This article was corrected on May 4, 2020.
For at least a year, Nina Pakhomova, a Russian mathematician and IT specialist, received job offers from a U.S. tech outfit that had become familiar with her work through the St. Petersburg company they had hired. The offers, however, failed to persuade her. The Bay Area, she concluded during work trips here, was simply too expensive.
In 2014, she was in the United States working on an assignment for her Russian employer when anti-Russian sanctions triggered an economic meltdown back home, a day that came to be known as Black Tuesday. Suddenly, her ruble allowance became worthless. A $10 lunch, the rough equivalent of 300 rubles, jumped to 800 rubles by the end of the week. For the first time, Pakhomova and her husband, a software engineer, began to consider the unthinkable: They would become immigrants.
Today, Pakhomova works for Uber and her husband works for Airbnb. Together, they make in a year more than an ordinary Russian family will earn in a lifetime.
“You should understand,” says Pakhomova, “we are not an average representative of Russian programmers in the Bay Area. I know a lot of families, where only one has a job and a partner doesn’t — they live a simple life, especially if they have kids.”
While that may be true, Pakhomova and her husband have much in common with a new wave of Russian immigration to San Francisco and the Bay Area. Like the Pakhomovs, they are young, well-educated, often work in tech, and have more in common with other newcomers than they do with earlier Russian immigrants, many of whom settled in the Richmond District. In earlier waves of immigration, families left en masse. First, after the 1917 Russian Revolution and again in the 1970s and 1980s when, over several decades, some 400,000 Russian Jewish families immigrated to the United States.
By the end of the 1990s, the Bay Area had nearly 75,000 Russian immigrants and the Richmond’s commercial corridor had Russian bakeries, restaurants and a Russian Orthodox church.
Today’s Russian immigrants are not fleeing religious persecution. Instead, like Pakhomova and her husband, the country’s economic instability triggered their decisions. In other cases, they are simply looking for an opportunity in a U.S. economy hungry for their math and IT skills.
Some come with visas procured by their employers. Others marry Americans. And others come on student and tourist visas, overstay and then manage to get sponsored by tech companies.
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Nowadays, Russian immigrants no longer settle in the Richmond, but live in the Mission, SoMa, downtown or in Silicon Valley. Pakhomova and her husband live in a three-bedroom apartment in San Mateo. Even Russian businesses have taken note of the spreading population. Cinderella Bakery, a Russian bakery in the Richmond, will soon open a new bakery on 24th Street in the Mission.
Cinderella’s owner, Mike Fishman, came to San Francisco 31 years ago and has been working “day and night” to sustain his business. Fishman said few places in San Francisco fit the criteria of a classic bakery, but he found one in Mission. The number of Eastern Europeans in the Mission has jumped from 1.3 percent of the Mission’s population to 2.7 percent of the foreign-born population.
The student turned techie
Pakhomova and I are talking in the shiny and futuristic interior of Uber’s headquarters on Market Street. The huge open room is full of young people: some at desks, some hanging out in corners. Tablet computers have been screwed into the walls, free lunch is available down the hall and as Paknomova says, “tap beer opens after 6 p.m.”
It was trendy and modern offices like Uber’s that motivated 22-year-old Maxim Bashminov from Stavropol, a small city near Chechnya in Russia, to apply to a Community College in Fremont. Bashminov came in as a J-1 visa holder with the program “Work and travel” in 2006, and stayed. Later, after the instability in Chechnya sparked riots in Stavropol, Bashminov became a refugee. Now, he is a U.S. citizen.
Early on after his arrival, Bashminov delivered pizzas — many times to tech companies. The guys who ate them looked just like him, only they worked in the gleaming offices of Silicon Valley while he worked at a pizza place, where he earned $10 an hour. That was 2008, and after two years at the community college, he applied to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley’s computer sciences program.
“The admissions office decision had to be announced at 5 p.m. I thought that I failed, and went to deliver the next pizza order,“ he said recently. “When I eventually looked at the list, I started giggling. I was laughing for 10 minutes.”
The university accepted him with a full scholarship.
After graduation, Bashminov began working in small startups and he still remembers feeling giddy over his first tech salary of $80,000 a year. Like the ambitious young man that he is, he recalibrated his goals. “I quickly realized, that it’s not enough,” he said.
Now Bashminov is working for a company that monitors website user data for different companies. He returned from a vacation in Dubai last week, and before that, he spent time in Miami, working remotely from South Beach.
