Russian-speaking technologists rebuild their lives in a San Francisco home

Over the past five years, Andrey Doronichev has shared his four-story town house with nearly 100 entrepreneurs, investors and other aspiring technologists from countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

Because they spoke Russian, they thought they had a private key that could unlock resources most Silicon Valley technologists could not. As investors, they had the inside track on startups in Kyiv. As entrepreneurs, they could hire engineers in Moscow or raise money from a network of Russian-speaking investors across Asia, Europe and the United States.

But after Russia invaded Ukraine, most of that was gone. Some of it may never return.

“Language tied us together across borders. It gave us benefits no one else had. It was like a secret passage into a larger world of smart people,” said Doronichev, 39, who was born, raised and educated in Moscow before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. “But the war broke so many of those ties.”

Doronichev and his housemates are among the hundreds of Russian-speaking technologists working in the Bay Area who are struggling to rebuild their personal and professional lives after the invasion of Ukraine. Some are from Ukraine. Others are from Belarus or Kazakhstan. Still more are from Russia.

Most are against the war, aligning themselves more with the Western world and the openness they see on the internet than with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. They are wondering what, if anything, they can do to help friends, family and colleagues on the other side of the world, even as they scramble to keep their own careers afloat.

They hoped to create a community of Russian speakers across the globe who could bootstrap new technologies, companies and products for an open internet — an internet that lets anyone communicate with anyone else across borders. But ties are breaking in two key countries: Ukraine and Russia.

Ukraine’s tech ecosystem is under siege. The entire Ukrainian economy could shrink more than 40% this year, according to the World Bank.

After foreign governments imposed sanctions on Russia and many American and European companies barred access to banking and internet services, the Russian tech industry is all but cut off from the rest of the world. Tens of thousands of tech professionals are now fleeing the country, unable or unwilling to work behind the curtain.

Doronichev takes pride in his heritage. During the coronavirus pandemic, he built a traditional Russian sauna, or banya, in the basement of his town house. “We sit around hitting each other with tree branches,” he likes to joke. But he is loath to support the Russian economy.

Doronichev and his housemates are unwilling to work with anyone who remains in the country. He also knows that if he keeps employees in the country, he cannot speak out against Putin or the war, for fear those employees will be targeted by the Russian government. “Any employee you have in Russia is a hostage,” he said. “They prevent you from speaking your mind.”

Doronichev left Russia in 2006 after selling a startup that let people buy ringtones via text message. He soon joined a Google engineering office in Dublin, where he helped build YouTube’s first smartphone app.

After taking a new job at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, working on technologies like virtual reality and online gaming, he bought a town house in San Francisco, not far from the city’s Golden Gate Park.

One of the walls was buckling. Water was leaking through the roof and into the light fixtures four floors below. But in one of country’s most expensive housing markets, it was a steal at $2.4 million.

After renovating the tall, slim, 110-year-old urban home, he and his wife, Tania, moved into the top floor while renting the floors below.

In 2015, the Doronichevs returned from Burning Man, the annual festival in the Nevada desert that has become a summer gathering place for the tech industry. They had just spent nine days living in close quarters with friends and colleagues, and they resolved to live much the same way all year long. So they began renting rooms to people they knew.

Their town house — a gray stucco building with a multicolored hummingbird painted on the garage door — quickly became a hub for technologists from the same part of the world as Doronichev.

It was a community united by language, not by nationality. It welcomed immigrants from Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia as well as Russia.

They called it DobryDom. “Dobry” is Doronichev’s childhood nickname and frequent online handle. “Dom” is the Russian word for house. But for those who lived there, the name took on a new meaning. Dobry is also the Russian word for good, fair or kind.

“Living there is productive,” said Pasha Podolyanko, 32, a Ukrainian investor and entrepreneur who lives on the second floor. “It is a place where you can ask questions.”

