On February 22, 2022, driver Yegor Tallayev zipped through the industrial suburbs of Yakutsk, the capital of the remote Russian republic of Sakha. Also known as Yakutia, the area is home to the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth, and, at just -24 degrees Celsius, it was a comparatively balmy day. Tallayev took a right turn at a fork and headed downhill, until we were driving directly on the icy surface of the Lena, one of the world’s longest rivers.

The ice road looked like a normal two-lane highway, complete with road signs, and was divided by a snowy patch with a couple of u-turn pockets. Along the 16 kilometer route to the opposite river bank, we spotted laborers in orange jackets mending the road by pumping water from an ice hole onto the surface, where it froze in no time: during Yakutian winters, you can throw water into the air and watch it freeze solid before it hits the ground. 

Tallayev sped up. The frozen river, he explained, was outside of the jurisdiction of the regular traffic cops. In any case, he said, “We have no accidents here.” 

Up the high bank of the river and through a village, we reached our destination: Nizhny Bestyakh railway station, the ultimate end of the line, built in 2011 to connect Yakutsk with Russia’s railway network. From here, it takes several days by train to get to the next large Russian city in either direction. For the right fare, Tallayev will take passengers on the multi-day trip by car. From time to time, he will even collect three or four passengers and drive to Heihe, a Chinese border city 1,800 kilometers away, which Russians can enter without a visa. He charges around 5,000 rubles (about $80) per passenger for such a trip, which takes around 40 hours of driving.

Tallayev is a driver with inDriver, a ride-hailing app developed in Yakutsk in 2012. The app connects riders with drivers, similar to Uber or Yandex Go, Russia’s most popular taxi app. But inDriver was very much designed for Yakutia: Its main point of difference is that it allows riders and drivers to haggle over prices. It also accommodates long journeys and accepts payments only in cash.

What was good for Yakutia, however, turned out to be good for many other parts of the world too. Over the last decade, inDriver has expanded into countries as disparate as Brazil, Botswana, and Indonesia. It has ramped up its global expansion in the past few years and is now available in 42 countries, with its official headquarters in California. According to Data.ai, it was the world’s second most frequently downloaded ride-hailing app after Uber in 2021–2022.

In 2021, inDriver announced that it had achieved unicorn status, with a valuation of $1.23 billion following a funding round of $150 million earlier that year, and seemed set to continue its rollout into new locations around the world, including plans to expand into Australia.

In February, Rest of World traveled to Yakutsk to visit the company’s flagship office and speak to some of its team about its ongoing expansion. It seemed that nothing could hold back the company’s rise from a local Russian service to a truly global rideshare competitor. Then, less than an hour after Aleksandr Pavlov, inDriver’s chief mobile hub officer, spoke with Rest of World about the company’s future plans, the news broke: Russia had invaded Ukraine.

Even before the invasion, Russia’s tech sector was straining to keep talent in the country, fighting against a brain drain that was partly a result of increasing authoritarianism and economic stagnation. With a global battle for talent, engineers could easily be persuaded by offers to work in other countries. In early 2021, the Russian government put the deficit of IT experts between 500 thousand and 1 million.

A decade ago, when inDriver first came on the scene, things looked more optimistic. There was an explosion of app technology in all spheres of life, especially ride-hailing and car-sharing services, with market leader Yandex beginning to transition rapidly into the realm of autonomous cars and delivery rovers.

It was against this backdrop that Aleksandr Pavlov, 33, first conceived the idea of inDriver, which is rooted in the unique environment of Yakutia. A territory more than eight times the size of Germany, the region is covered in swathes of taiga forest and Arctic tundra. It is home to just under a million people, half of whom, including Pavlov, are Yakuts — an indigenous group that speaks a Turkic language. An autonomous republic within Russia, it is under Russian jurisdiction but also has its own constitution. Russian and Yakut are both recognized as official languages. It is Russia, but not quite.

