As I See It: Greetings, Comrade IT Professional
April 17, 2023 Victor Rozek
During the Covid pandemic a phrase was popularized and became widely used as an acknowledgement and an expression of gratitude: Essential Workers. Nurses and doctors topped the list, but it soon expanded to include many occupations previously taken for granted: farm workers, truck drivers, supermarket employees, garbage collectors, and others who were finally receiving acknowledgement for just how essential their jobs actually were. Beyond their contributions to stabilizing a shaken nation, workers became “essential” simply by virtue of the fact that their jobs could not be performed from home.
Which may be why IT professionals didn’t make the list. Regardless of their essential contribution to the continued functioning of society, they remained largely invisible, many able to work remotely, further cementing their anonymity.
Whether here or abroad, IT remains central to the success, if not outright survival, of any nation. But while working remotely was a matter of safety and convenience in the United States, for many Russian IT professionals, location anonymity has become a matter of life and death.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent conscription efforts, tens of thousands of draft-eligible men fled the country. Among them, thousands of critical IT professionals essential not only to the war effort but to the Russian financial sector maneuvering through a minefield of Western sanctions. Of those who left the country, a substantial number continued working remotely from abroad – at least until the government began catching on.
There’s been enough of an IT brain drain that Russian authorities are trying to coax IT professionals home with a mix of sticks and carrots. Since Russia has become a sociopathic dictatorship, sticks are the first and preferred option. However, the prospect of losing one’s job pales in comparison to losing one’s life, so the threat of unemployment has limited motivational value.
Sberbank is a Russian majority state-owned banking and financial services company headquartered in Moscow. Mary Ilyushina, writing for The Washington Post, reports that each morning one of its employees logs into the company system promptly at 8 a.m. Normally, there would be nothing unusual in that, except for the fact that it’s noon where this employee happens to be, which is in the tropical climes of Southeast Asia.
Should the company become suspicious and check on his whereabouts, prying eyes would only see “a reprogrammed router blinking in the corner, which always assigns his laptop a Russian IP address” to trick potential surveillance into believing he is home sipping borscht in Mother Russia. Thus, he straddles the grim reality of an otherwise impossible situation: he remains available to the bank, but not the recruitment office.
On the carrot side of retention strategy, Ilyushina reports that Russia offered incentives to IT professionals in the form of “lower income taxes and mortgage interest rates.” But to no avail. As the war ramped up, so did the rate of departures. Many of those who worked from home as a pandemic precaution, continued to do so, but “from several time zones away.”
Some companies responded by banning remote work outside the country. But at least one, Yandex, a Google knockoff and one of Russia’s biggest Internet successes, decided to build offices in foreign countries in order to stem the loss of IT talent. Thousands of employees took advantage of that opportunity.
This retention strategy may have been successful, but the optics were not. Putin had labeled anybody who fled the country as “traitors” and “scum.” Which meant the stick strategy was back in play. Ilyushina reports that officials began plotting retaliatory measures “including stripping ‘unpatriotic’ Russians of citizenship, designating them as foreign agents or seizing their property in Russia and giving it to soldiers.”
Other punitive measures included raising the tax rate for remote workers or outright bans on the practice for “sensitive industries” in the name of national security. Saner minds argued that disenfranchising IT workers will only make Russia less innovative and less competitive. IT skills, after all, are globally marketable, so expats should have little trouble finding work abroad. Besides, all the threats being considered could easily be applied the moment remote workers returned home. And they, no doubt, knew that.
One government ministry claimed it was working on a “reverse relocation” plan which included “offering prepaid flights home and deferrals from military conscription.” A spokesman explained: “They must understand that they have nothing to fear.” In a country where billionaire oligarchs who criticize the war routinely fall to their death from windows, that’s a tough sell.
To be sure, Russia is in no immediate danger of suffering a crippling IT shortage. Such potent groups as the government hacking cabal Sandworm, which is believed to have launched NotPetya, the most economically destructive malware in history, remains a concern. More recently, Sandworm has also been accused of twice causing power blackouts in Ukraine. Russian intelligence maintains a huge presence on social media and few would deny its ability to wage cyber warfare. Still, an estimated 10 percent of Russia’s IT professionals have chosen to leave the country. And that’s not insignificant.
In a world filled with uncertainty, one thing is clear: Wars are full of unintended consequences. They are easy to start and notoriously difficult to end. And, as the war drags on, Russia loses more and more of its best and brightest.
There is an old Cold War era joke about an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Russian having dinner together. Over brandy, the conversation turns to happiness with each person describing their individual notion of what happiness looks like to them. The Englishman ponders for a moment then says: “I should think it’s rather basic. Sitting by the fire in my favorite chair, with a cup of tea, a good book, and my dog sleeping at my feet.” The Frenchman does not hesitate. “Pour moi, it must be ze fine wine, ze haute cuisine, and of course, l’amour.” At which point, all eyes turn to the Russian. “For me,” he says, “it iz wery simple. I am home sitting at my table, reading editorial from Pravda with my grandson on my knee. Suddenly there iz loud angry knock on door. Voice says are you Ivan Ivonovich? No, I say, he lives upstairs. That is my idea of happiness.”
If the plight of IT professionals is any measure, Russian life has not substantially changed in the ensuing 75 years.
“In a world filled with uncertainty, one thing is clear”…. that we need to have all the source code 😉 the i way 😉
Regarding “Essential Workers”… I hated “hero” rethoric during covid times… As once wiser once said, “Happy is the people who need no heroes”.
And related to ICT: some people needs to maintain datacenters, fix problems, run cables, what is more real and physical than that? 😉
“Since Russia has become a sociopathic dictatorship…” hmmm… sure? Well yes, no more than USA or EU for that matter, the world is an lunatic asylum, just choose your illness…. for USA, a place where 2 millions of people are in prison (one of the highest in the world), and calls itself “land of the free”, and lost youngs in unnecessary wars around the world, but call out Russian for invasion, I would pick “bipolar”.
“In war the first victim is the Truth”….