Evgeniia Toporkova left Kyiv in early March as Russian troops closed in, making her way through familiar streets disconcertingly transformed by concrete barricades, rusted anti-tank obstacles, and nervy soldiers, before cramming with panicked crowds onto a train west.
After that, the 26-year-old tech worker spent two days sheltering in a student dormitory by the Hungarian border. She was glad for the sleeping bag her employer, software developer MacPaw, had given her as part of a “survival kit” which also included a power bank and medical supplies for when the invasion began. She took buses across Europe, then a flight to Thailand in April, and one to Malaysia a couple of months later — places she’d always wanted to visit, and where she hoped her displacement would sting less. All the while, she continued to work remotely in her role as a product analyst.
In August, she traveled to Istanbul and found a temporary apartment in a quiet district on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, where she settled for a while. When she wasn’t working, she fed the aloof neighborhood cats and took ferries across the Bosporus to explore the city’s European side.
“It was a great experience, all this traveling,” Toporkova told Rest of World recently. “But it’s also a difficult thing.” After six months away from Ukraine, she said, she finally felt ready to go home.
While Toporkova was gone, Ukrainian forces fought, and won, the battle for Kyiv. By the beginning of April, they had reclaimed territory all the way to the country’s northern borders. Over messaging apps, friends and colleagues told her the capital had been slowly returning to something more like itself: bars and restaurants had reopened, followed by shops and other businesses. MacPaw’s office, located among the concrete blocks of downtown Kyiv — its sleek green-and-black complex housing an expansive lounge, exercise space, and two cats of its own — was increasingly busy too.
Sitting at a cafe, not far from her Istanbul apartment, on a September afternoon, Toporkova said that she had begun to think she’d been running for too long. The following week, she planned to fly to Moldova and, after a few days, cross back into Ukraine and head for Kyiv. “I am a bit afraid of how I’m going to feel when I’m back and in this new reality [that] we’ll have to live with for quite a long time,” she said. “But it’s my home, and I just want to go back.”
Toporkova was one of thousands of Ukrainian IT workers displaced by the invasion. In recent years, the country has built a reputation as a major IT hub and outsourcing destination, thanks to a large tech talent pool and fast-growing startups like typing assistant Grammarly and face-swapping app Reface. Tech has consistently outpaced the broader Ukrainian economy, and IT export volumes grew by 36% to reach $6.8 million in 2021, according to data from trade body, IT Ukraine Association. The Kyiv-based AVentures Capital fund estimates that, in 2020, venture capital and private equity investors poured more than $571 million into Ukraine’s tech sector.
Like the rest of the country, the tech industry and the people sustaining it have faced massive trauma and disruption since the Russian invasion began on February 24. Half a year on, many workers remain displaced, both within Ukraine and outside of it. Most tech companies in Ukraine have found ways to carry on, often while contributing to the broader war effort by attempting to fight Russian disinformation or donating to the armed forces and humanitarian efforts. As the conflict’s dynamics have shifted, some of their employees, like Toporkova, have begun returning to their desks in Kyiv and elsewhere.
Rest of World spoke to Ukrainian tech workers, inside and outside the country, to learn how they are attempting to establish a new, fragile normality. Despite continued heavy fighting in the south and east, and the constant risk of Russian strikes on civilian areas, they described getting back to the rhythms and habits of life before the war as much as possible, working from hastily found apartments by the Polish border, or timing their movements and social engagements around regular air raid alerts.
They include people like Alex, a 26-year-old software developer from Kharkiv, 20 miles from the Russian border. When the invasion came, he initially stayed put. He soon got used to the explosions, he told Rest of World, but never to the warplanes screaming overhead. “You hear some sound of the aircraft somewhere far away and in two seconds, it’s above you,” he recalled. “And you can’t even imagine where it will [drop] the bomb. Maybe on you, maybe somewhere [else].”
The invasion did not arrive without warning or precedent. Russian President Vladimir Putin had been amassing troops on Ukraine’s borders since the spring of 2021. Eventually, there were nearly 200,000 of them. His rhetoric and televised addresses became more threatening, while officials in the U.S. sounded increasingly urgent alarms.
