I work closely with colleagues in both Ukraine and Russia and have spent the past weeks following their stories and hearing about the situations they are dealing with. Their experiences in the two countries are completely different but the similarity is their daily life is upended through no fault of their own. It’s been so sad to hear from people I’ve worked with for years deal with this horrible situation and so strange to hear about it from both sides of the border.
I work in IT for Novartis Pharmaceuticals and while many of my Novartis colleagues are in the US and Switzerland, many other coworkers are contractors working for outsourcing partners in India, Russia, and Ukraine. Those three countries (along with a few others including Poland and Brazil) are well-known in the tech world for having a large number of highly-qualified, English-speaking IT professionals. I have been working with colleagues in India for over a decade, in Russia for the past 5 years, and in Ukraine for the past 3 years. I’ve learned a lot about daily life in their home countries and one of things that I love about my job is getting to work with people from many different backgrounds.
So far, everyone I know is safe. And amazingly they have all continued to work the past weeks. They say they find work a distraction from life outside and they want to maintain as much of a sense of normalcy as possible. None of the six people I work with in Ukraine have taken up arms in the fight, but all have stayed in the country. They were living different parts of the country: 3 in Kyiv, 2 in Odessa, and 1 in Lviv. Two of those from Kiev were able to evacuate to the western part of the country in the first days of the war. One person is still in Kyiv and he has said that his area of the city is safe, and that Kyiv isn’t necessarily more dangerous at this point than elsewhere. He has heard explosions in the distance but so far has continued to live his life. The others closer to the border are far from the bombing but each week it gets closer.
One of things that’s hard to remember from following news reports is that Ukraine is huge; it’s about the size (and population) of Texas. So even though we hear about attacks in one place, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everywhere is imminently in danger. It’s the equivalent to an attack in Houston that wouldn’t directly affect people in Dallas – although it’s certainly still scary to have attacks happening anywhere.
I’ve heard from them how much their view of President Zelenskyy has changed; they were a little hesitant about this comedic actor they had elected until the war started and he turned into an amazing war-time leader. The cover story in Time magazine said “It was as if Charlie Chaplin had morphed into Winston Churchill” which seemed to fit the reactions I heard.
I’ve heard anger and frustration but not fear (although I’m sure it’s there). They appreciate the moral support from America and the rest of Europe but they’re worried it won’t be enough. It hasn’t yet been a month since the invasion began and they are hopeful there will be an end soon but they are realistic that this may go on for a long time. I am so impressed by what I see on the news of Ukrainian citizens standing up for their country and I am so impressed by my colleagues’ ability to continue on in face of an invasion.
On the Russian side, the overwhelming attitude is outrage and disbelief that Putin has led them into this war. The Russian colleagues I work with are horrified at what their government has done and have a sense that their way of life will be affected for years and maybe decades. Most of the people I work with are in St Petersburg which is a very cosmopolitan city and is closer to European neighbors Finland and Estonia than the heartland of Russia. And yet they are now being forced to choose whether to stay in their homeland or leave to keep working.
In addition to most consumer-facing companies pulling out of Russia, many clients of large IT services are also pulling back. Novartis has not made a decision yet, but I expect that we will officially stop working with contractors based in Russia. In preparation for that, their employer is trying to get as many Russia-based employees out of the country. The first offer was a 4-week “business trip” to one of a handful of countries where they could easily travel without a visa (including Turkey, Montenegro, Armenia, Georgia, Serbia). At first it was a suggestion that anyone who could leave do so, but a week later it changed to a recommendation, and in the coming months it will become a company mandate.
Colleagues are having to choose whether to leave or not. Some have children in school, others have pets who are not allowed to travel. Some own homes with mortgages, some do not have valid passports. All have family and friends who do not work for a company offering to support a relocation. They are torn, knowing that a trip to a foreign country for work could turn into an unplanned emigration outside their control.
It is starting to feel like a diaspora of Russian colleagues as they end up in Tbisili, Georgia; Yerevan, Armenia, and other nearby cities. The reception they experience has been generally positive – I certainly hope locals continue to be hospitable and are able to separate the actions of the Russian government from the attitudes of individual Russians who are fleeing. I hope that Americans are also able to do this, but knowing many Americans’ inability to understand nuance I am not optimistic.
