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'Toxic assets' How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tore Yandex apart

Source: Meduza

In late April, Russian Internet giant Yandex announced it was selling its news service, Yandex.News, and its personal recommendations service, Yandex.Zen, to the social networking company VKontakte (VK). VK is run by Vladimir Kiriyenko, son of Russian presidential administration First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, these products (just like Yandex overall) have faced a barrage of criticism for misleading millions of users by withholding credible information about the war while leaving up inaccurate information from pro-Kremlin sources. Meduza special correspondent Svetlana Reiter tells the story of how a once-progressive news aggregator ruined Yandex’s reputation, caused an employee exodus, and landed its deputy CEO on sanctions lists.

On February 27, the fourth day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as Vladimir Putin ordered that Russia’s nuclear forces be put on “special alert,” Yandex.Q head Tonya Samsonova was messaging her father on WhatsApp. Samsonova was in Brussels and her dad was in Moscow.

“News that Putin is putting Russia’s nuclear weapons on high alert would worry anyone. [But] Dad didn’t seem to be as worried as I was. He didn’t know Russian troops were bombing Ukraine; he didn’t think there was anything happening at all,” Samsonova told Meduza.

The Yandex.News homepage on February 27, 2022

Tonya, who had just read an Financial Times article titled “Putin puts Russian nuclear forces on high alert as west steps up sanctions,” recalled opening up Yandex and seeing a headline from the Russian State news agency TASS. It read, “Putin ordered that the Russian army’s deterrent forces be put on high alert.”

“The TASS headline, which was one of the top five news stories on the Yandex homepage, gave no indication that there was a threat of nuclear war. I realized that if this was Dad’s information diet, there was nothing I could do to convince him.”

After that, Samsonova told Meduza, she sent a message to “one of Yandex’s key shareholders” and asked him to “start showing information about the war”; he told her to reach out to the company’s senior management. Then Samsonova called one of her friends at Yandex who “was effectively able to publish news on the site’s homepage” (Tonya didn’t reveal his name). “Tonya,” he responded, “where are you — Europe? I’m in Moscow. Please, don’t call me anymore with ideas like that. Conversations like this are dangerous for me right now.”

Unable to find anyone like-minded within the company, Samsonova wrote a resignation letter. “I understand that Yandex won’t change its position and will continue to withhold information about the war. Under those circumstances, I cannot keep drawing a salary here. That would make me complicit in a crime.”

Three years before the war began, Samsonova had sold her own project, The Question, to Yandex; now, though, she couldn’t justify her further involvement with the company. “I told my husband, ‘Well, I’m quitting.’ He supported me, saying it would be unethical to keep working at Yandex,” she said.

‘In the event of war’

In 2019, a then-Yandex employee who specialized in machine learning accidentally made a surprising discovery. For several years, he learned, the “Top News” section on the Yandex homepage had been drawing exclusively from a “white list” that consisted of 15 news outlets.

“That’s when there were still some decent media outlets — like Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd [TV Rain], and Novaya Gazeta. They were registered in Russia and cited frequently [by other outlets], but Yandex wouldn’t display them on the homepage. Instead, they would display news from outlets like Izvestia, RIA Novosti, TASS, Interfax, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Kommersant, Vedemosti, RBK,, RT, and Lenta,” the former employee told Meduza. (Another former Yandex employee said that the other outlets on the list were Regnum, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, and Vzglyad.)

Because of Russia's “law on ​​news aggregators,” Yandex can only publish news from outlets that are registered in Russia (though foreign media companies stopped appearing on the service almost completely even earlier, in 2014). The company has spoken openly about this. What they haven’t acknowledged is that the stories featured on the homepage are selected from a limited list of outlets.

Other former Yandex employees, however, confirmed that this is the case. According to them, the policy was established in coordination with the Russian presidential administration (AP).