Born in 1989 in the village of Mayagas, a three-hour drive from Yakutsk, Pavlov studied radio physics and electronics at the city’s North-Eastern Federal University, alternating his studies with stints as a concrete worker on construction sites. It was around this time that he began to get frustrated with transport options in Yakutia. In Soviet times, there was a bus service that stopped in Mayagas, and you could even fly from there to Yakutsk. But in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the only options for getting to most small places around Yakutia — some of which are over 1,000 kilometers from the capital — was by car. To make matters worse, the local taxi companies kept raising prices. He noticed that they would bump up fares for the New Year’s holiday but never drop them afterward. So, one day in 2012, Pavlov decided to create an alternative. He set up a group on Russia’s most popular social network, VKontakte, with the aim of bringing drivers and passengers together in a peer-to-peer arrangement. 

Initially, the group was just a list of drivers, many of whom were Pavlov’s personal friends, and their phone numbers. Passengers would call the drivers and bargain over the price for their journey. Within a few months, Pavlov said, the listed drivers were swamped with calls, as the number of users in the group soared to 50,000 — in a city with a total population of 280,000 at the time. People started leaving comments with their phone number, routes, and suggested prices, so that drivers, listed or non-listed, could phone them if they were available to make the journey.

Early in 2013, Pavlov received a message from entrepreneur Arsen Tomsky, best known at the time as the owner of the local news portal Ykt.Ru, which served as a go-to website for regional and national news as well as updates on local events, leisure, and travel. Tomsky offered to buy the group Pavlov had built for the equivalent of $10,000. Initially, Pavlov refused. But, in the spring of 2013, he received draft notice from the Russian army. All male Russian citizens aged 18–27 must complete a one-year term of service, which meant he had to figure out what to do with the VKontakte group while he was away. He accepted Tomsky’s offer.

In the end, Pavlov broke his arm and wasn’t drafted. Instead, he took up electrician gigs. Some months later, Tomsky offered him a job with his software company, Sinet, to work on growing the company that would emerge as inDriver. “I thought for like five seconds, and, three hours later, I was in his office on the fourth floor of this building,” Pavlov told Rest of World in a meeting room inside inDriver’s Yakutsk office, where corridors are painted in psychedelic colors and cubicles are themed after pop culture.

“The Yakutsk taxi companies elevated prices in a cartel agreement, and those 20-year-old students came up with a response that restored justice.”

Pavlov was hired to manage a group of app developers who had already devised a prototype Android app to replace the VKontakte group; inDriver was officially founded in 2013. At the time, ride-sharing apps were just beginning to conquer Russia and the rest of the world. In early 2013, Uber was operational in 35 cities globally and had begun its meteoric rise on the American market (by the end of 2013, it had expanded into 60 cities worldwide). Russia’s tech giant Yandex launched its ride-hailing service, Yandex Taxi (which later became known as Yandex Go), in 2011.

Tomsky, now based in California, framed the founding of inDriver as an attempt to fight injustice. “The Yakutsk taxi companies elevated prices in a cartel agreement, and those 20-year-old students came up with a response that restored justice,” he said over a video call. 

Tomsky claims that inDriver’s model isn’t just more fair to riders but also to the drivers who work on the platform. While ride-hailing platforms like Uber can take more than 25% of a passenger’s payment and use algorithmically deduced surge pricing, inDriver’s commission averages at 9.5% around the world. In its native Yakutsk, drivers get a privileged rate and pay only 6% commission to the platform.

But the platform’s defining difference is the haggling model. Unlike Uber and Yandex Go, which deduce fares based on factors including distance, travel time, and demand, inDriver users propose a price and settle it with their individual driver, just as they did a decade ago on the VKontakte group, or as people in Yakutia would when they flagged down cars in the street even before that. (In many locations, the app will suggest a starting point for negotiations.) 

