In the weeks and months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Zvartnots International Airport in Armenia’s capital Yerevan was flooded with Russians leaving their country, among them a growing number of tech workers. Fearing flight cancellations, exit bans, and border controls, many booked their tickets at exorbitant prices, wiped their phones, and arrived in the small country nestled in the Southern Caucasus — sometimes carrying just one suitcase.
“The war started on February 23. In a day, I believe that the IT market in Russia collapsed,” said Ramazan Karavaev, a former IT project manager in Moscow, now settled in Yerevan.
IT job listings in large cities like St. Petersburg dropped by almost a third as of May, compared to listings posted in January. At least 1,000 foreign companies have stopped or limited their activities in Russia, among them a large number of tech firms, many of which moved their staff abroad. Some wonder whether more IT specialists may leave with their children once school is over, heading for destinations such as Armenia, Turkey, Dubai, Georgia, and Kazakhstan.
Armenia’s tech industry is currently small-scale, as the country’s educational system struggles to provide enough talent, according to local tech entrepreneurs. Since February, Armenia welcomed the growing number of tech talent flowing into the country, when millions of Russians fled their country, driven by opposition to the war, fear of a draft, or the weight of the sanctions, and headed to neighboring countries with friendly immigration policies. In April 2022, the country registered almost 50% more IT workers than in the same period last year.
The Armenian government has set up a working group tasked with helping entrepreneurs and businesses relocate to the country, hoping that the next big Russian innovations will happen in Yerevan, rather than Moscow or St. Petersburg. But for many Russian tech workers who have left their families and homes behind, the future is still uncertain.
Grigory Buzmarev had two choices: Armenia or Georgia. He leaned toward the former because his Russian Mir credit card would still be functional there, Armenia’s favorable visa policy, and its cultural closeness to Russia. “I say to people, “Barev dzez” [“hello” in Armenian], and they answer me, “Privet” [“hi” in Russian],” Buzmarev said. “I feel at home.”
The 32-year-old software developer left Moscow at the end of March and began working at a local firm just a day after he landed in Yerevan. The company hired him a week prior, while he was still in Russia.
For now, the future for him and his wife seems uncertain: “I have learned not to make plans any longer than six months ahead.”
One thing that is clear, he said, is that Russia’s power in the IT industry is vanishing. Russia is now missing 170,000 IT specialists, according to the government: “A few years from now,” he said, “Russia will be like a village.”
Daniel Zelenkin remembers paying 70,000 rubles ($1,217) for a ticket on the last official Aeroflot flight leaving Russia for Armenia on March 7: “I was terrified. I was scared we would not fly. It was stressful.”
The Russian branch of the international IT company, which Zelenkin asked Rest of World not to name for security reasons, where Zelenkin works as a sales specialist began offering temporary relocation to Yerevan shortly after the invasion. The 30-year-old was among those who took the offer with a gut feeling that he would not return home.
Like the rest of the IT industry, international sanctions made it impossible for his company to continue working out of Russia, he said. The ruble, which has since bounced back, dropped to a record low at the beginning of March. Visa and Mastercard stopped working with Russia, and the EU introduced its first SWIFT bans on Russian banks: transactions became increasingly hard.
Zelenkin is now receiving his salary in Armenian Drams. “I was a little happy that my taxes no longer went to Russia,” he said.
As Russian soldiers marched toward Kyiv throughout March, the city of St. Petersburg, where 25-year-old Elena Nepushkina lived then, filled with rumors of martial law and bans on exiting the country. Russia had announced a decree ordering the draft of 134,500 new conscripts at the end of March, and both Nepushkina and her partner felt a wave of panic.
“We did not know what to expect the next day,” she said, as the threat of draft loomed over her partner, Ivan Krapivin. In the meantime, the quality of life in her country decreased.
“Prices increased, and Russia became an outcast country,” she said. “Stores began to close. A lot of entertainment became unavailable. These details built an unpleasant larger picture, beginning with empty malls and ending with software, which some manufacturers refused to support in Russia.”
The pair moved to Yerevan on May 7. Nepushkina, a manual quality assurance engineer, managed to find a job after a few interviews.
“If the war officially ends, I would like to return. But I do not know when Russia will become a safe and comfortable place,” she said.
“Because of sanctions, many foreign customers — outsourcing companies among them — refuse to work with Russian companies,” said Gennady Haritonov, a 34-year-old software developer who moved with his family to Armenia in March.
