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

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Everything changed at 8 a.m. on February 24, when his wife shook him to tell him 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 place.

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

Almost a month later, the Ukrainian employees of his start-up, bordiohide in bomb shelters, fight power and internet cuts, and say goodbye to family members as the civilian population disperses to escape Russian troops.

Two of Bordio’s Russian programmers fled their country alarmed by Russia’s military action and the government’s growing descent into authoritarianism, while those who remained in Russia struggle to receive their paychecks amid the Western banking sanctions.

Udodov, an ethnic Russian born and raised in Latvia, is desperately trying to hold everything together.

“Today we have six employees stranded in a country where there is war,” he said. “They cannot work productively or leave the country. As an employer, I cannot dismiss them, because it would be a disaster for them. … There is no other solution than to wait until the end of the war.

Bordio’s problems are just one example of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens the digital modernity that had taken root in much of the former Soviet Union. In the years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the internet has become a glue that has helped bind countries and people together that might otherwise be divided by political tension. Even in Russia, despite a years-long slide into authoritarianism, young people had grown accustomed to connecting with the outside world through Facebook, Instagram and other Western apps.

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

Much of that digital network is now fracturing as Russia shuts down access to Western social media and news sites, and hits its neighbor with an unrelenting bombing campaign. In interviews with The Washington Post, Bordio employees recounted the turmoil and anguish the conflict brought to their previously settled lives.

Vitaliy, a Bordio software designer in Ukraine’s Kherson region, was trying to work on a recent Thursday afternoon without electricity or the internet. In recent days, two Russian helicopters were shot down near his small town on the Black Sea, and a loud explosion was close enough to blow his empty bed into the air, the 29-year-old said in an interview. telephone.

During the early days of the war, he and his girlfriend slept in their clothes in case they needed to flee. At first, the Russian forces mostly rushed past their town, Skadovsk, en route to the nearby town of Kherson, a major battlefield. But last week Russian soldiers with a “huge amount of equipment” arrived in Skadovsk and took over several seaside camps normally used for children in the summer, said Vitaliy, who asked to be identified only by his first name for the sake of his safety.

“They tried to scare people by shooting in the air yesterday,” he said. Russian forces also abducted the local mayor and his deputy; they then released the mayor but not the deputy, Mayor Oleksandr Yakovlev said in a Facebook video.

Vitaliy and his girlfriend do not have access to an underground bomb shelter, so when they hear explosions, they take refuge in an interior room of their house, away from the windows. Dairy products and canned goods disappear from local stores and all escape routes out of town are blocked by Russian forces.

Vitaliy said he tries to work offline, quickly uploading his progress when the internet comes alive. But overall, “I don’t even know what to do,” Vitaliy said. “I genuinely fear for myself and my loved ones. It’s not normal in the 21st century for people to run around and shoot each other with machine guns.

His colleague, Anastasiia Kvitka, 32, tried to stay at her home in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, during the early days of the war, but grew increasingly alarmed as tanks and Russian forces advanced. Then Russian bombing hit a nearby nuclear power plant, causing it to burn.

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

They were lucky enough to find a temporary apartment through friends and were able to settle down and work, but there is still aerial bombardment in Dnipro forcing them to run to a bomb shelter. The internet is often down, she says.

Kvitka is also worried about her parents, who have chosen to stay in Zaporizhzhia.

“They don’t know how to leave their lives,” she says. “They have animals. They are afraid to go there. »

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

When hiring developers, he looked to Russia and Ukraine, as top-notch programmers earn lower salaries there than their counterparts in the European Union.

The multi-ethnic team he built was cohesive, he said. In the early days of the war, its Russian employees in group chat told Ukrainians that “they are so sorry and ashamed of their country’s actions. … 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 who remained in Russia, Udodov said. In early March, he struggled to find a Western bank that would transfer funds to Russians’ bank accounts. He eventually found one that was ready after providing documents showing the transfers were allowed, 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 UK. Only the one from Georgia agreed to speak to a reporter until his last name was published.

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

They spent the first days of the war in a hotel in the capital, Tbilisi, and – knowing that they were not going home – opened a local bank account, from which he draws his salary. Western sanctions and the decision of major credit card companies to sever ties with Russia meant that his Russian bank cards no longer worked and he lost access to his savings at home, he said. declared.

Aleksandr said he didn’t know how long they would stay in Georgia, but he said he hoped the war would soon end with a Ukrainian victory.

The couple have found an apartment to rent, but as more and more fleeing Russians arrive, Georgians are increasingly wary of new arrivals, he said. Some Georgian banks have started refusing accounts from Russians, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for many to find accommodation.

“Many Georgians suspect many of them [Russians] don’t run away from what Putin is doing, but run away from economic sanctions,” Aleksandr said. Georgians, who suffered their own invasion by Russian troops in 2008, believe that some Russians “will live here and always support what is happening”, he said.

“Nobody likes Russians anymore. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “Ordinary Georgians just don’t like to see Russians, and I can feel it.”

In a small town in western Ukraine, another Bordio programmer, Aleksandr Pashkov, lives 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 began falling on their hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and one of the first cities besieged by the forces. Russians.

“Even though I am a man and should deal with all of this firmly, well, that morning when I woke up to explosions in my town and walked up to the second floor and saw how the missiles were flying…while my children were sleeping…I could ‘I don’t believe in this century that I could live this way,’ he said.

They threw some belongings in their car and drove to the bank and supermarket, where panicked Ukrainians were already queuing. Then they drove west for two days, not knowing where they would end up, before finally landing at the inn.

A few days ago he said goodbye to his wife and two young children, aged 2 and 4, and sent them across the border to Poland, where they planned to catch a bus for Portugal to stay with friends. Aleksandr, 33, must stay put because Ukraine has banned the departure of men aged 18 to 60 in case the army needs them.

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

He feels he is doing his part by staying employed while many others lose their jobs. “I develop sites, I pay taxes, I support our army…to help them buy weapons,” he said. “I know how to do that. If they tell me I have to take a gun and defend my country, I will.

It’s hard to concentrate on work, but he forces himself, he says, “because it helps get the superfluous thoughts out of my head.”

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