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For Russians in tech, Israeli passport is a golden parachute

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission.

A week before Russia invaded Ukraine, hi-tech entrepreneur and artist Arsen Revzov decided to pack his bags and leave Russia for Israel before it was too late.

He landed here over a week ago, but he was not alone. He came with Constantin Chernoztonsky, a co-founder of his startup company, who is also Jewish and has an Israeli passport. They were accompanied by the company’s third co-founder, Maria Lapushkina, the projects and sales directors and the chief engineer.

“I saw a war was going to begin,” says Revzov, currently staying in a Tel Aviv hotel. “Some people thought it was only political games, but I knew Putin wasn’t bluffing. I lived in Israel for a few years in the 90s and after I returned to Moscow I came to visit a lot. I understood it was time to come back.”

Revzov says the company comprises about 20 people. Team members who aren’t Jews with an Israeli passport are in the process of moving to Armenia, where they are renting a large villa. “We’ve already started the process of opening a company in Israel,” he says.

Weeks after the Russian invasion began, Ukraine is undergoing a tragedy. But life is deteriorating in Russia as well, following the economic collapse generated by the sanctions and by the political pressure imposed by Putin’s regime.

“The atmosphere here is very tense,” says Roman, a startup company founder who is still in Russia but hopes to relocate both personally and professionally to Israel. “At the moment we’re in a country that is doing something strange and abnormal. In our industry we have ties all over the world, so in fact we’re representing Russia right now. We’ve been placed in this situation against our will. We’re under tremendous psychological pressure.”

Roman asked not to be identified by his full name, for fear of retaliation from Putin’s regime. A few of his friends have been arrested and imprisoned, he says. His startup company, a digital learning platform, has many clients overseas. “We cannot continue to be based from Russia, because clients abroad have no way of transferring money to us.”

Two weeks ago he tried to purchase a flight ticket to Israel from El Al, “but the price was exorbitant,” he says. “We want to go to Israel, but we can’t get information about the financial, bureaucratic and tax requirements. We’re in a situation where we must make decisions that are critical to our lives in minutes. On one hand, I have a mother and a partner. On the other hand I’m afraid that if Russia closes its borders, even Israel won’t be able to help us.”

Revzov says that the startup scene in Moscow used to be “very developed, the people were nice and everything was more or less okay.” However, the local hi-tech industry is very different from the Israeli one, where startup companies can grow. “There are a few technology giants in Russia, Yandex, for example. So young startups rush to sell any technology to banks or to one of the giants, because they receive state assistance and the startups don’t,” he says.

Oken, Revzov’s startup company, is based on old technology of tracking eye movement. “In a sense it’s a very developed field – almost 70 years old,” he says. “So far it’s applications have been in use mainly in neurology, since the instruments involved are complex and cost thousands of dollars. Our technology can measure by means of the patient’s cognitive condition – when you’re excited, tired etc.”

“We’ve developed software that can turn a simple camera – on the phone or computer – into an eye movement scanner. It also gives the user different kinds of feedback. If you’re reading, for example, it can show you which paragraphs you didn’t really read and mark them for you. It can detect tiredness and give you simple techniques to overcome it. It’s a sort of biohacking.”

The company was established at the end of 2019, says Revzov. “So far we’ve raised $1.2 million. Half of the money came from angel investors and half I invested from my own money.”

Window of opportunity

The Absorption and Immigration Ministry already sees the potential implications of the deteriorating situation in Russia.

“There’s an increase in the number of immigrants,” says Ronen Cohen, ministry director general. “Since the tension began between Russia and Ukraine, even before the battles, a few hundred people who were planning to migrate in the coming months pushed up their flights to Israel. One night last week 250 people who were only supposed to arrive in a few weeks landed here. On the weekend another flight from Russia arrived, and another is scheduled for this week.”

“This is because they’re afraid that on the day they want to come it will be hard to leave the country. The sky will close, maybe the flights won’t be safe. There are also economic fears and great uncertainty. This is true not only of Russia. We see a kind of awakening in other regional states, mainly Belarus and Lithuania,” he says.

Apart from the assistance every new immigrant receives, such as stipends, Hebrew studies and employment training, entrepreneurs also receive advice, grants and loans, Cohen says.

The economic crisis in Russia has worsened in recent days. “Money has lost its value rapidly and that in itself can close the window of opportunity for people to leave the country,” says Sofia Topolev-Luz, a startup strategic advisor and entrepreneur of Ukrainian and Russian hi-tech people interested in coming to Israel, to local hi-tech companies and hedge funds.

“People have lost everything economically. Most of the chances are that we’ll see entrepreneurs coming from Russia. Many Russians have taken out Israeli passports over the years, even if they haven’t lived in Israel. Now they have reasons to come here,” says Topolev-Luz.

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission.

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