“The AP has long been putting pressure on Yandex, and they tied themselves into knots trying to create a limited list of media outlets from which Yandex would have to choose their top five stories,” said one former Yandex.News employee. A source close to the AP confirmed that the agency had long been insisting on this arrangement.

Representatives of the AP first came to the Yandex office in 2008, not long after the war in South Ossetia, former Yandex.News head Lev Gershenzon told RBK. They invited Gershenzon to a meeting with then-First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov and AP Internal Policy Department deputy head Konstantin Kostin.

At the meeting, according to Gershenzon, the officials asked that Yandex start posting only articles from Kremlin-approved sources on its homepage; Surkov referred to several outlets — namely Georgian ones — as “enemies.” The officials also asked to be given access to the homepage’s interface “in the event of war.”

In that first visit, Gershenzov said, the company’s leadership managed to find ways to “talk their way out of” the demands. In the years that followed, though, the visits from AP officials continued. In 2015, the topic of an approved list of sources to draw top news from was raised again — this time by then-AP Domestic Policy Department deputy head Timur Prokopenko, according to a Yandex employee who helped compile the list.

“The people from the AP insisted that we choose a maximum of 3-5 approved sources for our top stories. We ultimately agreed on 15: we took the top 50 most-cited news outlets and chose the 15 from there. And some of them weren’t even in the top 20, they were just ones the AP liked. That’s how we developed our ‘Top News’ list,” said the source.

According to him, Prokopenko, like Surkov and Kostin, demanded to be given an “access button” to Yandex’s homepage. Once again, though, the Yandex employees managed to talk their way out of it, especially because they’d gone along with the creation of the “15-source headline list,” which they decided to put into operation “if necessary.”

It became necessary in 2016, when Russia’s “law on news aggregators” came into force. “The company’s leadership said they couldn’t fight off the AP any longer. In 2015, they just pulled out the list, brushed the dust off, looked through it once more, and put it into effect,” said a former Yandex.News employee.

“There were problems with RBK: the AP considered them disloyal. But we resisted and put them in our top headlines. But Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy? Not a chance,” another source who worked at Yandex.News told Meduza. Novaya Gazeta and Ekho Moskvy were indeed “not allowed” in the top headlines, according to former Yandex Technology Distribution Director Grigory Bakunov, who left the company in 2018.

When the Yandex homepage began to show only articles promoting the government’s narrative, it wasn’t exactly shocking. Still, the contrast between the new, government-approved Yandex.News and the old Yandex.News, which had initially gathered information from 6,000 sources and was built specifically to provide varying perspectives from multiple sources on every news event, was remarkable, according to Bakunov. Even the company’s own employees stopped reading it. “On the other hand, for years, one of the slogans at Yandex had been ‘I’m not representative,’ meaning that people like us [i.e. tech employees] aren’t representative of our target audience,” said Bakunov.

“The top news stories on our homepage are automatically chosen by an algorithm. In accordance with the law on news aggregators, only news from registered media outlets is included. What stories appear on our homepage depends on the following factors: the number of publications on a given story, the speech with which they appear, and the dynamics of user interest in the topic. In other words, the service takes into account the speed with which new stories on a given topic appear in the news and the total number of stories that have been published in response to a given event. Additionally, if a piece of news interests readers and they read a lot about it, its significance can increase,” a Yandex representative told Meduza, responding to a question about whether Yandex uses a “white list” to populate its “Top News” section.

“Yandex.News became a sort of Gregor Samsa, who the family wanted to forget about because it couldn’t be fixed. He, of course, turned into an insect, and an apple rotted in him, but they had to keep on living. Nothing personal, just business — it’s not us, it’s just life,” said one Yandex employee.

“I didn’t go onto the Yandex homepage. It’s far enough removed from me that I preferred not to pay any attention to it. I just accepted that Yandex.News effectively didn’t exist for me anymore, that it wasn’t a reflection of anything, and I let it go,” a Yandex manager who requested anonymity told Meduza.