When I ordered a ride from a hotel in Yakutsk to the train station, I typed in my suggested price: 1,800 rubles ($26 at the time). Within seconds, several drivers responded through the app by making a higher bid or agreeing with my offer. I opted for a spacious vehicle and a driver with a top rating who was happy to make the trip for 2,000 rubles. I could have tried to bring the price down, but, with the cold biting at my fingers, I pressed “order.”

InDriver has become part of Yakutian culture. Inside Cinema Lena, which specializes in showing locally produced “Sakhawood” films, accountant Anastasia Oskina told Rest of World that she uses the app to travel around the city on a daily basis. She also takes advantage of its courier feature, which she said was especially handy in an emergency: she sent her mother a spare key when she locked herself out of her apartment; she sent her husband his ID when he left it at home. Her boss, Georgy Nikolayev, who had just recovered from Covid-19 when we met, said his friends used the service to send him his favorite local delicacy — horsemeat pies — while he was ill. Pavlov said that, during Covid restrictions, when airline prices soared, people started using inDriver to go to Vladivostok, a trip that takes several days, just to spend time by the sea. “If you order a cab to Vladivostok now, you can depart next evening,” he said.

But less than a year after its founding, inDriver set its sights on markets further afield. In early 2014, the platform expanded outside Yakutia for the first time to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan in the Pacific Ocean. Pavlov said Sakhalin was chosen because — just like Yakutia — it was a large, cold, isolated and sparsely populated place with a similar issue of rising prices from local taxi companies. 

Pavlov remembers his trip to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to set up the service. He came to the island alone, with only a vague idea of where to start. He headed straight to the bus station where taxi drivers tended to congregate and spent a day chatting with them. “These were the inveterate cabby types — cigarette in the mouth, walkie-talkie, radio blaring chanson [a Russian-language music genre often associated with prison culture],” he recalled. Almost none of them had a smartphone.

He placed vacancy ads for drivers on a local news portal, listing smartphone ownership as a requirement, and started receiving calls. He spent the following weeks in his hotel room, instructing drivers how to install and use the app. InDriver placed targeted ads on social media to attract passengers. After a couple of months, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk had over 1,000 active users. 

That same year, Tomsky went to Kazakhstan and realized that it was a lot like Yakutia before inDriver — people hailing unmarked cabs in the street or using phone taxi services. InDriver successfully expanded there, too, marking its first international market.

“First-time passengers immediately react to the fact that it is them who are offering the price. It immediately creates a ‘Wow’ effect.”

After Kazakhstan came Mexico, in 2018, starting with the industrial city of Saltillo in the northeast. It was the first country outside the former Soviet Union in which inDriver successfully launched its service, and Prokopy Fedorov, deputy vice president for ride-hailing services, recalls working hard to spread the word. “We were hiring radio cars — you know, in Mexico, they have those cars with megaphones blasting adverts,” he told Rest of World in a meeting at inDriver’s Moscow office, a stylish glassy business tower overlooking a historical church. 

Mexico was swiftly followed by most other countries in Latin America, including Brazil and Chile. In 2019, Fedorov, who had led the Mexico expansion, moved on to launch the app in several cities in India. Meanwhile, other teams were pouring out of Yakutsk into East Asian and African markets.

According to inDriver’s senior vice president, Joshua Tulgan, the app performs best in mid-sized cities. For example, in the Colombian cities of Cúcuta and Bucaramanga, its share is two to three times bigger than that of Uber and other apps. But in the country’s largest cities, like Bogotá and Cali, Uber dominates. 

Today, Kazakhstan ranks as inDriver’s biggest market in terms of share (with the app accounting for 50% of ride-hailing and 80% of intercity transactions); Mexico is the largest market in terms of total trips.

The secret to the company’s success, Fedorov contends, is the haggling feature: “First-time passengers immediately react to the fact that it is them who are offering the price. It immediately creates a ‘Wow’ effect.”

Attitudes toward haggling are a key indicator that a country will take off, Fedorov explained. The app has been very well received in a country like Pakistan, where haggling is part of everyday life. But inDriver’s market research shows that it wouldn’t work quite as well in South Korea or Japan, where haggling is not a societal norm.