Aggression was familiar. Ukrainian troops had been fighting in the eastern Donbas region since 2014, when Russian proxy forces declared independent statelets after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Few Ukrainians wanted to believe that full-scale conflict was possible, however, and Putin’s speeches were widely dismissed as posturing — an attempt to exact further political concessions from Kyiv and NATO.
Nevertheless, some tech firms took precautions, ensuring products and user data were hosted outside of the country or making sure that operations could continue without direct oversight or intervention for a time. Among them was Reface, which makes an app that allows users to swap faces in videos and GIFs. At the time of the February invasion, the company had a staff of nearly 200 working out of its Kyiv headquarters.
“The war in Ukraine has lasted for eight years already. With the December 2021 escalation, we understood that there was a real threat of Russia invading Kyiv. But actually, nobody believed in the full-scale invasion yet,” Dima Shvets, the CEO of Reface, told Rest of World. But the firm still moved its servers outside Ukraine before the war began, and designed risk minimization plans to ensure the safety of its team and the business as a whole.
Across the country, other companies also made preparations. Maria Zhyhil, 32, a team manager with telecomms software provider, Nasc Technologies, left Ukraine for Turkey at the end of January at the urging of her in-laws overseas. She did so out of an abundance of caution, but with the expectation that she would be back in her native Odesa in time for the long days and balmy weather of summer.
Zhyhil also rented a large house in the western city of Uzhhorod, on the border with Slovakia. The house was set up in case her team needed to evacuate there, although she did not expect them to have to use it. “I’ll be honest,” she told Rest of World, “it was like no war is going to happen, but my guys will just have a house to stay in during spring vacation … it will be just a nice treat.”
On February 14, ten days before the invasion, Hacken, a blockchain cybersecurity firm then based in Kyiv, advised its staff of 50 to move to western Ukraine or overseas with their families for at least a fortnight, and provided funds for travel and rent.
“In general, we did not expect a full-scale invasion and did not prepare for it,” Dyma Budorin, co-founder and CEO of Hacken, told Rest of World in written responses to questions. He added that there was, however, a mounting sense of anxiety, especially among staff living in Kharkiv. “I said: ‘If there is even a few percent probability of an attack, we as a company must do everything to protect our people.’ So on February 14, at the managers’ meeting, we decided to leave: we did not believe that a full-scale war would begin, but provocations were expected in the next few weeks.”
The vast majority of tech firms and their employees, however, were still in Ukraine on the morning of February 24, when Russian missiles hit strategic targets around the country, and the invasion force began crossing borders to the north, south, and east. Only then did many managers begin the fraught process of evacuating employees from the most at-risk areas, and towards a semblance of safety.
Escaping to Europe was not an option for everyone. Once Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law in an address from his office not long after the first Russian strikes hit, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 were legally required to remain in the country in case of mass mobilization. Many tech workers joined the armed forces and their cyber counterparts.
Others still tried to leave. On February 24, Oleksii Kraiev, a senior engineering manager with American software giant Oracle, woke up to a loud bang outside his Odesa apartment. He was not sure what had happened, until he looked out of his window towards the airport. He saw a flash, then heard the boom of another explosion. A few of his male friends started out at first light for the nearby Moldovan border gate.
The following morning, Kraiev saw other colleagues who could not, or would not, flee, dropping off their families at the border. Standing there in the winter sun, he told Rest of World, things felt calmer than the bombs, panic, and frenzied phone calls of the previous 24 hours. He decided not to attempt the crossing himself. “After that,” he said, “I didn’t really consider leaving Odesa seriously. I just adapted to whatever was happening.”
Kraiev became a volunteer, delivering supplies to civilians in need as well the armed forces, with the help of other members of his Oracle team. “I guess that gave [us] a feeling that if you have a plan, and you’re sticking to that plan, everything can be okay,” he said.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, conditions changed quickly. Before the invasion, Kharkiv was home to the second-largest population of Ukrainian tech workers after Kyiv, according to TechUkraine. The city hosted more than 450 tech firms and is the birthplace of one of Ukraine’s biggest tech success stories, software unicorn GitLab.