The Ukrainians are fleeing for their physical safety which is much harsher and scarier than Russians fleeing for professional and economic stability. There is no way to compare Russians having to wait in 10+ hour queues at passports agencies to Ukrainians frantically packing bags for unknown destinations, one is an inconvenience, the other is life-threatening.
But once the war is over (hopefully soon, but I’m not optimistic), Ukrainians will have a country to go back to. They will be welcomed back to the developed world – especially the tech world – and while there will be physical and emotional rebuilding, they will have a future in their country. The Russians are realizing that they may be ostracized from the world in a way unimaginable a month ago.
I worry that Russia will be the next North Korea, cut off from the rest of the world and not a place that we even consider doing business with. The Russian IT industry which provided good jobs for my colleagues and hundreds of thousands of others may disappear. Even though their country was not physically affected by bombs, it may not be a place they can return to. Or if they return, their future will be very different than what, until so very recently, they expected. The hardest part is having experienced freedoms and then having them taken away. IT professionals in China have grown up under a strict, authoritarian regime and have never experienced anything different. But colleagues in Russia have seen a more open future and then had it taken away.
I grew up at the end of the Cold War when Russians were still the bad guys. I had assumed that my kids were going to grow up thinking of Russia as just a large country on the other side of the world, maybe a place their dad went on a business trip someday. I now worry their generation will continue to think of Russians as scary and “other”. This stand-up comedy bit about using a Russian accent to sound scary was a lot funnier a month ago and now makes me sad that this will continue for another generation.
I have to qualify all of my personal experiences knowing that I have contact with only a handful of individuals who are are fluent English-speakers in professional jobs. They certainly do not represent the vast majority of people in either country. But, especially in Russia, because of their language and technical proficiency they have access to western media and are able to learn more than just what the Russian state media feeds them.
And after our American experience with Trump, I find I have more sympathy for Russians under Putin than I would have before. Fortunately Trump was only in power for four years, but I have little doubt that if he amassed power over decades he would have tried to lead this country into unprovoked wars. It’s also scary how similar this month feels to the start of World War II. The muted reaction to much of Europe in 1939 (and in 1914) seem a lot more understandable to me now. I just don’t see how this ends soon or without a significant increase in loss of lives. I really hope I’m wrong and there is a way this can go back to peace soon.
I worry about my colleagues, I worry about their countries, and I worry for the state of the world. But I try to continue to support those on both sides of the border.
I have asked colleagues about ways to help support them and they have said they are much better off than many in their countries and they recommended to give to charities that are supporting the people in Ukraine so here is a link to a list from NPR of Recommended Organizations
One note on language, the country is “Ukraine” and to refer to it as “The Ukraine” is outdated and disrespectful. Many of us grew up hearing of it as “The Ukraine” but that is a Soviet-era relic and that implies it is just a region (e.g. “The Midwest”, “The South”, “The Midlands”). For more information on why language matters and the difference between Ukrainian and Russian, I recommend this blog post from Duolingo.
And if I learned one thing during the pandemic it’s that pictures of puppies can help during times of stress and anxiety. So here is a picture of Daisy with our friends’ dog friend Nelly, a 3-month old Double Doodle who reminds us a lot of Daisy a couple years ago
Thank you very much Peter for this profound, tactful and very sympathetic article!
That’s painful to see how people in Ukraine have to overcome the tragedy day by day.
And the most painful is to understand that real people with their own thoughts, expectations, plans for the future are sustaining injuries, bleeding and dying right now.
I think the article is a great snapshot of a current insane time.
Keep writing! However, hopefully, one day we all read articles only about puppies and cats.
Two updates to share:
1. I read this article from the New Yorker on this similar topic. Theirs is (obviously) better written (and longer too) and it was interesting to get a broader perspective:
2. I learned that my great-grandfather grew up in Horodenka, Ukraine so in addition to professional connections I have family ties to the country too