Future Tense

An Estimated 10 Percent of Russian IT Workers May Leave Russia. What About the Other 90 Percent?

Three keyboards in different colors—white, blue, red—arranged to resemble the Russian flag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stefen Tan on Unsplash, Nastco/Getty Images Plus, Clay Banks on Unsplash.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, between 50,000 and 70,000 IT sector workers have left the country. According to the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, at least 100,000 more are expected to leave in the coming months. If these calculations are correct, that’s 10 percent of the total number of IT specialists in Russia. The country’s authorities are seriously concerned about the leakage of specialists. The secretary of the General Council of the ruling United Russia party, Andrei Turchak, said in late April that the struggle between countries for IT specialists was intensifying: “We must honestly admit that with the start of the special military operation, some of our IT specialists, including young people, have gone abroad.”

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Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin has also asked IT workers not to leave the country, offering them deferment of military service and preferential mortgages. “Everything will be fine here,” he said, promising that they would be able to earn money in Russia. Last week, Mishustin announced that 85 percent of the IT professionals who left after Feb. 24 have returned to the country (though it is impossible to independently confirm that).

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Meanwhile, according to Bloomberg, the Biden administration intends to remove some visa restrictions for highly skilled professionals from Russia who want to relocate to the United States. Under current proposals, Russians with master’s or Ph.D. degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, trained in the U.S. or abroad, could qualify for a simplified entry process.

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However, if 10 percent of the IT specialists in Russia have left or plan to leave, that means 90 percent remain. Slate talked to IT industry workers who decided to stay in Russia to find out why. We learned that, for some, leaving is too expensive; others have decided to stay in their homeland and support the invasion of Ukraine.

Vladimir is a 37-year-old developer for an outsourcing IT company in Moscow. When the war first broke out, he thought of leaving Russia, particularly because sanctions imposed after the war began made it harder to live there. But ultimately, he says, “The plusses do not exceed the minuses of relocation.” He has a wife, two children, a car, an apartment, and a summer house. He also has “a certain reluctance to leave” the motherland. Further proof that he made the right decision was when friends told him Russians were no longer welcome in Europe.

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Vladimir expects the domestic IT industry to develop in Russia after the exodus of Western companies; small international startups are already replacing them. But he also believes that the new IT industry will be less ethical. He calls these companies “not the most principled” because they will continue to work in Russia in spite of the sanctions.

Vladimir says that his friends and colleagues who left in the first weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have begun to return—they did not feel comfortable in the countries they moved to. He argues that the Russian IT community is quite politicized but generally does not mix politics with work. He estimates that 90 percent of his friends and colleagues who left the country did so not because of disagreement with Putin’s policies, but because of financial risks. He calls Russian IT people calculating and pragmatic.

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He himself is following the situation in Ukraine and does not agree with the decision to start a war. Vladimir supported Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny, who is now in prison, and attended his rallies. But now, according to Vladimir, “the operation must be completed.” He explains that if Russia were to pull out now, it would be a blow to the country’s image.

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Vladimir does not doubt that people are dying in Ukraine, but he does not feel sorry for them: “They are citizens of another country. They are different. You don’t ask a Londoner why he’s not worried about the people of Africa, do you?” Vladimir calls the war “an uncool situation,” but he has no friends or relatives in Ukraine; it is a foreign country to him.

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After the interview, Vladimir sent a message: “As for Londoners and Africans, it would be better to replace them with an American and Mexicans.”

Maxim is a 33-year-old software engineer from Moscow. Maxim loves his city, where he and his family live in an apartment he owns. But after the war and sanctions were introduced, he started to look for ways to leave. He considered Luxembourg, where he had an offer for a good job. But instead of doing what most of his colleagues did—buying a one-way ticket, picking up his family, and flying out—Maxim did the math.

Securing a furnished apartment in a convenient location, including a security deposit and other fees, would cost at least $16,000 in the first month. That didn’t even include transportation, food, and clothes. And even if his offer would cover all these expenses, he would not be able to pay the loan on his apartment in Moscow because of restrictions on international transactions into Russia. In addition, the demand for housing in Luxembourg increased sharply after the war with Ukraine began, because of the influx of both Ukrainian refugees and Russians.

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In the end, Maksim decided to stay. He has not yet felt the effects of the sanctions; he has not lost his job; his salary remains the same. Maxim wants to continue to live comfortably. He cares about the political situation, but the well-being of his children worries him more. He believes they will have a better life in Russia than abroad.

Maxim is sure that Russian IT companies will not be left without clients, and specialists’ salaries will only grow.

Maksim describes himself as apolitical, saying that he has an opinion on the war—he is against it—but stipulating that he does not have enough information and does not believe in either of the warring sides: “In any conflict, both sides are always to blame.”

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Other Russian IT specialists have quit their jobs and want to leave but do not know where to start. Vladimir Yakunin, who has been living in Silicon Valley for several years, helps such people.

Yakunin worked in the Russian office of Google until 2014. After the annexation of Crimea, Yakunin and his wife moved to the company’s headquarters in California. Yakunin is now busy advising IT specialists who have decided to leave Russia for the U.S. but don’t know how to do so.

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Yakunin believes he made the right choice by moving. He has since received U.S. citizenship, because now the last thing he would want is to be a citizen of Russia only. He is ashamed to say he is Russian because Russia, he says, has committed the most heinous crime of the past 70 years. Yakunin would not want his children to go to a Russian school, where students are forced to line up in the shape of the letter Z, which has become the military symbol of Russia.

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Yakunin is not optimistic about the fate of the Russian IT industry. He believes that almost all sectors in the country, including high technology, will eventually turn into smuggling. The sanctions, announced by the U.S. on Feb. 24, include restrictions on the supply of technology to Russia. According to Bloomberg’s estimates, the restriction on the supply of technological goods will have an impact, but not immediately. For a while, Russian companies will be able to work on old equipment, and they will be able to bring in new equipment surreptitiously. Yakunin predicts there will be no cultural or career growth in Russia and for its citizens, and this will go on for another 15 years. He is sure Russia will face the future of Cuba: In 20 years, he believes, there will be no modern vehicles or computers, and software engineers will be hackers who work for the government.

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Yakunin’s current entourage consists of programmers from Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Before the war, there was no division between them at all; it was one community. Now it remains largely united, but recently a colleague from Ukraine didn’t let Yakunin at his table because he is Russian.

The Russian IT workers I spoke with all asked Slate not to use their last names. When asked why, they said they did not want to have problems with the authorities or structures close to the authorities. One of these structures is Concord, which has recently proposed the idea of banning IT workers from leaving without notice. Catering company Concord was founded in 2010 and initially dealt with the delivery of food to Russian schools, army units, and the organization of banquets at the state level. (Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the company, got the nickname “Putin’s chef” after Concord organized the evening celebrating Putin’s 2012 inauguration.) Later, Concord and the structures under its control figured in the case of interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. According to the Russian business and IT news publication Vc.ru, Concorde says the mass exodus “will adversely affect the cybersecurity of government systems, networks and programs and lead to data leakage.” Therefore, the company proposes that Russian IT specialists should be required to inform the Federal Security Service at least one month in advance about plans to leave for an “unfriendly state.”

But if Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is to be believed and IT workers have largely already begun to return to Russia, these measures will not be necessary.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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