been generous, some Russians have been greeted with hostility, even though they have chosen to leave their invading government behind.

“One of my colleagues said, ‘I have a son that’s 10 years old,’ ” the software executive recalled. “ ‘I don’t know whether I want to stay in Russia and be isolated or leave Russia and be hated.’ ”

Another software company with a Russian presence, security firm Acronis, publicly condemned the invasion on March 4, said it was suspending operations there — and quietly got its people out by plane and then on roads, an employee said.

While Acronis workers in Ukraine had gone to Romania, Germany and Israel, the Russians traveled mainly to Turkey, Serbia and Kazakhstan.

A spokeswoman said executives weren’t available to speak to reporters but were traveling Europe helping employees resettle.

“We stand in support of the people in Ukraine,” wrote chief executive Patrick Pulvermueller, who last year took the top spot from Soviet-born founder Serguei Beloussov.

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