For months, Ukrainian cybersecurity expert Andrii Bezverkhyi has been preparing for a Russian invasion of his home country. Bezverkhyi’s company, SOC Prime, is based in Boston, but he and about 70 other employees worked from Ukraine.
As a group of employees set up a relief office in Spain, planned evacuation routes and prepared “take-out bags” with supplies for an emergency retreat, Bezverkhyi focused on an upcoming meeting of the board of directors in the United States.
But early in the morning of February 24, as the Russian invasion began, Bezverkhyi found himself caught off guard when the sound of a nearby explosion woke him up in his apartment in Kiev. “I thought it was just a bad dream,” he recalls. “I looked out the window and saw nothing. I thought maybe I was paranoid.
Then came another explosion―and a third.
Bezverkhyi woke up his wife and sister-in-law and prepared to leave. After alerting local colleagues that the attacks had begun, the family got into a Kia Sportage, planning to head west away from the fighting to a small village near Poland where their in-laws lived. . Even in this traumatic moment, it was difficult to grasp the gravity of the situation. “We opened the dishwasher and started unloading it,” he said. “Then we thought, ‘No, we shouldn’t do this…we have to go now. “”
As the main route to the Polish border became congested with traffic, Bezverkhyi took a northwest route that approached Belarus, where Russian troops had massed.
As they fled, the war closed. An hour after passing through the airport in the town of Hostomel, Russian attack helicopters attempted to secure the area, sparking a battle with local forces that raged for several days and destroyed the facility. At another point, the Kia crossed a roadway just 30 minutes ahead of a column of Russian tanks.
“We were lucky,” Bezverkhyi said. But with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy imposing martial law, most men between the ages of 18 and 60 could not leave the country, including Bezverkhyi. So he settled with his in-laws, a farm in a village less than 20 miles from Poland with chickens, geese, pigs and a fast internet connection. The families of several other SOC Prime workers around Kyiv have also retreated to the village. “There are enough potatoes and eggs for everyone,” Bezverkhyi told them. Since Friday, this is where they remain holed up.
With the large community of software developers in Ukraine and the growing group of Boston tech companies employing them, SOC Prime isn’t the only local startup directly impacted by the war. For example, analytics software company DataRobot and automation app developer AirSlate support hundreds of their programmers who are in the region. And some people are also taking action, from venture capitalist Semyon Dukach, who personally traveled to Poland to distribute cash to refugees, to Andrew Smeaton, head of information security at DataRobot, who went to Ukraine to chase a colleague from the campaign.
At SOC Prime, Boston-area employees have donated a large portion of their salaries to a relief fund for Ukrainian colleagues, and they continue to help organize and communicate with those at risk.
Mark Bermingham, vice president of marketing for Boston-based SOC Prime, also tried to keep the morale up for those affected. He launched a daily video meeting to bring together company employees from around the world with Ukrainian colleagues. “There is no agenda,” he said. “It’s about compassion, about conversation, about connecting people.”
Daryna Olyniychuk, a Kiev-based marketing team leader who works for Bermingham, managed to board a bus for the Polish border with her five-year-old soon after the invasion. Her husband stayed behind. At the border, they queued for 10 hours to cross and meet friends.
And the SOC network continues to try to get people out. On Thursday, a colleague’s wife went to Poland and Olyniychuk is helping her find an apartment.
“My story is not something special, there are thousands of them,” he said, holding back tears. ” I am not a hero. I’m not doing anything amazing to my mind. I am a lucky person compared to many, many other people who stay in Ukraine without work, without a home and without any possibility of leaving.
Away from the fight (for now, at least), Bezverkhyi joins the fight using his expertise in cyber threats. Russia is renowned for its cyber attack capabilities and has probed Ukraine’s critical infrastructure for weaknesses, he said.
He also created a live online map displaying data from radiation sensors and anemometers across the country, as Bezverkhyi fears the most that the Russians could create a nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Russian military forces took control of the factory at the start of the invasion.
“Where are the limits of their cruelty?” Bezverkhyi asked. “I really do not know.”
Aaron Pressman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.