Other Yandex employees who spoke to Meduza reported having similar views of the company’s news service (Meduza spoke to a total of 20 current employees for this story).

Still, the stories collected on Yandex.News are read attentively by the authorities and regularly discussed by the presidential administration, which Yandex’s Public Relations Department interacts with regularly, according to five sources from the company. Both a source from Yandex and a source from the AP confirmed that the news published on Yandex is “curated” by AP First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko. Yandex representatives also regularly consult Presidential Directorate for Social Projects head Sergey Novikov and Presidential Office for the Development of Information and Communication Technologies head Tatyana Matveyeva.

Meduza sent Sergey Novikov a list of questions related to Yandex’s cooperation with the presidential administration, but he did not answer. Meduza also sent a request to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, but didn’t receive a response.

Gershenzon’s letter

On March 1, 2022, former Yandex.News head Lev Gershenzon published a long post on Facebook. He began it like this:

Lev Gershenzon

Today is the sixth day of Russia’s war with Ukraine, where residential areas in Kharkiv, dormitories, and orphanages are being shelled with missiles and rocket launchers… Today is the sixth day when at least 30 million Russian users have seen on the Yandex homepage that there’s no war, that thousands of Russian soldiers haven’t died, that dozens of civilians haven’t been killed by Russian bombings, that there aren’t dozens of hostages, and that Ukrainian cities haven’t been totally destroyed. The fact that a significant part of the Russian population may believe that there’s no war at all is the driving force for the war. Right now, Yandex is a key element in covering up the war. Every day — every hour — of ‘news’ like this leads to more human lives lost.”

In the post, Gershenzov tagged his former colleagues Andrey Styskin, head of the company’s Search, Ads, and Cloud Services business group; Yelena Bunina, Yandex’s CEO; and Tigran Khudaverdyan, the company’s deputy CEO. He addressed them personally, reminding them that “there are no Russian laws preventing you from displaying an article from Novaya Gazeta [which was still working in Russia at the time] as a ‘Top News’ story.”

“Remember, you answer not only to your thousands of colleagues, but to tens of millions of users. And to millions of non-users in Ukraine as well,” he wrote.

Gershenzon currently lives in Berlin, where he leads the company Detectum. A month ago, he and former Yandex.News head Tatiana Isayeva began developing a new “nonprofit [Russian-language] news aggregator,” whose main goal will be to “provide insight into the most important news stories of the day.”

“Everyone says, ‘Come on, why do you care so much about the news [on Yandex’s homepage]? Nobody reads that anymore,’” said Gershenzon. “It’s such a snobby position. It's as if they think we’re the civilized people, and then there are those hicks consuming this stuff — what decent person reads RIA Novosti or Izvestia? But Yandex is earning millions from these ‘hicks’ in Russia.” 

“Nobody will believe me, but when I wrote that post about Yandex.News, which really is destroying the company, I didn't mean to say, ‘You’re criminals, I blame you guys for this!’ It was more of a call to action. But now it looks like I was accusing them of supporting the war, or at least blaming the Yandex “Top News” section. But they have the chance to change it. If you can’t change [Yandex.News], shut it down,” Gershenzon told Meduza.

According to sources from inside Yandex, Gershenzon's Facebook post was widely discussed inside the company. One current employee said the following:

The idea that we needed to do something with Yandex.News had been floating around since the beginning of the war. It became clear that censorship in Russia was only going to get worse, and that Yandex would be part of that, since we follow Russian laws, scrubbing the news that Roskomnadzor had blocked from our search engine, and only citing registered news outlets, which are becoming fewer and fewer. It’s not good. Even I want to make sure Yandex doesn’t become a part of all this, despite the fact that what I do is, broadly speaking, as far as it could be from Yandex.News and my department doesn’t do anything bad.

