“I was hoping to wake up and everything was back to COVID times.”
That sentence weighs on me as I continue chatting with Russian artist and game dev Mariya. COVID has caused a seismic shift in what “living” means for just about everyone over the past few years – yet it pales in comparison to what millions are suffering through across eastern Europe.
It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae when it comes to war. Dictators and freedom fighters; numbers and statistics; ground gained and taken away.
But at the heart of all conflict is people. Soldiers. Civilians. Families. Human beings, struggling to do the one thing most of us take for granted: live.
Many words have been justifiably written about the horrors Ukrainian citizens have suffered at the hands of Russia’s war on their beloved country. This story is about those living under the regime causing the chaos and despair of the innocent; the game developers opposed to their country’s thirst for violence — many of which have uprooted their lives entirely, lest they be forced into a war they have never believed in.
Ukraine’s swift advance in retaking swaths of its homeland this August prompted Russia to decree a “partial mobilisation” — a drafting of anywhere between 300,000 and 1,000,000 troops — in which ethnic minorities may be disproportionately affected, alongside protesters in Moscow being drafted on arrest.
Mariya — or Xand, as she is known in development circles and on Twitter — is a longtime artist working in game dev. Prior to the war, her and her husband Renemaro had been working on a prototype for Scarlet Tale – their action RPG passion project.
Note: while some of the people we have talked to for this article, such as Mariya, are referred to by their real names, others — particularly those still in Russia — requested we use pseudonyms for their safety. Quotes in this piece have been lightly edited post-translation for readability.
“We invested all of our savings into Scarlet Tale, and when the war started, we were still a few months away from finishing a solid vertical slice. So from February, our game dev became a matter of survival. We finished a slice within a month and started to pitch to publishers.
But finding funds was going rough. We were afraid to name a country of origin. Banks were blocked at this point, and most of the Russian game community had already fled. So in the end we end up with $0 in our hands, and a prototype we cannot sell.”
In the face of social upheaval from the war, their game dev dreams were quickly shelved. Though they were immediately against Russia’s so-called “special operation”, it quickly became obvious that their lives had forever changed.
“In February I was in deep horror… Renemaro and I went to a protest and saw well-armed men in full armour with helmets and weapons beating students. I quickly went from feeling angry and sad, to hopeless. We are both thin geeks, not fighters; so, we got to work on our evacuation plan.” It was already clear they needed to leave – and soon.
“Before the war started, we were thinking of finding a publisher and moving to Poland. Now, due to the war, we have found ourselves in Serbia instead.” This situation, however, is tenuous.
“Serbia is a politically complex Balkan country. People with a Russian passport can be here for 30 days and then they must leave. But, you can return back immediately after “leaving” and your 30-day visa will be renewed. Of course, it’s better to have a long-term visa for a year. There are many ways to get it, including if you have a full-time job. With a Serbian long-term visa, I can stay or ask for a visa for another country. We don’t yet know what to do and what county we want to call our new home.”
Even though the pair had made it out of the country, things hadn’t exactly been simple — they faced discrimination on all sides, thanks to their Russian heritage.
“We received a giant amount of hate from everywhere. Some Russians called us traitors, and all others called us killers. So at this point, we stopped doing anything except drinking alcohol and looking for work.”
But, thanks to making the decision to leave right from the beginning of the war, Mariya and Renemaro had at the very least, escaped. “We made it just one week before the mobilisation announcement,” Mariya said.
Mariya’s account is but one of many stories Russian developers have shared with me, all struggling to simply live their lives. For those that waited until after mobilisation was announced, the task of leaving the country they once called home would become much harder, very quickly.
Ivan knew from the beginning of the war that he wanted to leave Russia, but with a wife and child to take care of, it wasn’t as simple as uprooting everything and going. But when potentially being forced into fighting in the war became a real possibility, he knew he had to do something immediately.
“I had wanted to leave Russia since February 24th, but I needed money so that I could leave with my family. I was extremely against the actions of my government. I do not want to be drafted to fight. And, to be honest, I’m struggling to focus on work, because with every day that passes, I get more anxious that something even worse could happen.”
He set his sights on Kazakhstan. Bordering Russia’s southwest, the region quickly saw an influx of Russians all trying to do the same thing: flee.
“I arrived in Kazakhstan first by bus to the border town and crossed the border by taxi. I luckily didn’t have any problems, except that we were stuck in traffic for about 3 hours.” However, simply crossing the border is not enough.
“The main problem is that I entered Kazakhstan using my internal Russian passport. I just don’t have a foreign passport, and I really need it to open a bank account here and generally stay legally for more than 90 days. I was hoping to get it at the Russian consulate in Kazakhstan, but there is now a very large queue just for filing documents.”
That same day, Urgatoff gathered up some clothes and his laptop, then left immediately with his roommate — also en route to Kazakhstan.
“I took only what I would need in the next 2-3 weeks — I only have a backpack with me – so I travel light. I didn’t have an apartment and lived away from my parents, so I could get away quickly.”
