As War Rages In Ukraine, Many Russians Are Starting New Lives In Armenia

YEREVAN — Artyom Yemelyanov is one of thousands of information technology workers who left their homes in Russia and moved to Armenia after the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

The 32-year-old programmer from Yekaterinburg in central Russia says the war that Russia unleashed against its neighbor on February 24 put many free-thinking people like himself between a rock and a hard place.

“Free-thinking people are not wanted in Russia, but abroad all Russians are considered aggressors,” says Yemelyanov, who sports a full beard and a Salvador Dali mustache. “If I had not left, later that opportunity might have closed for me,” Yemelyanov told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “If a person is smart and skillful enough, he will find a job. [Free-thinking] people are just fleeing from [Russia].”

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government, now facing sustained opposition protests, has tried to maintain a neutral position and keep a low profile with regards to the war in Ukraine. Armenia abstained from voting on a UN General Assembly resolution that deplored in the strongest terms Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Armenia, where many people speak Russian as a second language, has a visa-free regime with Russia and shares the same labor space as a part of the Eurasian Economic Union. Russians, many of whom are feeling the effects of unprecedented Western sanctions, are allowed to enter Armenia and stay for up to 180 days just on the basis of their Russian identity documents.

The Armenian government on May 23 reported a nearly 50 percent surge in the number of officially registered workers in Armenia’s IT sector, which appears to reflect a recent influx of skilled migrants from Russia.

Government data revealed by Economy Minister Vahan Kerobian shows that local software development firms employed 20,000 people as of the end of April, up from about 13,500 from a year earlier.

According to the Armenian authorities, 268 Russian citizens registered firms while another 938 received official status as an individual entrepreneur from February 24 through March 22. About 27,000 Russians and other foreigners opened Armenian bank accounts during the same period.

Sanctions imposed on Russia include measures aimed at restricting Russia’s access to high technology and complicating Russian companies’ financial transactions abroad.

But people like Yemelyanov say they chose Armenia not only for its convenience in terms of traveling and paperwork but also because they felt it was more welcoming in terms of people’s attitudes. The programmer says that he briefly tried to stay in neighboring Georgia, which itself has strained relations with Russia over its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but he felt a negative attitude toward him as a Russian and decided to go to Armenia.

Yemelyanov says he easily registered as an individual entrepreneur and now plans with partners to open a co-working space in Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city that incidentally hosts a Russian military base.

“We’ll get our place refurbished with furniture, the Internet, printers, and copying machines so that people can work in a good environment. The opening will probably be next week,” says Yemelyanov.

Yemelyanov says he does not want to sever ties with Russia entirely, since he has parents, relatives, and friends there, but he still does not want to return to his home country yet.

The programmer, who was born in Ukraine, recounts his recent experience with Russian security services at the border.

“I had to travel back to Russia to put my house up for sale there. When I was returning, I was questioned by a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer,” he says.

“I decided not to hide anything and wrote that the reason for my traveling to Armenia was that I wanted to work there. They asked what I did, and I said that I was a programmer. My birthplace is the Ukrainian [Soviet Socialist Republic]. I was born in Ukraine and now I am going to Armenia to work. An FSB officer kept asking me stupid questions for 20 minutes. I felt ill at ease. I hadn’t experienced anything like that before.”

“It is unbearably difficult for free-thinking people to be in Russia. Any idea that goes against the policies of the authorities is severely punished,” Yemelyanov says. “You can be considered a foreign spy if your salary is from abroad, and you can be held responsible.”

Whatever dispute there was between Moscow and Kyiv, things should have been settled diplomatically and not militarily, he says.

“Relations had already been tense, and now there is an abyss between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. Now the whole world thinks that Russia is an aggressor like Germany was in 1939. I don’t know how we are going to get out of this,” Yemelyanov says.

Satenik Kaghzvantsyan is a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Armenian Service based in Gyumri