Soon after Gershenzon’s statement, at one of Yandex’s weekly meetings, employees who had previously taken no interest in Yandex.News started asking for it to be removed from the site’s homepage. CEO Yelena Bunina, Deputy CEO Tigran Khudaverdyan, and Search, Ads, and Cloud Services head Andrey Styskin were all present at the meeting.

Tigran Khudaverdyan
Mikhail Grebenshchikov / TASS
Andrey Styskin
Vladislav Shatilo / RBK / TASS
Yelena Bunina
Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS

Five Yandex employees who were at the meeting recounted the leaders’ statements to Meduza. When employees asked what would happen to the homepage’s “Top News” section, Bunina said, “I’ll tell you briefly, but emotionally: if we remove the news [from the homepage], we’ll get 10 minutes of glory. On the global level, nothing will change, and after the 10 minutes is up, everything will go back to the way it was, only Yandex will be gone.”

Khudaverdyan backed her up. “I’m not ready to exchange a minute of glory for all of our livelihoods,” he said. “We don’t have the moral right to use Yandex’s services to express our moral position,” Styskin added. (Yandex said “no comment” when Meduza asked them about this meeting. Bunina blocked Meduza’s correspondent after receiving her interview request; Meduza was unable to get in touch with Khudaverdyan. Styskin redirected Meduza’s correspondent to Yandex’s press service.)

Meanwhile, since the war began, Yandex has seen a sharp uptick in the number of visits to its homepage. “Our tech guys have had to scramble to keep up with the waves of people wanting to read the news,” said one employee. According to Yandex.Radar, a search engine analytics tool, Yandex.News reached an average of 14 million unique visitors per day in March, as compared to January’s 8.9 million.

Closing Yandex.News would have been impossible, according to both former and current Yandex employees Meduza spoke to. “Nobody openly says ‘We’ll put you in jail,’ but [closing Yandex.News] would hurt the state, and it’s hardly likely they’re going to look favorably on something like that. They can put a big enough stick in your wheels that it shuts down your whole business,” said Grigory Bakunov.

“It wasn’t like Tigran [Khudaverdyan] could go [to the AP] and say, ‘Yandex is going to close our news service, and if you don’t let us, we’ll stop your taxis from running and your groceries from being delivered [Note: these are two industries in which Yandex dominates the market],” said a former senior manager from Yandex. Otherwise, he said, the AP might “get investigators and prosecutors involved and arrange mass inspections.”

“It’s the fear of creeping nationalization,” one member of Yandex’s senior management told Meduza. “If Yandex.News shuts down, Tigran will be kicked out, the leadership will change, and then everything will break down.” Another source close to the company confirmed this: “If you allow a demarche, and the top five headlines on the homepage suddenly contain anti-war slogans, nationalization will be the next step.”

A source close to the presidential administration confirmed that nationalization is indeed a possibility.

A month after Gershezon’s Facebook post, Bunina abruptly left her position as Yandex CEO. Her resignation was preceded by reports that she had moved to Israel; according to The Bell, Bunina said in a letter to her employees that she had no intention of moving back to Russia because she “can’t live in a country that wages war against its neighbors.” Khudaverdyan took her position — and was added to an EU sanctions list less than a day later.

“Yandex’s former head of news accused the company of being a ‘key element in hiding information’ from Russians about the war in Ukraine,” read the formal justification for the sanctions. The same document says that Khudaverdyan was added to the sanctions list because he was present at a meeting with other Russian business leaders and Vladimir Putin on February 24, 2022, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

Bunina isn’t the only senior employee to have left Yandex. In April, Andrey Styskin formally requested three months of leave, according to a source from Yandex’s HR department; this was confirmed by two current employees of the company. According to two sources from Yandex, Styskin has no intention of returning to the company, and his position has been taken by former Yandex.Technology senior manager Pyotr Popov. Styskin redirected Meduza’s request for comment to the company’s press service. According to an official statement from Yandex, Styskin is officially on leave but “remains a part of the company and assists with key issues.”