The two of them scored an apartment to rent for a week — time to take a breath, then decide what to do next. But news of the mobilisation spread quickly, which put Urgatoff in a tough spot.
“On the third day, the owner came and said we would have to pay four times what we originally paid or leave.” The owner had caught wind of the influx of people and wasn’t about to miss out on some… inflated prices.
“We were some of the first people in the city. I guess they did that because they saw an opportunity to get more money, and were mad because they lost the opportunity to ask for more. We didn’t pay, but we had to get out. I was sick, so the owner at least gave us one more night. The owner tried to keep the money for the nights we didn’t stay — but we got that money back. The next day, we left for the village to go and stay with my relatives.”
Ivan wasn’t so “lucky”.
“I had hoped that as soon as I solved the problems with my documents and place of residence, my wife and daughter would come to me and we would decide together what to do next. But having no legal ways to stay in Kazakhstan for a long time — as well as the fact that I missed my family very much — I decided to return to Russia to try to have time to make a foreign passport, then escape from here with my wife and daughter once again.”
Outside his one awful experience, however, Urgatoff said the locals in Kazakhstan were very welcoming and helpful.
“I honestly believe this doesn’t represent all the locals — other people were helpful. For example, one kind lady in a cafe told us where we could sleep for free or have a cheap meal or get a job.”
Ivan, despite his setbacks, mirrored this praise for the hospitality of the Kazakhstani locals. “In Kazakhstan, people are understanding and try their best to support. Thanks a lot to them for that.”
Many of the stories shared with me by Russian developers came not through email or Twitter, but through a semi-secret group chat on another social platform — one housing several thousand people, encompassing developers and all manner of games-adjacent professions, all seeking one thing: help.
This chat, started by executives of an eastern European publishing company, was created solely to help those relocate from countries affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine to safety elsewhere. Made up of developers from across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia itself, the chat is constantly flowing with posts in Russian from those trying to escape – or at the very least, cope with – the mobilisation.
Every other day, someone will post their resume in search of work. 3D animators, VFX artists, programmers — all looking for work in countries outside Russia, in the hopes of being able to gain a work visa in just about any country in eastern Europe or in the Northern parts of the Middle East.
Others look for advice on the practicalities of crossing the border. Do you need to wipe your phone of any apps/chats and cleanse your social media presence, in case Russian officials inspect them? How do you transport PCs and monitors? (you should purchase a cheap suitcase with a hard case — about 3-4k rubles worth — and wrap it with bubble wrap and clothing. A sheet of plywood tied to the screen can help keep it from bending in transit. Make sure you take hard drives in your hand luggage. PCs should be dismantled and parts packed, with cases left behind. Power supplies can also cause issues).
These chats have helped countless people and their families escape the war, be it from the aggressor or defender nations. I was not able to reach the creator of the chats for comment, however when speaking to a moderator — who we’ll call John for the sake of this story — I got a glimpse into the difficult nature of trying to balance helping as many people as possible, with staying under the radar of anyone who might cause harm.
For example, when asked if I could share the chat with people I had spoken with elsewhere, I got the ok — with caveats.
“Please only share it privately. We had a couple of bot waves we had to fight off previously when the link was posted in public.”
Thanks to the haste with which everything, including the mobilisation, has happened, there has been enough confusion at different levels of government to cause issues with the process — but has caused other levels of administration to go rogue. “The problem is local authorities start doing whatever they can to score points, even if it directly contradicts with actual requests from the president or whomever.”
In the grand scheme of things, this chat is only small compared to the rest of the country, so they aren’t likely to get targeted — but (justified) paranoia lingers.
“It’s not like we expect any malicious acts towards the members of the chat, but we can’t help but expect that a bad actor with enough power could join, look through the list of participants, make a list and start harassing them – especially if they are still in Russia and just getting ready to leave.”
It’s that last part that is key to why this chat remains semi-hidden — while many have made it out already, some still have yet to make the attempt. Not to mention those that, for a whole host of reasons, simply can’t.
Max and his team of indie developers had been making their own logic puzzle game, to be released on mobile in the future. Once the war started, setback after setback pushed the project out of reach.
“It all started back in the spring when our 3D designer from Ukraine could no longer be part of the team. He was forced to hide in a shelter. We supported him morally as much as we could. But within a month, the connection was severed. We were very scared for him, but there was nothing we could do to help him.” Then, mobilisation.
“With the beginning of the mobilisation, another person left our team – the UI/UX artist. As far as I understand, they left us to relocate.”
Even if they can finish their project with the resources they do have, the slim chance they had at success is all but gone. “Making your own game as independent newbies is a very bad idea at the moment. We don’t have a legal option here to pay for a Google account to list our game in the store. Moreover, foreign advertising networks do not pay money to Russia from ad impressions. And the opportunity to make money by placing the game only in Russian app stores is extremely small.