Ryman Sneed, who is 39 and lives in Mexico City, discovered the inDriver app about six months ago, after a friend recommended it. She said that now she uses it frequently instead of Uber. “If I have cash, then I’ll be more prone to use inDriver, just because it’s always cheaper,” she told Rest of World. She usually offers about 10 pesos over the app’s suggested price for a trip in order to get a driver faster. She said she preferred some aspects of Uber, such as the option to pay by card and greater standardization of vehicles, “but then I go with inDriver because, for me, I’d rather pay less and have a somewhat less comfortable ride — it’s negligible for me.”

InDriver made two attempts to launch in places where haggling is not part of the culture: Moscow and New York, at the end of 2018. In both places, the company decided to stress another selling point: middle- and long-distance journeys. In Moscow’s case, this mostly means trips to one of the city’s four airports. In New York, inDriver also tried to introduce credit card payments for the first time. It was a failure, largely due to a high volume of card fraud the company was not prepared for. But back in Yakutsk, Pavlov insisted that inDriver would return to the city.

“Drivers are being turned into semi-robots with [the companies] aiming to eventually replace them with real robots when pilotless vehicles take stage.”

Drivers told Rest of World they had mixed opinions of the app. Hector Herrera, who drives in Puebla, said that he used inDriver because it didn’t require him to have such expensive insurance as other platforms (asked about its policies, inDriver said it respects each country’s regulations, including with regard to insurance). The main problem, he said, was that fewer people had heard of inDriver than competitors such as Uber: “It needs a little marketing.” He was ambivalent on the haggling feature — “sometimes I like it, and sometimes no,” he said. With inDriver’s haggling feature, he’s noticed that he can ask for only 15 or 20 pesos more than what a rider offers (inDriver says there are different settings in different cities, with drivers able to propose prices based on a customer’s original offer). Even though he doesn’t drive for Uber, Herrera said he cross-checks the prices occasionally and has noticed that he could be making around 40 more pesos per ride for Uber during high-demand hours. 

Habib, a driver in Lagos who asked to be identified by only his first name, out of concern for his job, said that the app’s reputation was growing in Nigeria, where it is the third most popular ride-hailing service among drivers. “InDriver is good, especially for customers who want the cheapest options,” he said. InDriver isn’t his first choice of app, but he uses it in the evening when he wants to stop driving for the day and needs a passenger whose destination is close to his neighborhood. 

He, too, had complaints about fares. “InDriver’s suggested amounts to passengers used to be higher,” he said. “Now, as they’ve gained some ground with commuting passengers, they’re lowering prices.” Habib also said that, after the passenger agrees to a fare upfront, inDriver prices do not adjust for unexpected changes in conditions such as heavy traffic. Across multiple groups on Facebook, drivers recently complained that inDriver fares have become too low and called for a boycott until prices increase. Others don’t have that luxury. “Many of the drivers on inDriver have been blocked from Uber and Bolt, and that’s why the app still has drivers,” Habib said.

Tomsky insists that other apps don’t give drivers the freedom to choose where they go and at what price; they simply impose the trips on drivers and may punish them by reducing their ratings if they refuse. “Drivers are being turned into semi-robots with [the companies] aiming to eventually replace them with real robots when pilotless vehicles take stage,” he said. 

With inDriver, a driver knows the destination before accepting the journey and has a say about the price. “In that sense, our system turns them into small-scale businessmen.”

By the time of publication, inDriver had around 1.5 million drivers across 42 countries, with plans to expand into more locations, including Australia. I went to Yakutsk to get a sense of the company’s trajectory to date and how this once-local platform, created by members of an indigenous community in a remote corner of Eurasia, was growing into a global phenomenon. Despite all of the ominous signs in the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine, I could not bring myself to imagine that, while I was there, Russia would take such action that would reverberate around the world and result in huge repercussions for the country itself, including for its tech workers.

