December 2, 2022

Sapiensdigital

Sapiens Digital

Software start-up struggles to keep programmers safe in Ukraine and Russia

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That all changed at 8 a.m. on Feb. 24, when his wife shook him awake to say that Russian bombs were raining down on Ukraine.

Udodov quickly opened his company’s group chat and urged his Ukrainian programmers to head west to the safest location.

“My employees sent me a map of the aerial bombardment,” Udodov recalled in a recent interview. It showed strikes all across the country, from Lviv to Kharkiv. “They sent me this map and said, ‘There is no safe destination in Ukraine.’”

Nearly a month later, the Ukrainian employees of his start-up, Bordio, are taking cover in bomb shelters, struggling with power and Internet cuts and saying goodbye to family members as the civilian population scatters to escape Russian troops.

Two of Bordio’s Russian programmers have fled their country in alarm over Russia’s military action and the government’s increasing descent into authoritarianism, while the ones remaining in Russia are struggling to receive their paychecks amid Western banking sanctions.

Udodov, an ethnic Russian born and raised in Latvia, is desperately attempting to hold it all together.

“Today, we have six employees stuck in a country where there is war,” he said. “They can’t work productively, nor leave the country. As an employer, I can’t fire them, because it would be a disaster for them. … There is no other solution but to wait until the war is over.”

Bordio’s troubles are just one example of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is threatening the digital modernity that had taken root across much of the former Soviet Union. In the years since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Internet had become a glue that helped bind countries and people who might otherwise be divided by political tensions. Even in Russia, despite a years-long creep toward authoritarianism, young people had become accustomed to connecting with the outside world via Facebook, Instagram and other Western apps.

The digital renaissance helped some of the world’s best programmers rise above their countries’ troubled economies and find productive work at salaries far above what they would otherwise earn. There are more than a million information technology professionals in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, about a quarter of whom work for outsourcing firms that serve clients outside the region, according to Gartner, a research and consulting company.

Much of this digital network is now fracturing as Russia shuts down access to Western social media and news sites, and pummels its neighbor with a relentless bombing campaign. In interviews with The Washington Post, Bordio’s employees recounted the tumult and anguish the conflict has brought to their previously settled lives.

Vitaliy, a Bordio software designer in Ukraine’s Kherson region, was attempting to work one recent Thursday afternoon with no electricity or Internet. In recent days, two Russian helicopters had been shot out of the sky near his small town on the Black Sea, and a loud explosion was close enough to cause his empty bed to jump in the air, the 29-year-old said in a telephone interview.

For the first few days of the war, he and his girlfriend slept in their clothes in case they needed to flee. At first, Russian forces mostly rushed past their town, Skadovsk, on their way to the nearby city of Kherson, a major battleground. But then last week, Russian soldiers with a “huge amount of equipment” drove into Skadovsk and took over several seaside camps normally used for children in the summertime, said Vitaliy, who asked that he be identified only by his first name out of concern for his safety.

“They were attempting to scare people by firing in the air yesterday,” he said. Russian forces also kidnapped the local mayor and his deputy; they later released the mayor but not the deputy, Mayor Oleksandr Yakovlev said in a Facebook video.

Vitaliy and his girlfriend don’t have access to an underground bomb shelter, so when they hear explosions, they take cover in an interior room in their home, away from the windows. Dairy products and canned goods are disappearing from local shops, and all the escape routes out of town are blocked by Russian forces.

Vitaliy said he’s trying to work offline, quickly uploading his progress when the Internet sputters back to life. But overall, “I don’t even know what to do,” Vitaliy said. “I am sincerely afraid for myself and my loved ones. It’s not normal in the 21st century that people run around and shoot each other with machine guns.”

His colleague, 32-year-old Anastasiia Kvitka, tried to stay in her home in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, during the first days of the war but grew increasingly alarmed as Russian tanks and forces advanced. Then Russian shelling hit a nearby nuclear power plant, causing it to catch fire.

“It was absolutely terrifying, so I went to Dnipro,” a city about 90 minutes north, she said. She and her husband left a key with a neighbor and took only their essential belongings and their cat.

They were lucky to find a temporary apartment through friends and have been able to settle in and get some work done, but there are still aerial bombardments in Dnipro that force them to run to a bomb shelter. The Internet often cuts out, she said.

