Aleks bought a one-way ticket out of Russia on February 21, right after Vladimir Putin recognized the breakaway Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. A software developer working remotely for a European tech firm, Aleks—who asked that his full name be withheld—says that was a sign that worse things were coming. “I thought, Putin won’t stop there,” he says. “He’d probably try to take Ukraine by force. Which is, well, basically what happened.”
Confronted with the likelihood of crippling sanctions, a plummeting ruble, and a country turning aggressively inwards, Aleks made it to the airport with his wife and hopped on a plane to Georgia, where he has some relatives. He was among the first Russian technology workers to make a run for neighboring countries at the outset of the Ukrainian war, but he soon realized he would by no means be the last. Over the past few weeks, throngs of fellow Russian techies have joined him in Tbilisi, making rents soar. “The property market is empty. You can’t find anything, and if you can, it will cost you three or two times more than it used to cost a month ago,” he says. But for the time being, Aleks’s future is there. Going back to Russia scares him too much.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has precipitated a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented magnitude, with the displacement of more than 10 million Ukrainians fleeing their country, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But tens of thousands are also leaving Russia, worried that Putin’s wartime regime will destroy their livelihoods, career prospects, and individual freedoms.
Many members of this self-exiled crowd are technology workers. Because of their interconnectedness with the global digital economy, they were quick to feel the pain from sanctions and the departure of Western technology companies, and they have an easier time making a living from their laptops regardless of location.
According to RAEK, a Russian technology trade group, between 50,000 and 70,000 tech workers have already fled Russia, and 70,000 to 100,000 more could leave in April. With flights to the West canceled, they have wended their way to countries where Russian citizens can still travel visa-free.
Konstantin Vinogradov, the London-based Russian-born principal of global VC firm Runa Capital, has teamed up with other industry figures to create a “talent pool” website that helps anti-war technology workers from Russia, Belarus (which is supporting Moscow’s military maneuvers), and Ukraine find suitable jobs elsewhere.
“Mostly they are software engineers and data scientists. There are plenty of people from large Russian tech organizations like Yandex, VK, Sberbank,” Vinogradov says. “But there are plenty from smaller ones.”
He says that out of about 2,000 people who have entered the pool, about 60 percent of them are currently located in Turkey, Armenia, or Georgia. A New York Times article says the Armenian government estimates that some 80,000 Russians have entered the country since the start of the war on February 24, and 20,000 of them are still residing there; the Georgian minister for economic affairs put that number at between 20,000 and 25,000, which he said was similar to 2020 figures. Many of these people plan to move elsewhere: 90 percent of the participants in Vinogradov’s talent pool indicated the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands as their preferred final destinations.