It makes sense to engage Putin’s tech exodus

The writer is founder of Sifted and a former FT Moscow bureau chief

On a trip to Silicon Valley a while ago, I had back-to-back meetings with the founder of a fintech firm, the head of a start-up incubator and a senior executive at a virtual reality company. By chance all had one characteristic in common: they had been born in the Soviet Union.

Apart from the Indian-born executives who now run Google, Microsoft, IBM and Twitter, few nationalities have had such an outsized impact on the US tech sector as Russians and Ukrainians. Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, and Yuri Milner, the influential tech investor, were both born in Moscow. Jan Koum, the co-founder of WhatsApp, and Max Levchin, one of the founders of PayPal, originally hail from Kyiv.

A few more supercharged entrepreneurs may soon be pitching up in the US, Europe and Israel. Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine has driven millions of Ukrainians out of their country and triggered a mass exodus of Russians, too. But while the hope is that the flight of so many Ukrainians may be temporary, the outflow of Russians may prove more permanent. President Vladimir Putin has slammed his country into reverse gear, returning Russia to a dictatorial and isolationist past that many Russians thought they had left behind.

As the writer Masha Gessen reported in the New Yorker, “People have fled Russia because they fear political persecution, conscription, and isolation; because they dread being locked in an unfamiliar new country that eerily resembles the old Soviet Union; and because staying in a country that is waging war feels immoral, like being inside a plane that’s dropping bombs on people.”

Numbers are hard to verify, but OK Russians, an information site set up by recent emigrants, estimates that more than 300,000 Russians have left the country since the start of the war in Ukraine. Among them are many workers from the tech sector as foreign firms have shut their offices in Russia. Local entrepreneurs have been desperate to escape the authoritarian clampdown. According to the site’s research, these recent emigrants are mostly young, highly educated, multilingual and eager to assimilate. “Russia is losing the best of its sons and daughters,” says Dmitry Aleshkovsky, one of the founders of OK Russians and a former civil society leader from Moscow.

The Kremlin may be happy to lose a potential “fifth column”, but neighbouring countries are not always so happy to welcome them given the fury aroused by the Russian attack on Ukraine. Some emigrants are even returning to Russia because they cannot access bank accounts or find jobs. “What we are finding is that we are double sanctioned,” Aleshkovsky tells me from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. “We are enemies of the state within Russia and we are enemies of the world outside Russia.” 

Mass emigration has been a recurrent theme of Russia’s history. A report published by the Atlantic Council in 2019 identified six waves over the past 150 years. The three biggest historically were between 1881 and 1914 when many Jews fled persecution, in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and subsequent civil war, and in the late-Soviet and early post-Soviet eras as the country descended into economic chaos.

But the Putin Exodus, as the Atlantic Council report calls it, saw a further 1.6mn to 2mn Russians leave the country this century up to 2019 — and many more have quit since. What distinguishes this most recent wave of emigration from previous outflows is that many Russian exiles remain deeply engaged by what is happening back home, says Sergei Erofeev, one of the report’s authors. They also draw inspiration from the Belarusian diaspora, which is actively campaigning against the dictatorial regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

Although most recent Russian emigrants are individually blameless, many of them feel collectively responsible for failing to stop Putin, says Erofeev. “If a Ukrainian mother spits on you, you have no right to object.” He argues that the Kremlin’s conception of the Russian World is now so discredited abroad that it is binding the recent diaspora together. “The monstrosity of this war and the distinction between good and evil is so clear that there is ground to unify all these forces,” he says. Drawing on the country’s rich cultural history, Russian emigrants can provide a “bridge of hope” to a more democratic and peaceful future Russia.

Outrage about the war in Ukraine is justified. The political outlook for Russia under Putin is also dire. And the opposition remains perilously weak in spite of the courageous defiance of the imprisoned Alexei Navalny. But there remain both good economic and political reasons for engaging, rather than rebuffing, these latest Russian exiles.

Letter in response to this article:

Moscow tech exodus is not just a business opportunity / From Christopher Moseley, London NW1, UK