“Come Back, We Will
Forgive Everything.”
Are the Departed IT Specialists Ready to Go Back to Russia?
July 7, 2023
  • Tatyana Rybakova

    Journalist and writer
Tatyana Rybakova speaks to IT workers and an economist to explore  why the Russian authorities suddenly started talking about Russians who left returning to their homeland en masse. When it comes to IT specialists, the rhetoric is clearly dominated by a conciliatory tone. Does Russia really need IT specialists so bad? And if so, can it get them back?
Our family legend says that one late evening in 1918, my grandfather, cornet Konstantin Shestakov, who lived in the center of Kaluga, was visited by a former fellow soldier, who proposed that he should get back into the military – for the Bolsheviks. “We swore allegiance to the authorities of Russia, and they are now the authorities,” the man allegedly argued. Grandfather let him down the stairs, and that night, together with his family, left for the south, to join Denikin’s army.

Recently, I remember this family history more and more. The Bolsheviks, loudly denouncing the “damned bourgeoisie” and “tsarist satraps,” encouraged military and civilian specialists to go over to their side and called on emigrants to come back. Like them, the current authorities intersperse curses against people who left and took up residence in the West with attempts to bring them back to Russia.

Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin called on departed citizens to return while they have the opportunity, while Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent Alexander Kots published an anonymous “confession of a repentant IT specialist” who had returned from Europe. Meanwhile, Senator Andrei Klimov urged to “keep an eye” on people who return, since among them there may be recruited “enemy agents.”
Minister of Digital Development Maksut Shadayev says there's no need to lure IT workers back to Russia, since many of them are returning home anyway. Source: Wiki Commons
Recently, officials have been tripping over each other to report that half or even more of those who left have already come back. At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that half had returned; Duma Speaker Volodin said in February that 60% of those who left had returned, and the head of the Ministry of Digital Development Maksut Shadayev, back in May 2022, put the figure at 80%. Calculating the exact number of Russians who left is actually impossible – in particular, there is no way to find out who came back for good and who was only back to settle property matters in Russia.

It is interesting that Shadayev, who previously stated that about 100,000 IT specialists had left abroad, now assures the country that a “reverse relocation” program is no longer needed, since people are returning on their own. The available data seems to confirm this. A survey of the HR company Ventra IT (it acquired the Russian business of the international recruitment agency Kelly Services a year ago) in September 2022, right after the mobilization was announced, showed that about 6% of IT specialists left Russia, while another 25% were planning to do so within a year . The same survey in June of this year showed that only 5% of those who left are satisfied with their emigrant life. A mass return of IT people, however, seems completely implausible.

About what is happening with IT professionals, I talked with those who left and those who decided to stay, as well as with an expert in the IT market.
Yandex, Russia's transnational IT company, opened in June its largest European office in Belgrade, Serbia. Source: Wiki Commons
Ilya, system administrator:

I left for Belgrade last fall because my company is not from the IT sector; I work in the IT department of a large chain retailer, so I was not given protection from being mobilized. The company itself offered to relocate men and even helped with the move. But now my situation is up in the air. I can’t get a residence permit through a work visa, as the company is not represented in Serbia, and I have not made the money to buy real estate, so I have to do “visa runs” – once a month a lot of people have to make a run to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina (Russians can stay in Serbia without a visa for a month – TR), where they also do not need visas, on the same day coming back to Serbia. Fortunately, you can transfer money to Serbia with Unistream, though at a very unfavorable rate – on average, I lose 6-8%. There are also Russian businesses that exchange money through crypto. As well as private offers where you send rubles to someone’s Russian card and he gives you cash euros or dinars here, on the spot. But it’s all kind of shaky.

Overall, everything is shaky. My employer still supports my remote work, but when a job that interested me opened up, another person was hired for it; they didn’t even offer it to me, although they knew that I wanted it. So, it seems, you can forget about career growth.

Changing jobs is tough – here in Belgrade, there are many companies with Russian roots, Yandex is really bringing in people (in Belgrade, the company is opening its largest office in Europe for 2,000 employees – TR), but my skills are not in demand. But I go to meetups, I’m thinking of taking courses to change my specialization. If it doesn’t work at all, I’ll probably have to go back. Or try to get a job in Kazakhstan, for example. I can’t do it here; I don’t know the language.
For now, I have decided for myself: I’m on a long business trip. I would not want to go back to Russia as long as there is the threat of mobilization. Plus, I do not like at all what is going on there, and to be silent or shouting hurrah is repulsive.
Here, though many Serbs support Putin, I can express my opinion calmly, and in general I feel calmer.

The uncertainty is the only thing that distresses. Here, in Belgrade, there are many people like me – we do visa runs together, go to meetups, share thoughts and information. It only helps a little, but the moral support is big.

Igor, head of the IT department at one of Russia’s largest financial companies:

Our company is one of the backbone companies in the market, so there was no question of working remotely. But all the men were given protection from mobilization; the employer reacted to the mobilization very quickly, even getting out those few men who they had managed to grab on the street in the first days, even though they were ordinary employees.