Walking up and down an outdoor staircase in the backyard, Doronichev and his housemates move in and out of each flat without knocking. They hold group breakfasts in the mornings, serving blinis, crepes and toast. Now that Doronichev’s mother has moved into the basement next to the banya — an area he calls “Little Russia” — she offers homemade borscht and olivier salad, a Russian potato salad, for lunch or dinner.

Borscht, Doronichev points out, is a Ukrainian dish. And when they barbecue in the backyard, he adds, they grill like most Americans: steaks, burgers, chicken wings.

As dozens of people moved in and out of the house over the years, the community expanded into the two houses on either side of DobryDom. All three buildings — and the wider group of people who have left DobryDom for other parts of San Francisco — are united by an online chat group.

During the pandemic, Doronichev became a celebrity among the global community of Russian-speaking technologists when he and DobryDom appeared in an online documentary by the Russian journalist Yury Dud. On Instagram, Doronichev’s audience swelled to more than 350,000 people, as he opened in Russian about the art of building new technologies, companies and products.

He soon founded a nonprofit social network for called Mesto — the Russian entrepreneurs word for place — hoping to boost the startup market in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

As he launched a new startup of his own, Duplicat, which aims to identify fraud in the market for non-fungible tokens, he contracted with a team of artificial intelligence engineers spread across Russia.

He also invested in several Ukrainian startups. One of them was Reface, an AI company recommended by Podolyanko. Last summer, as they met with other companies and colleagues in Kyiv, the two of them attended a boat party whose hosts were a group of Ukrainian technologists and investors. Podolyanko brought his girlfriend, a Ukrainian financial analyst named Stacy Antipova.

It was a trip they now look back on with rueful affection. Russia invaded six months later.

After the invasion, Antipova fled Ukraine and flew to Tijuana, Mexico, where she could cross into the United States as a refugee. She now lives at DobryDom. “When I went down for breakfast the first time,” Doronichev remembered, “I did not know what to say.”

Sitting in the backyard alongside her new housemates on a recent afternoon, Antipova was also unsure what to say. “I did not plan to move so far away so soon,” she said. “I am just trying to fix my life, to understand what I want to do, because I left the rest of my life behind.”

Across the table, Dasha Kroshkina, another Russian-born entrepreneur, explained that she was working to move employees out of both Russia and Ukraine and scrambling to restart her company’s service, StudyFree, in Africa and India. When the war began, many of its customers — students looking for scholarships and grants at universities abroad — were in Russia.

“We all feel traumatic,” said Mikita Mikado, another DobryDom housemate, who immigrated from Belarus. “But the trauma is different for each one of us.”

Mikado and Doronichev are now working to move their own employees out of Russia and into European and Asian countries accepting Russian citizens without visas, but not all are willing or able to leave. The two entrepreneurs will cut ties with anyone who stays.

Mikado also employed engineers in Ukraine. They are much harder to move out of the country, in part because many are required to stay for military service and many others are reluctant to leave their families. But in that instance, those unwilling or unable to leave can remain on the payroll, despite the strain this puts on a young startup.

“It is only natural for a business to slow down when people have to hide from bombs,” Mikado said.

As many other tech workers flee both Russia and Ukraine, there is a new pool of available talent. But the entrepreneurs at DobryDom have a new rule: They only hire people who oppose the war.

“You would be surprised how many people are willing to talk about their views without you even asking,” said George Surovtsev, an ethnic Russian who was born in Kazakhstan, moved to San Francisco, and is now struggling to relocate engineers he had hired in Ukraine.

As these entrepreneurs raise money for new startups, the calculus is different. Customers, banks, other business partners and government agencies are wary of any Russian investments — not just investments from people and companies on sanctions list. They must be careful of even small ties back to the country. This was true even of Doronichev, an American citizen, as he recently raised funds for Duplicat.

“For all my love for the Russian community — for all my connections — I did not raise a dime from Russian investors, whether they were in Russia or they were Russian nationals living in America,” he said. “Building new technology is hard enough without taking that money.”

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