Customers are refusing to work with not only Russian firms but also developers who are physically in Russia, he added. “[It is] not even because they do not feel sympathy but because they worry for their business.”
Haritonov’s company in Russia told him he would not be able to work for them if he left. So he found a job at an international company that was relocating its Russia office to Armenia, called Cyberhull. If he had remained in Russia and faced a mandatory draft, he would have had two choices: going to prison or going to the frontline to fight for something he did not believe in.: “There would be no choice in my case,” he said. “I would just refuse and go to prison.”
Martyn (Vladimir Martynenko)
The first thing 28-year-old Vladimir Martynenko thought about when he heard about the war was that he didn’t have a passport. Soon after, he felt his emotional state fall into disarray. “The quality of my work decreased dramatically,” he said. “I made mistakes much more often”
Based in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, he started feeling as though he was in an environment similar to Germany at the beginning of World War II. The threat made creative thinking feel impossible, he said. “I can physically work, but I cannot work intellectually,” Martyn said. “I think it happens to many [people].”
The decision on whether to leave Russia caused tension between him and his partner. They did not know anything about Armenia, but the fear of martial law in Russia was eating away at him. “I thought we needed to move quickly, that we may even need to leave the cat,” he said.
The couple and their cat are currently living in Dilijan, an old town in a national park that reminds Martyn of Kaliningrad. He lost his former job as a web technologies teacher but is now working remotely as a full-time contractor for Vilantis, a Lithuanian software company.
Twenty-six-year-old Ivan Kurilla was not happy working for his company in Russia, so he resigned and was planning to rest for a few months, when the war hit. As Telegram groups filled with people offering advice and support, it seemed as though everyone was suddenly leaving the country. Kurilla felt it was now or never.
He arrived in Armenia at the beginning of March with one suitcase and a phone number for his father’s friend. “Here, I found what I could not find in Russia,” he said.
Armenia is full of outsourcing companies with foreign clients. The local job he found gave him a chance to work with the international market — something he previously thought only moving to Europe could do. Kurilla is working as a C++ programmer at a local company called Energize Global Services.
“Most Russians moving to Armenia thought this would be a transition point for further travels,” Kurilla said. “I thought so, too, but changed my opinion.”
Twenty-five-year-old Ivan Krapivin said that before the war he could find work as a junior quality assurance engineer easily in Russia, despite his limited experience. These days, it’s harder for beginners to find work in the country, he said. Some companies went bankrupt. Others, like Krapivin’s firm, cut jobs.
By the time he decided to leave St. Petersburg with his partner at the beginning of May, vacancies in the IT industry had decreased drastically in the Russian market. Nowadays, he is unemployed, looking for work in Yerevan.
Although Armenia’s welcome pleasantly surprised him, Krapivin said he would like to return to his apartment and neighborhood in St. Petersburg. The current political situation, however, makes it seem impossible.
“It was hard to ride the metro and know that 80% of people there supported Russia’s rhetoric of no peace,” he said.
Before boarding his plane from Nizhny Novgorod to Yerevan, Vasily Kovalev and his partner Alina Demeneva erased everything from their phones. The two 24-year-olds feared border police would check their electronics and stop them from leaving.
Leaving has been in Kovalev’s mind for a long time, ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Aside from allowing him to be close to his family, his life in Russia had few benefits, even before the war, he said. But when the 2022 invasion of Ukraine began, Kovalev felt that the country was increasingly militarizing and edging toward instability.
“People were detained for words against the war, for speaking for peace. I wanted to be away from all that for some time,” said Kovalev, who is working as a senior software developer.
Kovalev has been working with international clients for a company in Russia called SWTec and plans to continue doing the same in Armenia as a freelance contractor. “If Russia wins, everything in Russia will be bad,” Kovalev said. “If Russia loses, everything will still be bad. I see no sense in returning there.”
Alina Demeneva lost her job as a junior quality assurance engineer in an IT company because of her decision to move to Armenia with her partner, who left because of his anti-war convictions. “I would not stay there [in Russia] alone,” she said. “I support his decision. We have had a similar take on politics through the years.”
Now Demeneva is looking for another opportunity but said that Armenia has scarce opportunities for junior positions in her field. Many senior-level engineers left Russia at the same time as Demeneva.
“It was obvious that people were leaving [for long] because many were with their pets,” Demeneva said. “The airplane was packed.”