So, there was no question for me about leaving. Firstly, I am the head of a very important division, and it is impossible to function remotely. Secondly, I have been working in the company for a very long time, having risen from a basic position, so loyalty to the company is not an empty phrase for me. In the current, difficult situation, the actions of my employer are also of considerable importance. Plus, I have elderly and not very healthy parents, two dogs – overall, a situation that does not offer great mobility.

Sure, I know that I could find a job in a foreign company. Still, firstly, it is not a fact that I, with my current position, would be released to go abroad in the current situation, although so far at work we have not been asked to hand over our passports. Secondly, this is absolutely certain –
I will not find a job on the same level, not only in terms of status and salary, but also in terms of the complexity of the work, and this is also important for me.
I understand that I have put up certain barriers, but that is my choice.

Vladimir Volokhonsky, data analyst:

I work for an international company that makes, let’s say, programs for programmers. I left Russia in early March 2022. In my case, it was due to political persecution – they had already showed up twice to carry out searches, and I understood that it was a matter of days, or even hours, before my arrest.

But just a couple of days after my departure, the company where I work announced the closure of its business in Russia. For the company, it was an extremely difficult decision, since most of the employees were in Russia. Nevertheless, it was done, and all the specialists, and even a decent part of the administrative staff, were offered the opportunity to move. The company paid for the relocation, paid out a moving allowance for those who for some reason could not move to the company’s offices in the EU. Several more offices were opened in countries outside the EU, including one in Serbia, where I moved.

Of course, people had been building their lives for many years, and for many it was not easy to move. The salary did not decrease, but of course many saw their quality of life decline. For example, in January 2022 I bought an annual subscription to a very expensive fitness club in St Petersburg and not only lost this money, but still have not found anything suitable for myself in Belgrade. Of course, against the generally horrendous backdrop, this seems like a trifle, but such everyday trifles are common for many of us as we adapt to our new life.

Still, even though everyone is whining all the time, I don’t know anyone who would like to go back. Generally speaking, I think this is quite normal behavior for emigrants: whining all the time. There are no problems with finding a job if you want to return – there are plenty in Russia. Yes, the IT market in Russia collapsed, the outflow of workers has been compensated by the outflow of employers – but now there are not enough experienced specialists, who were the first to leave, and the demand for them has risen.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who just completed some computer courses, they are now actively looking for work – but again, to get some minimal experience so that they can leave later. Although it is not clear who in Russia will “grow” such specialists now.

As for calls to go back, I think it’s not so much IT people as such who are being called back home – they want to get back their money and orders. After all, many people who left Russia work as freelancers for Western companies; many had their own small or medium-sized IT companies. To [get back] all this is very simple – stop the war and get back to democratic development. If that happens in the next year or two, I am sure that a considerable number of people will go back – from a quarter to a third of those who left, by my estimates.

But if, say, a decade passes, returning will be irrelevant for most of them – they will already have a well-established life, and going back would be another stress, breaking already familiar ties and an established life. Personally, I am ready to return in the next year or two, but later is unlikely.

Is there any hope of recruiting IT specialists for the military among those who left? No, that is pointless, as there is simply no IT management in the army for this, and moreover, they are no motivated. It doesn’t have normal management on the battlefield, as we can see, and the IT sphere is a different story. The army has Voenmeh (Baltic State Technical University – TR) graduates, they are accustomed to working in organizations where “you’re the boss, I’m the idiot” – I think they will have to be content with such personnel.

The reasons why people left are not only the war.
Reasons to leave have been around for the last 8-10 years. It’s just that those who had only been thinking and planning before, with the outbreak of war and even more so with the mobilization announcement, sped up their existing plans.
Though most IT people are apolitical, this does not mean that they did not understand what was happening and where the country was going. Their apathy is, in many ways, due to their immersion in work, a sense of the futility of what they can do, and the priority of private interests over political ones.

Everything became clear to me from the moment the Puppets program was shut down (the show, with its sharp political satire, was ended in 2002 – Russia.Post), but I left only after the start of the war. Meanwhile, everything became clear for many others with the criminal cases against Navalny and his associates, the widespread use of the “foreign agent” status, etc. As a politically active person, many colleagues began to ask me about what was happening back in 2021, when social networks were blocked.

Overall, IT people were tense already when LinkedIn was blocked in 2016 – in our community it was not just a professional platform for finding a job, but also a place where you could communicate with your colleagues around the world. Even then, the question arose – maybe it’s time to leave? In 2021, even more specific questions appeared: now, I work in a company that is sensitive to [state] secrets, maybe it’s time for me to leave before the borders are closed?