Bashminov’s profile is not unusual. Besides high-skilled programmers like Pakhomova being recruited by big companies, a significant portion of the new Russian immigrants in the Bay Area are people who took advantage of opportunities for education and new training. Most, like Bashminov, had non-tech jobs in Russia, but managed to get to the United States on tourist or student visas and then stayed, some applying for political asylum, others marrying Americans.
Some of the new immigrants come from former Russian republics
There is no data on the number of new immigrants that have arrived since 2014, but everyone in the community agrees that the year marked a turning point. While tighter U.S. immigration controls means the number will never reach the heights of the previous centuries, there is an undeniable new generation of Russian immigrants.
Some social groups for Russian-speaking newcomers tend to center around the fan clubs of intellectual games such as “Mozgoboinya” and “Chto? Gde? Kogda?” — a popular Russian TV game whose name translates to “What? Where? When?”
It’s not uncommon to see them at Lister Bar in Merced Heights speaking Russian, knocking back shots of vodka and playing games.
Steve Kulin, a 35-year-old Russian businessman, said his male friends can find Russian women — who wear fancy clothes and enjoy the best restaurants — pretentious. “If a Russian girl has a relationship with an American,” he said, “the American is usually older.”
Young Russian men can find American women just as intimidating.
Bashminov, the young pizza delivery boy turned software engineer, once tried to have a romantic relationship with an American girl. “I failed,” he said explaining that she was unhappy with his attempt to kiss her without asking — even though they were a couple, he adds. “Our girls are different,” he said. “Our understanding of relationships is different.”
But the United States, they said, has also changed them. Though he came from a country with a high level of homophobia, Bashminov says he is now “more tolerant.”
Young Russian immigrants are more open to liberal values, whereas their parents, even if they have spent a lot of time in the United States, tend to be more conservative.
Kulin’s parents came to the country in the mid-1990s. It has been more than 20 years, he said, but there is no cultural and political difference between his parents and any elderly couple in a Russian province.
“If my child were gay, I would be okay with it. I would love and respect him anyway, but my parents would not,” said Kulin.
Kulin and his neighbor, Yelena Yanchur, are among the few young immigrants who are not in tech. They live in a residential complex in a prestigious neighborhood just around the bend from the Embarcadero.
Kulin founded a boutique travel agency, “Bookitbusiness,” a niche company for busy, well-off travelers. “You should mention the name of my company in your story,” he says, “it was a reason why I agreed to be interviewed.”
Winning the Visa Lottery
An IT projects manager for Sephora, Ulya Antonova and her husband, now a Google software engineer, moved to the United States this year — winners of the so-called Green Card Lottery. Before, they were living in Finland and working in tech.
“It was my husband’s idea to apply for the Green Card. It was a spontaneous decision. Honestly, we were not expecting the positive results,” she said.
But once they won, they didn’t hesitate. It was, she said, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Yes, you can code in Russia, Antonova says, but foreign companies pay more.
If her Russian peers can’t make it to Silicon Valley, she said, they find work in The Netherlands, Finland, Latvia and Canada. Some, she added, work remotely in places like Bali for an American company and earning an American salary.
“People in Moscow who I thought were the coolest in business, in startups, in technologies 10 years ago — all of them are here, in Silicon Valley now,” she said. “People I thought who would never leave Russia live in California.”
Here, she said, they steer clear of politics.
“There was a stereotype about Russian Mafia. Now, this stereotype has changed to Russian Hackers. Well, that’s funny,” says 33-year-old Yuliya Goldman, a business operations director in a real estate startup “Reside.”
Goldman came to San Francisco 10 years ago with $1,000 in her pocket. In that time, she’s had a son, purchased a two-bedroom apartment in Mission Bay and brought her mom from the Northern Caucasus to help with childcare.
Goldman, like most of her peers, voted for Democrats in the last elections while many in the elderly Russian community prefer Trump. That conservative strain is still evident in the Russian-language papers. Before the November election, Russian language papers in San Francisco compared the Democratic Party with the Communist Regime and called on Russian immigrants to vote Republican.
“I have a huge family here — my dad’s Jewish family in Brooklyn, my older brother who is a scientist at Microsoft, my cousins and other relatives — all of them voted for Trump,” said Goldman. “They love Trump, and they love Putin, and this is biggest trouble Russia has so far.”