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Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompts tech CEO to get her colleagues out of Russia

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Since Russia's war of Ukraine began, some U.S. companies with employees in Russia have been desperate to get those colleagues out. Amanda Aronczyk from NPR's Planet Money podcast tells the story of one company's efforts.

AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: When I first spoke with the CEO of an American software company, she was frantically trying to book plane tickets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's almost impossible to get a ticket online, and the prices have skyrocketed.

ARONCZYK: Most of her employees are programmers and developers living in Russia. The CEO herself was born in Russia but lives in the U.S. and has been a citizen for more than 20 years. We're not using her name because of the possible danger to the people who work with her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Every day, I speak to them, and everyone just - we're all crying. There is nothing more terrible than what is going on right now in Ukraine. And on top of that, we're now also concerned about the well-being of every single person within the organization.

ARONCZYK: As relations between Russia and the West collapse, it is getting scary there. People who protest the war are being arrested in the streets, risking long prison sentences. People also fear being conscripted into the military. So the CEO's business partner, whose name we're also not using, he knew immediately he wanted to leave Russia. The CEO managed to get him plane tickets to Turkey, but escaping the country was still going to be tricky.

What did you do to prepare to leave?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I started smoking (laughter). On Thursday, I started smoking because I had a big stress.

ARONCZYK: He said goodbye to his mother and in-laws, left his dogs and the keys to his apartment with a friend. And then he, his wife and their two kids headed to the airport.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We entered the airport building. My wife decided to go to the toilet, and on the way, a man stopped them and say, where are you going?

ARONCZYK: The man doesn't show any ID. His wife thinks it's probably somebody from the Russian intelligence service, but they have a cover story. They are going on vacation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I was speaking very loudly about this. I said, now we're going to Istanbul. We'll stay for 10 days. It'll be so good.

ARONCZYK: And the cover story seems to work. They make it through customs, then border control, get to the waiting area, and their plane is at the gate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When we finally passed customs, it was my first time within this week when I understood that now I'm in safe place.

ARONCZYK: They make it to Turkey. It all happened so fast. He and the CEO are still running their company. But otherwise, he's basically starting over.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm starting everything from scratch now, but again, it's better to start from scratch than to end in jail.

ARONCZYK: Fleeing Russia was not the future that the business partner saw for himself. And for the CEO back in the U.S., it has all been hard to watch.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: These are young people. Majority of them are in their 20s and 30s. They grew up wanting to be part of the world and not to be stuck within the borders of Russia.

ARONCZYK: The CEO has helped get more than half of her employees and their families out of Russia, but not everyone left. So she is starting to hire new staff, this time people from Ukraine instead because now she doesn't want to participate in the Russian economy at all. Amanda Aronczyk, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.