Of course, among IT people there are “Z-patriots” who remained in Russia. For the experienced ones, there are even more opportunities – both in terms of pay and careers. It is even possible to launch IT courses – now in Russia there is just a boom – I was even asked to lead one remotely. Still, the majority preferred to leave, including for professional reasons. Because in the IT field it is very important to constantly develop, to be aware of new trends, and in Russia this is unlikely to be possible now.
Mobile operator Megafon relies on Chinese equipment. Source: Wiki Commons
Economist Sergei Petrov (name changed):

In short, the situation in the IT sector can be described as: there is no catastrophe on the horizon in a year or two. Sure, there are difficulties, and they are different in different sectors (IT solutions are used in various sectors, from banking to mining). If we talk about general problems, then they can be divided, roughly speaking, into hardware problems and problems of software and specialists. In hardware, the problems were there from the very beginning: there is no modern production of microcircuits in Russia. Moreover, for a completely rational reason: the Russian economy, and thus the demand for such products, is too small to expand production.

There are niche manufacturers operating on ancient equipment (simply because it is available), small manufacturers are created either to soak up government funds or through grants for some specific jobs, but for large-scale production of modern general-purpose chips in Russia there is simply not the scale needed. The possibility for exports was doubtful even before the current events – it is difficult, almost impossible to compete not only with American, but even Chinese manufacturers.

On the other hand, by the beginning of the war, most consumers of chips had some stocks, which lasted until deliveries of “parallel imports” were set up. Everyone is doing their own thing here. For example, in telecoms, the mobile operator Megafon initially counted on Chinese equipment, mainly Huawei. With the imposition of sanctions, Huawei was initially afraid to ship products to Russia, but then supplies were restored.

But another mobile operator, Beeline, had American vendors, and things have been tougher for it. Still, in general, Russian hardware consumers have learned by experience that there are no problems working with second-tier Chinese vendors. Whereas the first tier, which exports its products to the US and the EU, is still afraid of US and European secondary sanctions, the second tier, which does not have such exports, is happy to work with Russian companies.

So, the situation with hardware is: it has become harder and more expensive. Some chips, especially the most advanced or those used in sensitive areas and whose supply chains are tightly monitored, are simply unavailable, some are in short supply. You must come up with some solutions to replace them. But,
“In general, it has not been a catastrophe. There is even some good in it: before, to solve some problems, people preferred to just buy, for example, an expensive Western server, but now you have to look for more affordable, albeit more complicated solutions.
Of course, if a total ban on the supply of hardware is introduced, the situation would change. But even in this case, firstly, it would be impossible to track its implementation across the entire product line, especially for mass production. Secondly, even where special specifications are used, accumulated stocks, including substitutes, will last for a year or two of work.

As for employees, the outflow of IT specialists is visible. But here it must be said that the Russian IT sector is following the same trend as the world. And in the global IT sector, it is the trend that Russia had in the 90s with accountants and lawyers. If you remember, back then they were in super high demand in the economy, which was being put on a market basis. But then the education market churned them out in such high numbers that it not only made up for the deficit but also created an oversupply – especially graduates of not very good universities.

The IT industry, which has been rapidly developing in previous years, is now experiencing a stabilization. The last surge was during the pandemic, but now even artificial intelligence does not yet look like the beginning of a new rise. Given these conditions, Western companies have begun layoffs – primarily in the “traditional” divisions, where expansion is no longer expected. In Russia, instead of layoffs, there is a shakeup in the industry: the people who left are replaced by others from less relevant departments.

Plus, we should not forget that a significant number of the IT specialists who left continue to work for Russian employers. No wonder there are rumors that it was the Ministry of Digital Development that lobbied for the rejection of the bill that would raise taxes on “remote workers” (nonresidents), rightly fearing a shortage in the market for IT specialists.

If we combine these two trends – the worldwide decrease in the demand for specialists and the local practice of using “remote workers” who left the country, then the picture is by no means catastrophic. Sure, somewhere unique specialists were lost (there are not many, and there are not many areas for them to work in Russia), somewhere you have to settle for specialists with lower qualifications. The fact that the situation is not so awful is also evidenced by the fact that, according to my information, there has not been a significant uptick in salaries in the IT sector.

Of course, note that everything that has been said is true for today. If the situation changes – for example, the West slaps a total ban on the export of semiconductors and equipment to Russia, with effective secondary sanctions for violators, or the protection from mobilization for IT specialists is scrapped, and they start leaving en masse – then the picture will change. But for now, I repeat, it looks like this:
“Everything has gotten tougher, more expensive, it requires some resourcefulness, but no meltdown is on the horizon in the next year or two.
The discrepancy in the statements of officials seems attributable to the departure of IT specialists being counterbalanced by the contraction of the IT market itself, as well as the general regression of this market in Russia. They don’t really like the picture of Russian emigrants filling Europe, they hear signals about a shortage of highly qualified specialists, but the situation is such that in a country that has officially proclaimed a regression to the previous technological order, called “systemic restructuring,” people are increasingly valued for their loyalty instead of their smarts. Or regretful people – that always tickles the vanity of the authorities.

As for the Russian IT specialists themselves, they are definitely not at the easiest stage of adapting to their new conditions. Still, this does not mean that they are ready – not in large numbers, not even in some noticeable quantities – to return to Russia. The Ministry of Digital Development’s rejection of the program to bring back IT specialists is attributable not so much to the fact that they are already returning, but to the fear of a loud and public failure of such a program.
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