Reviews | Putin’s war on Ukraine drives out Russia’s best tech minds

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Within days, we saw a flood of similar requests. Owners of small and medium Russian IT companies were dropping everything and trying to get out of Russia when theft was still an option. Most of them clung to the hope that they could continue to run their businesses from abroad or move their businesses elsewhere.

It is difficult to quantify the precise number of those who leave for good. But evidence suggests that Putin’s war – and the unprecedented tidal wave of global sanctions it has unleashed – is having a particular impact on those young, tech-oriented Russians who represent the future of the world’s economy. country.

Russian engineers employed by international tech giants in Moscow began leaving the country even before the start of the war in Ukraine. One of our relatives, a top computer engineer working for an American software giant, was evacuated to Ireland in January, along with all of his colleagues. All of them are world-class specialists, graduates of the best technical universities in Moscow, many of whom have doctorates in physics and mathematics. The American company’s executives did not explain their reasoning, but it was clear that they did not like the idea of ​​leaving behind employees with direct access to their servers who would effectively be hostages of the Russian government. . (We just learned that Russian agents threatened a top Google executive with jail last September if the company didn’t comply with government guidelines. That certainly didn’t motivate American tech companies to stay put. )

Right now, Telegram is filled with dozens of Russian-language channels with names like “Mission: Europe” and “Business Relocation.” They offer constantly updated information and advice: destinations still accessible by plane, where to stay, where Russian credit cards are still accepted. With their Schengen visas long expired due to the covid pandemic and flights to Europe cancelled, people are heading to surprising destinations like Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Cyprus or India.

The Financial Times reported on a Russian tech investor based in Latvia who decided to charter a plane a few days ago to help Russian businessmen, many of them, fly to Armenia. He filled all 160 seats in 24 hours.

Many of those who leave bring their families with them, especially children of military age. A few years ago Sergei Shoigu, Putin’s defense minister (who is now leading the war in Ukraine), made it much harder for Russian youth to escape military service. At the time, it seemed like a smart move. When given the choice, the best and brightest students of technology tended to volunteer for the army’s cyber troops rather than being shipped off to a distant tank regiment in Siberia. The military’s cyber warfare capability has improved accordingly.

But now the war has changed everything. With Russian troops suffering huge losses, everyone fears that their children will be dragged directly into battle. The next round of the draft is scheduled for May – filling many parents with fear. And previous military service is no protection: there is a persistent rumor in Moscow that reservists may soon be called up to fight in Ukraine.

One of the main destinations for those leaving is Budva, a small Mediterranean resort town in Montenegro (a NATO member country). It has become home to hundreds of Russians – independent journalists, employees of non-governmental organizations and anti-Kremlin intelligentsia – who have been forced to leave the country for political reasons. Montenegro allows Russian citizens to live there without a visa.

Now Budva even has an international school that teaches students in Russian and English. The school just got bigger — and it’s likely to get bigger, as more emigrants arrive each week.

Budva illustrates how history repeats itself. Russia has seen many waves of emigration in its past, often unexpectedly boosting Russian-speaking populations from unlikely places. In our book “Compatriots”, we described how Putin unleashed a new wave of political exiles right after he came to power. But what we are seeing right now is not primarily an exodus of activists, journalists or opposition members; many of them have already left. Now those leaving come from the technology sector – the area that offered the greatest hope for Russia’s economic development.

Russian elites have long believed that digitizing the economy would help the country overcome its problems and propel it towards a bright future. This hope is fading as the war in Ukraine continues every day.

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