Kvitka also worries about her parents, who chose to stay behind in Zaporizhzhia.

“They don’t know how to leave their life,” she said. “They have animals. They are afraid to go.”

Udodov is himself a mix of several Eastern European cultures. He is a Latvian citizen born in Riga to ethnically Russian parents, and he spent part of his childhood in Belarus, where his father started a business selling cakes. He returned to Latvia at age 11 and went to high school in Riga before starting his first company, a digital marketing agency. In 2019, he founded Bordio, which makes software for team collaboration and project management.

As he hired developers, he looked to Russia and Ukraine because top-notch programmers there command lower salaries than their counterparts in the European Union.

The multiethnic team he built was cohesive, he said. In the first days of the war, his Russian employees in the group chat told the Ukrainians that “they are so sorry and ashamed for the actions of their country. … It was obvious that in our company no one supported the Russian invasion,” Udodov said.

Western sanctions have made it harder for Bordio to pay its employees remaining in Russia, Udodov said. In early March, he struggled to find a Western bank that would transfer funds to the Russians’ bank accounts. He finally found one that was willing after he provided paperwork showing that the transfers were allowable, but he’s not sure it will work again next month, he said.

Two of Bordio’s Russian employees chose to flee the country because of the war, Udodov said — one to Georgia and the other to the United Kingdom. Only the one in Georgia agreed to speak with a reporter as long as his last name wasn’t published.

Aleksandr, a 27-year-old from Moscow, who asked to be identified only by his first name out of fear of reprisal, said it was just coincidence that he and his wife were traveling to Georgia on vacation the day the invasion began. They quickly decided to remain there indefinitely, he said in an interview.

They spent the first few days of the war in a hotel in the capital, Tbilisi, and — knowing they weren’t going home — opened a local bank account, where he is receiving his salary. Western sanctions, and the decision by big credit card companies to sever ties with Russia, have meant his Russian bank cards no longer work, and he has lost access to his savings back home, he said.

Aleksandr said he doesn’t know how long they will stay in Georgia, but he said he hopes the war ends soon with a Ukrainian victory.

The couple found an apartment to rent, but as more fleeing Russians arrive, Georgians are growing wary of the newcomers, he said. Some Georgian banks have started denying Russians accounts, and it’s becoming harder for many to find a place to live.

“A lot of Georgians suspect a lot of them [Russians] aren’t running away from what Putin does, but that they are running away from economic sanctions,” Aleksandr said. Georgians, who suffered their own invasion by Russian troops in 2008, think some Russians “will live here and still support what is going on,” he said.

“No one likes Russians anymore. It’s just as simple as that,” he said. “Ordinary Georgians just don’t like seeing Russians, and I feel it.”

In a s
mall town in western Ukraine, another Bordio programmer, Aleksandr Pashkov, is living in a hostel with seven other people in his room. He and his family fled there on the first day of the war, after bombs started dropping on their hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and one of the first cities besieged by Russian forces.

“Even though I am a man and should treat this all steadfastly, well, that morning when I woke up to explosions in my city and went up to the second floor and saw how the missiles were flying … as my children slept … I couldn’t believe in this century that I could live this way,” he said.

They threw some belongings in their car and went to the bank and the supermarket, where panicked Ukrainians were already standing in long lines. Then they drove west for two days, not sure where they would end up, before finally landing at the hostel.

A few days ago, he said goodbye to his wife and two small children, ages 2 and 4, and sent them over the border into Poland, where they planned to catch a bus to Portugal to stay with friends. Aleksandr, 33, must remain behind because Ukraine has barred the departure of men ages 18 to 60 in case the army needs them.

Things are mostly peaceful in his part of western Ukraine, save for the constant arrival of refugees, he said. He spends his days working at cafes or on his hostel bed with his laptop on his knees.

He feels he is doing his part by remaining employed while many others lose jobs. “I develop sites, I pay taxes, I support our army … to help them buy weapons,” he said. “I know how to do this well. If they tell me I must pick up a weapon and defend my country, I will do it.”

It’s hard to focus on work, but he forces himself, he said, “because it helps clear the extraneous thoughts from my head.”

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