“Simply as a human, Andrey [Styskin] was very worried, and it’s unclear what bothered him more — the overall catastrophe or the situation he found himself in personally,” said one Yandex employee.

Styskin’s decision was impacted in part by the Ukrainian town of Bucha. Despite news about mass atrocities committed by Russian soldiers there, Yandex’s search function initially responded to the search term “Bucha” exclusively with pleasant pictures of tourist sites. “Recently-published images are categorized as low-priority for direct searches of toponyms since users are usually searching for basic images of cities,” Yandex’s press service told Meduza.

Image search results for “Bucha” from Yandex vs. from Google

According to a source who’s worked for Yandex for several years, the company’s search engine service is not linked to its news service, and image output is not able to keep up with the news.

All of the “hoopla around politics has gotten pretty fucking annoying for all of the employees” who “just want to work,” he said. “There are almost 20,000 people in our company. Most of them went to a technical university, write code, and dream of everybody leaving them alone. Nobody wants to get involved in politics — we just want to work in IT.”

‘We wanted to save whatever we could’

Yandex couldn’t close their news service, but they could sell it. They also decided to get rid of the algorithm-based personal recommendations service Yandex.Zen — since the beginning of the invasion, it had begun to annoy the authorities.

Among other things, Yandex has started getting letters from the autonomous nonprofit organization Dialogue. Established by Moscow’s information technology department, Dialogue was led until recently by Alexey Goreslavsky, the former deputy director of the AP’s public projects team. After Goreslavsky left to join the AP-supported Internet Development Institute, he was replaced at Dialogue by Vladimir Tabak — the creator of the swimsuit calendar full of pictures of MGU journalism students for Vladimir Putin’s 58th birthday and the leader of the Putin Supports’ Network youth movement.

Vladimir Tabak
Danila Yegorov / Kommersant

Dialogue employees, citing a request from Goreslavsky, asked Yandex to remove “fake news” from the blogs on Yandex.Zen, according to three sources who spoke to Meduza.

Goreslavsky took particular issue with the blog belonging to the opposition politician Ilya Yashin, according to two Yandex employees. Dialogue also requested they address the blog run by Republic editor-in-chief Dmitry Kolezev, one Yandex.Zen employee said.

“We don’t know anything about that,” a Yandex representative told Meduza. “I don’t know — it’s been six months since I’ve worked at Dialogue,” said Goreslavsky. “This is the first time I’m hearing of a request to Yandex.Zen,” Dialogue head Vladimir Tabak told Meduza.

“We got tired of fighting the authorities and we wanted to get rid of our toxic assets. Nobody was even thinking about the reason behind it anymore — we just wanted to save what could be saved,” one Yandex manager told Meduza.

On April 28, it was officially announced that Yandex.News and Yandex.Zen would be bought by VK — a corporation led by Vladimir Kiriyenko, son of Russian presidential administration First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko. That same day, a message claiming Yandex’s search engine service had been hacked appeared on Twitter; instead of search results, the site was reportedly showing messages about the war in Ukraine with the title “Why they’re lying to you and how we can prove it.”

A source close to VK’s leadership said that there was no talk of selling Yandex.News or Yandex.Zen before the war in Ukraine began. This was confirmed by a source close to Yandex’s leadership.

A VK representative declined to provide an official comment on that claim, while Yandex’s press service denied it: “Discussions about the possibility of the deal began in late 2021.” According to them, the company decided to devote more resources to developing its other services.

One Yandex manager described the deal as a sale they were “gladly forced” to make. According to a source close to Yandex’s leadership, Khudaverdyan “managed to sweet talk” Vladimir Kiriyenko into buying the services (Meduza was unable to confirm this version of events). As a result of the sale, VK will be able to “shape the information sphere” in Russia, as a source from VK described to Meduza. “Kiriyenko Sr. is turning VK into a holding company that will only show propaganda news,” said a senior manager from Yandex.”

