The Russians Are Cominghire the nerds for peace, profit, and progress!
Long-serving English-language Russian IT news source East-West Digital News reports that 50,000–70,000 Russian IT professionals have already fled the country. A second wave of up to 100,000 more is expected. This based on a presentation of the director of the Russian Association of Electronic Communications to the Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature. The New York Times has similarly reported numbers in the tens of thousands flying into Tbilisi, Yerevan, Istanbul, Belgrade—literally wherever Russian planes will go.
Here’s the money quote from the Duma presentation:
Top priority — stop the outflow of personnel.
Главный приоритет — остановить отток кадров.
What’s our priority? Taking in fleeing Ukrainian talent is an obvious step. But that displacement is a consequence of the war. What about striking the root, on the Russian side?
Russian guys are afraid of being drafted to die fighting their cousins in Ukraine. So the government has passed a (limited) draft exemption for IT people. Everyone’s afraid of financial collapse under sanctions. So they’re passing tax holidays and other limp incentives, specifically for tech workers. Both companies and managers are fleeing the designated innovation centers and science clusters. So they’re queuing up new grants, as if that’s gonna help.
I’m sure they’ll think up some more. It won’t be enough.
They can’t match Western comp. They can’t generate the opportunities. They can’t compromise on, or insulate from, the domestic political hellscape they’re creating. And they can’t credibly offer what might matter most to fellow children of the Internet: the actual Internet.
Russian authorities are blocking mass-market social media left and right. They are prosecuting everyday citizens for social media posts. Dissenting or even merely casual voices are fleeing to Telegram, but it wasn’t so long ago they were threatening to cut off Telegram, too. The Russian Federation has had laws on the books for years mandating equipment and protocols for cutting Russia off from the global Net. Think “Great Firewall of Russia”. They just haven’t used them yet.
Russian IT people know all this. They have organizations like Roskomsvoboda, akin to EFF, who’ve gone on about it for years. And these are the people who took the orders to install equipment they didn’t want to install, provide security service access they didn’t want to grant, share data they didn’t want to share.
As for the politics, EWDN quotes a popular Telegram channel:
IT professionals’ patriotism might be weakened by the fact that “these guys and girls do not watch TV and do not listen to the radio,” suggests Kremlevskaya Prachka. Controlled directly or indirectly by the authorities, these media channels are heavily supporting the Kremlin’s propaganda effort in the current conflict.
Russian IT people, as a rule, aren’t sucking the tailpipe of the Russian propaganda machine. They get their news from the Net—what’s left of it—as IT people tend to do. These folks are more likely to have watched Masnyanya—think Russian South Park—compel Putin to seppuku than to have Solovyov bellowing on in the background.
Any day now, they are waiting for news that YouTube, the last bastion, has finally been blocked, as well. The years of jokes about RuTube, the failed state-backed YouTube clone, are gathering more characteristic Russian sting:
Only today, RuTube itself announced special accounts for government agencies, exempting them from “advance moderation”, i.e. prior-restraint censorship, which will ostensibly apply to everyone else. Meanwhile, Yandex—think Russian Google—has obligingly announced that it will spin out its upcoming video-hosting platform, Zen, along with its news product, for acquisition, likely by state-backed Facebook clone InContact. Having my InContact messages snooped by security services is what convinced me to quit InContact, and Facebook, years ago.
Politically, I doubt many Russian tech people liquidating their ruble savings for plane tickets see the war on Ukraine much differently than their friends in Berlin, San Francisco, or London. But the idea that these aren’t Russian patriots is just more Kremlin bullshit. If “patriotism” means believing what Solovyov says, supporting what Putin does, and taking mandatory group selfies with Z symbols, sure. But that’s like saying two and two make five…for sufficiently wrong values of two.
Russians hackers know they have the talent. They know they have the capacity. And they know they haven’t been allowed to realize their potential, individually, as a community, or as a people, within Russia. This is clearly a permissions problem, not a capability problem. Generations of first- and second-generation emigres have succeed big-time abroad. As academics. As entrepreneurs. As inventors and technicians.
