Russia’s IT exodus and the Kremlin’s futile efforts to reverse it

The Bell

  • In late December, the Ministry of Communications said about 10% of the IT workforce left the country in 2022 and did not return. That’s more than 100,000 people. One source close to the ministry told The Bell that 35,000 fled in the spring after Russia invaded Ukraine. Then a further 70,000 to 80,000 left in September when “partial mobilization” was announced. During the first wave of emigration, men and women left in roughly equal numbers. However, in the second wave, men outnumbered women two to one.
  • Data from independent observers suggests the official figures are not an exaggeration. For example, researchers in Austria looked at emigration rates among open source developers using GitHub user metadata. They reported that, by Oct. 2022, 13.2% of programmers from Russia had changed their home country in their profiles and a further 13.2% had deleted references to Russia. That’s several times greater than equivalent figures for programmers elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
  • The same data also shows the most popular destinations for Russian IT experts. The biggest group, more than 10%, went to the United States. Then came Germany (7.6%), Georgia (6.2%), the Netherlands (5.3%) and Armenia (4.7%). It’s striking that, after two waves of emigration, the number of GitHub users in Georgia is up 94% and in Armenia it’s up 41%. These two South Caucasus countries are major beneficiaries from Russian emigration – in 2022, their GDP enjoyed a double digit increase thanks to an influx of well-paid and highly-qualified Russians.
  • Those in the first wave tended to go to countries where Russians do not need visas. The top five destinations were: Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Serbia and Kazakhstan. Now, however, Russian IT migration is splitting into two segments. Most rank-and-file employees are sticking to visa-free countries, but company owners are heading to destinations like Cyprus, the UAE, the U.S. and EU countries.
  • Meanwhile, the Russian authorities are still keen to bring IT experts home. Parliament is currently debating a new package of measures, including the carrots of guaranteed exemption from military service and free flights to Russia, plus the stick of increased income taxes if people remain abroad. However, neither recruitment agencies, nor any of the IT staff who spoke to The Bell, have much confidence that these measures will be a success.
  • Russian companies are finding it increasingly difficult to hire IT staff, according to recruiters. For example, in the fall, Diana Dmitrieva, a careers consultant with online university Skypro said that the Russian market is seriously lacking in candidates at middle and senior levels. Sources in the Human Resources sector told The Bell that, in particular, banks and IT companies were finding it harder to recruit qualified staff.

Why the world should care

The brain drain is one of the most difficult and irreversible problems Russia faces as a result of the Ukraine war. Despite the government’s efforts, each passing month makes it less and less likely that the programmers who have left Russia will ever return.

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