Zen and Yandex.News are slated to leave Yandex and become part of VK by July 1, 2022, two sources from Yandex told Meduza. According to them, when the deal goes through, employees from both services will receive bonuses equal to three months’ pay — as long as they stay onboard.

According to five sources from Yandex, however, even after the services are sold, the presidential administration won’t let Yandex remove the “Top News” section from their homepage immediately.

“Yandex is currently trying to remove the news section from its homepage. Since it’s currently not being allowed to, our people are trying to come to an agreement with VK about the transition: the news will stay on our homepage for several months, then it will move over to theirs. Because they’re going to keep tightening the reins, the censorship is just going to get worse, which means people will look for news wherever they can, even on VK. Millions of Russians will have to get their news somewhere,” said a source close to Yandex’s leadership.

“There will be a transitional period during which news will remain on the Yandex homepage,” confirmed a source familiar with the details of the transition. An official source from Yandex declined to answer Meduza’s question about whether the deal includes these conditions. VK’s press service declined to comment.

The exodus

After the meeting in which Yandex’s leadership explained to employees why they would not be closing Yandex.News, Yandex.Practicum senior interface developer Sergey Zakharov realized it was time to resign.

“The company’s leaders don’t think Yandex.News is worth closing, if they’re feeding users propaganda, and they’re unwilling to call the war a war — it’s shocking to me,” Zakharov told Meduza.

He left Russia for Yerevan, where quite a few Yandex employees are now based (and where tens of thousands of Russians have fled to since the start of the war). The community there includes both former and current Yandex employees, with the latter group working remotely. A source from the company told Meduza that about 5,000 Yandex employees have left Russia — about a quarter of the entire company (which has about 18,000 employees total). A source for Yandex’s personnel department gave a different number — 3,000 — with the caveat that many had already returned to Russia. “A lot of people left in a panic, afraid of mobilization, but were unable to cope with life abroad,” said a source from Yandex.

Nonetheless, in eight messaging groups about relocating that are made up exclusively of Yandex employees, thousands of people are currently discussing leaving Russia for Georgia, Turkey, Israel, and Uzbekistan. People use the groups to share the names of kindergartens and schools and to help one another find rental apartments. The largest chat — the Istanbul one — has about 1,300 participants. Out of the 20 current Yandex employees Meduza spoke to for this article, only three were still in Russia.

“Yandex has long allowed its employees to work remotely. The policy began two years ago, during the pandemic. We don’t monitor where our employees are working from,” Yandex said in an official statement.

As for the company’s senior management, in addition to Yelena Bunina and Andrey Styskin, Yandex.Lavka head and former Meduza publisher Ilya Krasilshchik left Russia in May. He announced his resignation immediately after the government announced it was opening a criminal case against him for spreading “fake news” about the Russian army due to a post he made about the events in Bucha. He’s currently living in Tbilisi, where he’s working with other former Yandex employees and former Meduza employees to develop a new non-profit project with the goal of helping people who have “suffered from the actions of the Russian authorities.”

Another person preparing to leave the company is geoservices head Roman Chernin, who has already moved to Israel; Vera Leizerovich, who leads Yandex Ads, has moved there too, according to two sources from the company.

“Roman Cherchin and Vera Leizerovich still work at Yandex,” the company said in an official statement. Cherchin himself confirmed to Meduza that he had moved and that he’s currently “handing over responsibility” for his Russian projects. Whether he stays at Yandex will depend on whether he has “work outside of the Russian projects,” he said. Leizerovich did not respond to Meduza’s questions.

Nikita Belogolovtsev, a producer for Yandex.Zen, is also leaving the company. According to two sources from Yandex, Belogolovtsev made the decision as soon as it was announced that Yandex.Zen and Yandex.News would be sold to VK. Belogolovtsev did not respond to Meduza’s questions.


“Inside the company, they consider themselves hostages; they’re in a situation where they’re unable to do anything. In my view, it’s always possible — and necessary — to do something, up to the point where they shoot you,” Tonya Samsonova told Meduza.