None of this is a secret, even among the self-defined “patriots”. Here’s that Telegram post EWDN quoted, in full, highlighting mine:
The problem with loss of digital personnel, which Nezygar already wrote about earlier, against the background of sanctions and limitations, takes on a new scale. The conversation now is not only about Russian students and potential developers, who immediately after victory at international championships in programming sign contracts with western (earlier — Korean) companies and fly overseas. The conversation is about a built-out system for pumping out prepared specialists in fields of information technology, who Russia started to lose with unbecoming speed. Our companies today aren’t just not in a state to compete with foreign ones on salary. On the market there are very few large-scale projects that could keep talented young specialists away from fleeing the country. Besides this, people in IT, they’re a special category, with which it’s necessary to talk (and explain the essence of what’s going on) separately. But against the backdrop of the special operation, it’s as if those responsible forgot about the sector, that these guys and gals don’t watch television and don’t listen to radio. To them is needed a special approach, and presentations from high cabinets from blue screens won’t reach them. In summary, a whole sector of the economy, the most prospective and promising, preparation of personnel for which is generously financed from the budget (the Ministry of Education and Science regularly reports on increases of budgeted positions for programmers), risks ending up without them. And government resources, spent on the education of young people, go to the gain of our ideological rivals. The point of no return approaches, and if the dialogue with the industry isn’t established in short order, than Baikal processors [Wikipedia link added — KEM] and the YotaFon will remain the most important achievement of the Russian technology industry of the 21st century.
Проблема с утечкой цифровых кадров, о которой уже ранее писал Незыгарь, на фоне санкций и ограничений приобретает новый масштаб. Речь идёт теперь не только о российских студентах и перспективных разработчиках, которые сразу после побед на международных чемпионате по программированию подписывают контракты с западными (реже - корейскими) компаниями и улетают за границу. Речь об отстроенной системе по выкачиванию подготовленных специалистов в области информационных технологий, которых Россия начала терять в какой-то неприличной скоростью. Наши компании сегодня не просто не в состоянии конкурировать с иностранными по зарплате. На рынке очень мало масштабных проектов, которые могли бы удержать талантливых молодых специалистов от бегства из страны. Помимо этого, люди из IT - особая категория, с которой нужно разговаривать (и объяснять суть происходящего) отдельно. Но на фоне спецоперации ответственные за сектор как будто бы забыли, что эти парни и девушки не смотрят телевизор и не слушают радио. К ним нужен особый подход, и указания из высоких кабинетов с голубых экранов до них не доносятся. В итоге целый сектор экономики, самый перспективный и многообещающий, подготовка кадров к которому щедро финансируется из бюджета (Минобрнауки регулярно рапортует об увеличении бюджетных мест для программистов) рискует остаться ни с чем. А государственные средства, потраченные на обучение молодых людей, пойдут на благо наших идеологических соперников. Точка невозврата приближается, и если диалог с отраслью не будет налажен в ближайшее время, то процессоры Байкал и Йотафон останутся главными достижениями российской технологической отрасли в XXI веке.
With high enough commodity prices, the Putin machine never really needed a blossoming tech sector. It was just a “nice to have”. All the money it needed to pay off the security services it could get from oil, gas, and other natural resource exports, not human potential plumping up a tax base. Its mass-market tax policy has been flat or regressive for years.
World-class technical achievement had a place, but that place was in weapons or surveillance. Building guidance systems for the missiles now pounding Ukraine. Building strategic nuclear weapons now spooking NATO out of the airspace. Building means of surveillance now being used to bring cases against dissenters. Weapons to impose on nearby neighbor countries prone to color revolutions. Weapons to keep a color revolution from happening at home. Means of preserving power for those already in power.
Russians took to the streets in millions at the twilight of the USSR. And the awesome, oppressive apparatus of the security services threw up its hands and let them do it for a change. That might yet be possible again, when the long-acting effects of sanctions set in.
But meanwhile, all signs show that even wisps of rebellion—however minor—will still be brutally and publicly crushed by internal security services. As they were in Belarus. As they were in Kazakhstan.
The state is intentionally telegraphing a massive and rising personal cost of popular uprising. Even before the war, the decrepit state of the penal system, and its penchant for outright torture, were approved topics of concern in official media. They just gave Alexei Navalny, the leading independent opposition voice of Russian politics, nine more years in a “strict regime” penal colony.
That makes the bravery of activists choosing to remain in Russia even more astounding. But the talent taking flight can also play a massive role, short- and long-term, especially en masse. If we’re smart enough to take them.
Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.
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