On the morning of February 24, just hours before the attack started, I met Pavlov in the Yakutsk office, in a meeting room fitted with a large plasma screen. The monitor showed the number of transactions conducted using the inDriver app during the current day, month, and year. At the top was the overall number of transactions since the app was launched: over 1.6 billion.

After our morning meeting, the news came in: Russia had launched its invasion. The invasion began at 5 a.m. Kyiv time, but because of the seven-hour time difference with Yakutsk, news popped up on cell phones across the city at 12 noon. The journalists from Tomsky’s news portal, Ykt.Ru, which shared workspace with inDriver, went into overdrive reporting the shocking news of Russian missiles targeting Kyiv and troops pouring across the border. 

Yakutia felt eons away from the conflict zone in Eastern Europe, both geographically and culturally. But local residents appeared extremely worried, particularly about army reservists who were being drafted to the front from Yakut-majority villages.

I had been scheduled to speak with Tomsky over video call, but in light of the news, inDriver postponed the interview. As airlines began to cancel flights and news outlets were abuzz with rumors of expected martial law, I cut my planned trip short and set about finding a way to leave Russia. I took an overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg and then an early morning bus into Estonia, hastily erasing data from my computer and phone, since I had heard that Russian border guards were reportedly checking gadgets for anti-war material. Other people were making their way out of Russia, fearful of closed borders, mass mobilization, and other threats of martial law (which, in the end, did not come into effect).

Since the start of the invasion, Russia has seen many tech workers flee the country, heading to cities such as Belgrade and Istanbul, to find new jobs or work remotely. Some have been motivated to leave by increasing repression and censorship, which has had a particular impact on internet companies, while others fear they may end up being conscripted if they stay. By the end of March, Russia’s once-growing tech sector had lost up to 70,000 workers, according to the Russian Association for Electronic Communications — equivalent to over 4% of the entire workforce.

Two months after my visit to Yakutia, speaking over video call from California, Tomsky was emphatic about his position on the war. “I should unequivocally state that I don’t support this war; it is evil,” he said. In March, he was forced to close Ykt.Ru, the news portal, because of a new law adopted by the Russian Parliament that threatened 15 years in jail for people who spread “false information” about the war or even used the word “war,” rather than “special military operation,” a euphemism used by the Kremlin. On March 3, he posted on Facebook that inDriver would donate $100,000 to Ukrainian refugees and added the same amount from his own pocket.

“I should unequivocally state that I don’t support this war, it is evil.”

As for inDriver, the impact of the conflict is limited, Tomsky told Rest of World. “Since 2018, we are an American company supported by top American investment funds,” he said. “Russia’s share in our businesses has fallen down to 7% in GMV [gross merchandise value]; it is not a large market for us.” 

Still, his greatest concern is for inDriver’s Russia-based staffers. “For many years, I’ve been trying to create jobs in my native Yakutsk and support the local economy, but this is now impossible. So we are giving people an option of relocating,” he said. He would not provide precise figures on employees leaving Russia but said that “only a few will be left by year’s end.” A large number of employees from Moscow and Yakutsk are moving to Kazakhstan, he said, while others will join an expanding office in Cyprus. “Many employees are keen to go because they are frightened, disoriented, and/or don’t support [the war]. So, in many ways, it is our joint line of action,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Tomsky said, the company is planning to expand its business beyond ride-hailing into other enterprises, such as food delivery, which is at the test and market research stage. It’s also continuing with expansion into new markets.  On April 6, Tomsky announced a launch in Lebanon. A few weeks later, the app went live in Jamaica. 

That month, Tomsky posted a selfie to Instagram with dozens of staffers in their Almaty, Kazakhstan office, where many of his Russian employees have relocated. He also posted photos to his Telegram channel of employees kitesurfing and rock climbing at a team-building event in Sri Lanka. Each photo was evidence of continued global expansion. The only backdrop missing, it seemed, was Yakutsk.