Three sources from Yandex who spoke to Meduza used the same word: hostages.

“Before this, everything was great, and now I don’t even know how to get the stock options the company promised me. There are no shares available on the stock exchange, but the company promises to pay them out in rubles. If I left my job, I’d lose everything, while here they at least pay me,” a current Yandex employee told Meduza.

Yandex offers an RSU (Restricted Stock Units) stock incentive program, which does indeed give employees the right to receive shares of the company. Yandex told Meduza that 60% of employees participate in the program. But because Yandex shares haven’t been listed on the NASDAQ since the beginning of the war, there’s currently no way for employees to sell their shares. For the time being, the company will issue the annual payments in rubles, but it’s unclear what will happen next, according to two sources close to Yandex’s leadership.

Yandex employees celebrate the company’s NASDAQ IPO. New York, May 24, 2011
Mike Segar / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

“Because it’s not possible to sell RSUs under the current conditions, we’ve switched to a cash payment system. The payments are calculated according to a fixed exchange rate (higher than the current rate) and the share price in dollars that was used during the grant payment to each specific employee. That way, we’re able to maintain employees’ total income at a competitive level,” Yandex representatives told Meduza.

According to another source from Yandex, many of the company’s senior managers, including Yelena Bunina and Andrey Styskin, have “not made clean breaks,” as they’ll remain officially employed at Yandex until they get their stock payouts (they’ll lose their shares if they resign). For senior employees, these payouts can reach several hundred thousand dollars, according to Yandex managers Meduza spoke to.

Despite the company’s promise to make the payments in rubles, the majority of employees, according to Grigory Bakunov, feel “cheated.” “It was a really good system: you get your paycheck, and on top of that, you get a set of shares, options, whatever you want to call them. For some senior managers, up to 40 percent of their pay came in stock options. So you’d figure, I can live on my salary, and meanwhile, I have my savings in dollars, in stocks, which are growing just beautifully. And the more valuable an employee is to the company, the more stock options he would get. And now it’s over — American brokers aren’t trading our stocks, nobody know when they’ll appear back on the market, and Tigran Khudaverdyan is under sanctions.” And our tech people have no idea of why this is, since they didn’t do anything wrong. They seriously thought that if the company basically stayed out of politics, everything would be fine for them.”

The company’s leadership, according to Meduza’s sources, was always “as apolitical as possible,” despite its liberal, Silicon Valley ethos. “We saw our office as Switzerland — everything was neutral,” said a current Yandex employee.

According to another employee, the visits from the presidential administration were viewed as a “necessary evil.” “Like, it really sucks, but we need to survive somehow, so we have to cooperate with them.”

Once upon a time, said Lev Gershenzon, things were different: the late Ilya Segalovich, Yandex’s co-founder and CTO, would go to protest rallies and was an open supporter of the political opposition. After his death in 2013, though, everything changed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Yandex CEO Arkady Volozh at a presentation of the first prototype of Russia’s self-driving car
Alexey Druzhinin / TASS

“When Putin came to the Yandex office in 2017, [Yandex co-founder and CEO Arkady] Volozh wrote everybody an apology email: ‘Guys, I understand that it may seem to many of you like we’re friendly with the authorities, but if [then-Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko came knocking on my door, I would just as soon let him come and see our work. If you’re strongly opposed to Putin’s visit you’re welcome to stay home from work,’” said a former Yandex employee.

Breaking up

Since the start of the invasion, Yandex has had to deal with more than just reputation problems. The carsharing service Yandex.Drive is facing losses of up to 35 percent, according to Kommersant; the company’s leases are expiring soon, and they’re unable to extend them due to the shortage of cars on the market.

The company withdrew its financial projection for investors for 2022, citing the “high degree of uncertainty regarding geopolitical events.” It’s also facing the possibility of a default.