Alex, the software developer, said that growing up there, he never thought of the people across the border as a threat. “All my life, as I remember, there were … neighbors from both sides living in Russia and Ukraine,” he told Rest of World, in a video call from the western city of Lviv, where he now lives. “They were going to each other’s apartments and it was always a cozy relationship.”
In fact, Alex, who works for a major IT services company and asked to be identified only by his first name so he could speak freely, had been so confident of peace that, earlier this year, he completed renovations on the roof of his house. The repairs cost half as much as the entire property itself, but he thought it was worth it — it was a long-term investment. “When the guys finished the roof,” he said, “the war started.”
Kharkiv soon became one of the most heavily bombarded cities of the conflict, especially the northeastern residential district of Saltivka, where Alex used to live. On the first day of the invasion, he heard explosions and saw a rocket flying overhead towards the city center. After that, he took shelter in his basement. Work was impossible, but his boss checked in on him twice a day and passed on updates to the rest of the company.
The electricity went out soon after. Pharmacies closed, and even getting food was difficult. On the 11th day of the war, Alex decided to leave with his mother, joining the rush of people fleeing west.
In addition to supporting their own staff, many tech firms shifted business priorities to support the war effort. MacPaw added push alerts to its products with information on the war and how to make donations, including a “Stand with Ukraine” button in its VPN, which it offered for free to Ukrainian users. The company wrote up a blog post with similar content. (The site was subsequently blocked in Russia.)
Reface CEO Dima Shvets and his team launched counter-disinformation campaigns through their app, using images and videos to show the devastating impact of Russia’s invasion on the ground. The team sent push notifications to its two million Russian users, calling for protests against the invasion. On the 15th day of the war, however, Reface pulled its app from the Russian market, concluding that they would not change many minds after largely negative feedback and a flurry of one-star reviews on app stores from users in Russia.
Along with the push notifications, the Reface app featured a message of support for Ukraine and a donate button with proceeds directed to the Ukrainian army. Some 150,000 users clicked to donate. The app rolled out a feature to face-swap with Zelensky, and a watermark with the Ukrainian flag and the #StandWithUkraine hashtag was added to any image or video created using the free version of the app.
MacPaw staff — working from bomb shelters — created tools to block apps from sending data to Russian servers and to protect macOS and iOS users against cyber threats directed from Russia or Belarus, the company’s head of PR, Julia Petryk, told Rest of World. They also designed an iOS shortcut to save battery life, and built an app that can be used to track employees’ locations via a constantly updating map, and their well-being through regular check-ins.
MacPaw Foundation, a nonprofit the company founded in 2016 to support social projects, provided tactical medical kits, protective gear, and other equipment to the Ukrainian armed forces. It raised some $700,000 from users, and has donated more than $5 million to purchase first aid materials, communications tech, and protective equipment, as well as a mid-sized UA Dynamics drone meant to be used to monitor frontline positions.
Hacken, the blockchain cybersecurity firm, has also been working on tools to help Ukraine cyber warfare efforts and combat Russian propaganda. The company donated around $350,000 in aid and Budorin, its CEO, said he gave his own Tesla to a local Territorial Defense unit.
By early March, Kraiev, the Oracle manager in Odesa, had returned to working full-time. Although the war raged across the country and Russian troops were massed on the outskirts of Kyiv, Kraiev said that his workday had hardly changed. Oracle staff in Ukraine had been working remotely since the pandemic began anyway, and their shuttered office was only due to reopen in April. The main difference was that, initially, Kraiev used his apartment only during the day because of its proximity to the coast and the possibility of a Russian amphibious assault. At night, he went to a friend’s place further inland to sleep and ride out the long curfews.
Five months later, air raid alarms have now become less frequent in Odesa, and, when they do go off, their wails tend to be ignored. Like Kyiv, the city has regained a sense of relative calm. “Mostly it is sort of business as usual with only the constraints that we get from the current situation with air raid alarms and whatnot,” he said.
Other tech companies operating in the city reported similar experiences. “In the early days of the war, most of our employees volunteered and joined the cyber troops’ [information warfare efforts]. But soon, after a week, everyone began to actively return to usual work,” Alex Wise, CEO of Netpeak Software, an Odesa-based manufacturer of SEO tools, told Rest of World.