“When we started developing the game almost two years ago, things were much simpler. Now, we basically have wasted two years of our lives for nothing, and we won’t get anything, even if we somehow manage to release the game.”
Being a small independent team rather than a AAA studio with resources to relocate, and no publisher to help them out, they are stuck.
“Many relatively large mobile game companies have transferred their business to other countries; some have moved their employees there, and some simply registered a legal entity in another country. They had the money for it. But if you’re just a beginner and games are your hobby, you now have no chance and no good options.
In fact, things are pretty deplorable. There are no good ways to earn money and get the opportunity to leave if you are a junior game dev, and not a senior or a lead. You’re basically locked up, and you just hope you’re lucky they (the government) won’t find you.”
I ask Max about the sanctions against Russia and how they are affecting them — another massive hurdle.
“This is a good question. Is it necessary to somehow influence Russia? Yes, you probably need to. Do these specific sanctions help? I’m not sure. You need to understand that, unlike the large cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the average salary in small cities like mine is from 330 to 500 US dollars per month, at the current rate. And the prices for computer components, phones, and any other equipment are higher than the average in the US and Europe by 30% or more… and after the implementation of sanctions, some goods disappeared, and what remained increased in price even more. As a result, the standard of living fell.
“Those who are in power and those who have money did not notice these sanctions. Ordinary people from the provinces, like me, felt them quite severely… It is one thing when there is no opportunity to buy equipment or products. But it affects many other things as well – the prices of medicines have also increased, and the amount available has decreased.”
This is another thing I see posted in the chats quite often — how to get hold of certain medicines. Ways to handle anxiety are the most commonly asked for. Atarax, “phytoseden tea”, phenazepam, afobazole, valocordin. All the while people will comment back with helpful tips — who to go to, or what to say to get the right prescription — with a healthy dose of some pretty dark humour mixed in. According to Gary — a pseudonym for someone who works in a large company still operating in Russia — it’s a popular coping mechanism.
“Mental health is a bitch. We try to support each other with gallows humour and dick jokes,” Gary tells me. They, much like Max, are staying in Russia — but unlike Max, it’s by choice.
I can tell from the way Gary talks that they’re a bit older, more confident. There’s bravado in their words, buoyed by genuine care for others.
“I started a chat for those staying, mostly talking about business. It will be hard, but it’s not like people will stop playing games — so we keep ourselves busy by looking for opportunities. And there is a lot of young talent – lots of junior specialists have been left behind by big companies, and they need jobs. And honestly, some seniors like me just don’t want to leave the homeland.”
Gary knows how to work the system. If there’s one thing that is as much a boon for those who know how to wield it as much as it causes headaches for those that don’t in Russia, it’s bureaucracy. There are more ways to get around mobilisation than to leave the country.
“I am over 30, I have no military background and I work in an officially registered IT company. What I have is a set of very specific soft skills, focusing on business in Russia and government relations.”
Gary pitches in where they can, trying to help others who are staying get through difficult times. “I am not doing anything outside legal boundaries, but I do what I can to consult game developers on how to avoid mobilisation using lawful methods. The state will still back down if you stand your ground with enough paperwork in your fist – too old, too sick, no military background/experience, working in an IT company from the official registry etc. Those that decide to leave I helped with cash — euros and dollars have been in short supply after the sanctions and the cards have been sanctioned. But those were my personal supplies, so I have run out now.”
I prod further, but that’s as much as Gary wants to give me on the record. “It would be a headache to get approval from corporate PR. Hunt me down again in a couple of years, then we’ll talk.” I set up a reminder in my calendar for 2025, just in case.
From the 21st of September to the 28th of October, Russia allegedly hit its target of 300,000 troops recruited – with some independent assessments alleging several hundred thousand more – including many who did not meet the criteria for recruitment to begin with. Within a month of mobilisation being announced, there were already reports of mobilised troop deaths on the front lines. These chats set up to help game developers avoid it all may have already saved the lives of people who never wanted this war to begin with.
Urgatoff’s is one of the brightest of the stories from the many developers I spoke to for this piece. Once he got his bearings in Kazakhstan, he made his way to Georgia. “I managed to find a nice apartment in Batumi. I enjoy the sea and wine every day!”
Ivan has not yet made it out, but has hope that he and his family will be able to soon. “We’re still in Russia, waiting on foreign passports. For the first few days after I returned home, police walked along my street and knocked on doors. Now, things are relatively calm. But, every day I live with a sense of anxiety and shame for what the government is doing.”
Mariya and her husband have decided to stay in Serbia, having secured long-term visas. “I think we have met with other Russian game developers that have shared the same experience as us. There are hundreds of them in Serbia right now. Some businesses have relocated their entire office. All of them are against the war and don’t plan to return to Russia at all.”
When asked how we can help, no matter who I spoke to, the response is pretty unanimous. Regardless of background or location, where they are now or where they want to be, these game devs just want to do the one thing they are passionate about: make games.
“If you have an offer, please let us know.”
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