Because Tigran Khudaverdyan was sanctioned by the EU, the company is having problems purchasing computer equipment abroad, a Yandex employee told Meduza. “It might be that the suppliers are just covering their bases, because the company [itself] isn’t under sanctions [yet]. Maybe it will get resolved at some point.”

Yandex.Drive vehicles in a parking lot in Moscow. 2021
Valery Sharifulin / TASS

In late April 2022, Yandex employees were notified by email that on the night of April 25, the electricity at the Yandex data center located in Mäntsälä, Finland, had been turned off. “At this time, the data center is being powered by diesel generators. Unfortunately, even if we manage to restore power to the center, until the political situation stabilizes, there is no guarantee that it won’t be turned off again,” said the email, which Meduza has seen. The data center in Mäntsälä was built by Yandex from the ground up. Yandex has five data centers overall; this one, according to the company, “was responsible for our work with foreign markets.”

In the coming months, the company might find itself “living without” the Finnish data center, the letter said. “We’re currently in the process of renegotiating the agreement with our energy provider, and the data center is currently being powered by our own generators,” Yandex told Meduza in an official statement.

The company’s leadership “is seriously afraid of sanctions and everything they entail,” one senior manager from Yandex admitted. “We’re living in an incomprehensible situation, in which we’re trying with all of our might to save what we had, but we’re facing pressure from both sides: if we go along with Russia’s rules, we’ll land the entire company on the American and EU sanctions lists. If we don’t, the Russian authorities will cut off our oxygen.”

As a result, after Yandex.Zen and Yandex.News are sold, the company will presumably be divided into two parts, and its leadership will try to withdraw all of the services it can onto the international market.

“There will be the Russian Yandex, which will start to thrive in Russia, and there will be the international Yandex — a separate brand with a different name that will be built by former Yandex employees,” a source close to the company’s leadership told Meduza.

‘If weren't not getting bombed, we’re doing fine’

After being fired from Yandex in 2018, Bakunov started working in the ice cream and telemedicine industries. Two and a half years ago, he moved from Moscow to Kyiv, where he worked as the technical director for a tech company in the gambling industry.

When the war began, Bakunov explained, he had to leave his management position. “It doesn’t look good for Russians to be managing Ukrainians in Kyiv. Nobody was throwing any accusations around, everybody knows my political views, but it was still hard for people. I’ve stayed in the company as a vice president, but I don’t make any decisions,” Bakunov told Meduza.

As for life in Kyiv right now, Bakunov said, “You know, it’s like this: If a night passes without any bombs falling, everything’s fine.”

“Do you think it would be possible for Yandex to create a different kind of news service?” Meduza’s correspondent asked Bakunov.

“I don’t know. I ask myself a different question: if I still worked at Yandex, would it be possible for me to keep working there, even while seeing the war and seeing what they post on the homepage?”

“Would you?”

“I can give you a definite answer: no, I wouldn’t work at that company; I would get up and leave. Without any noise, without any scandals — just because, essentially, I wouldn’t be willing to have my name attached to any of those news stories. You know, at some point, the Moscow government gathered a bunch of experts to discuss online voting, and I was one of the people they invited. I came up with a simple way to express it to myself: I’m not willing to legitimize online voting with my presence, because we know how these elections work — they always include a huge amount of fake votes. My own presence [at the discussion] as a media figure would have legitimized the whole process. So in a sense, the fact that Yandex’s brand is a part of Yandex.News legitimates the whole process. And yes, before there was a war, I didn’t feel this so acutely."

* * *

Bakunov, who worked on Yandex’s homepage for a decade and a half, doesn’t look at it anymore. “I can imagine perfectly well what’s happening on the homepage right now — I have no questions. My father-in-law, who’s well over 70, watches TV, both Russian and Ukrainian. And what’s being shown on Yandex right now is exactly the same thing they’re showing on Russian TV.”

Story by Svetlana Reiter

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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