More than seven million Ukrainian refugees have now been recorded across Europe, according to the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). It estimated that 13% of Ukraine’s tech workers are among them. Despite relative stability in some regions, large swathes of the country remain under Russian occupation and nearly nowhere is free of the possibility of missile strikes. Some firms have, as a result, made lasting plans to stay abroad.
Hacken initially set up a hub and co-working space in Barcelona but opted for Lisbon as a more permanent base, owing to its strong cryptocurrency community. There, the team rented an office and helped employees set up. Hacken continues to provide rent contributions for its workers living in Lisbon.
U.S.-headquartered Starwind Software, meanwhile, set up a new office in Wroclaw, Poland for staff relocated from Kyiv.
Other companies supported staff remotely wherever they landed. Petryk, MacPaw’s head of PR, said 30% of the company’s employees are now spread across Europe and further afield — many more than before the invasion.
But, even now, a sense of loyalty is keeping many Ukrainian tech workers in the country and in their homes. Zhyil, the Nasc Technologies team manager, said that while some of her staff are still in the Uzhhorod house she rented, others have refused to move from places relatively close to the fighting. “They’re very, very attached to their land, extremely so,” she said. “Even though we know they’re being attacked quite often.”
She and others also said that they had seen and heard of many Ukrainian IT workers turning down lucrative promotions or job offers based abroad. She said that “an insane amount of people” had been offered positions with attractive perks and benefits but had refused to relocate.
IT workers in Ukraine employed by foreign firms have not always been so fortunate. Dmytro Dorodnykh, 23, a contract web developer from Kharkiv, told Rest of World that a number of his colleagues in the city had lost jobs or work when the war began and they were offline for some time. He estimated that, of around 20 friends that had been working in Kharkiv’s tech industry, only one or two were still in the city.
Aside from work, Dorodnykh has been fundraising solo, collecting money from friends and colleagues. A medical condition prevents him from joining the army, so this, he said, was his way of helping. On a video call with Rest of World, he held up tokens of appreciation that he had received in return, such as a small piece of a downed Su-34 aircraft, in a package labeled “made in Russia and recycled in Ukraine.” He also held up a picture of a Ukrainian soldier holding a rocket-propelled grenade, with his Telegram handle written on the warhead.
Although the war’s dynamics have somewhat stabilized and population movement has slowed down, tech workers, like all Ukrainians, remain vigilant of future dangers.
The greatest threat is any Russian escalation around a large population center, said Zhyhil. “For ourselves and as a head of department, my biggest risk is my guys who are inside Ukraine,” she said. If an employee or their family were in danger, this would affect the whole team, both on a personal and professional level, with life and work disrupted.
Then there is the winter, which promises to be one of the harshest in years, particularly if Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure escalate to centralized heating systems. Either way, there will be fuel shortages, soaring unemployment, and vast destruction in residential areas to deal with.
Nevertheless, among Ukrainian IT workers and entrepreneurs who spoke to Rest of World, the general consensus was that the tech industry had reached a sustainable status quo. Many described their role in keeping the Ukrainian economy moving and preparing for a peaceful future. An IT Ukraine report published in June found that 56% of companies surveyed still expected growth of 5%-30% in 2022, despite everything.
For workers who relocated, watching events unfold from afar can be difficult, and life abroad is often expensive. Many are coming home. The UNHCR has logged more than six million crossings into Ukraine since February 28.
Hacken’s Budorin was adamant that the company would return to Ukraine when the war was over. Netpeak Software’s Wise said he thought the industry was going from strength to strength. Shvets from Reface agreed.
“From our perspective, things are getting [more and more] positive,” Shvets said. “So people come into [Kyiv] and are starting to work on the life and economy of the city and the country.”
For a city like Kharkiv, which is still heavily damaged and subjected to regular shelling, anything approaching prewar times remains a long way off. But, in the busy streets of the capital, as well as Odesa and Lviv, tech workers are finding ways to recapture something of the way things were.
Meanwhile, the psychological wounds of living in a conflict zone endure. Alex, the developer from Kharkiv, who now lives in Lviv by the Polish border and works in the office his employer runs there, said he still jumps when he hears an aircraft overhead.