Ukrainian cybersecurity specialist Andrii Bezverkhyi spent months preparing for a Russian invasion. Bezverkhyi’s company, SOC Prime, is based in Boston, but he and about 70 other employees worked from his native Ukraine.
While a group of employees established a backup office in Spain, planned evacuation routes, and prepped “go bags” with supplies for an emergency retreat, Bezverkhyi focused on an upcoming board meeting in the United States.
But early on the morning of Feb. 24, as Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, Bezverkhyi was nonetheless caught off guard as the sound of a nearby explosion woke him at his apartment in Kyiv.
“I thought it was just a bad dream,” he recalled. “I looked out the window and I didn’t see anything. I thought maybe I’m being paranoid.”
Then came another explosion ― and a third.
Bezverkhyi roused his wife and sister-in-law and prepared to leave. After alerting local colleagues that the attacks had started, the family packed into a Kia Sportage, planning to head west, away from the fighting, to a small village near Poland where his in-laws live. Even in that traumatic moment, it was hard to grasp the gravity of the situation.
“We opened the dishwasher and started to unload it,” he said. “Then we thought, ‘No, we should not do that. . . . We need to go now.’”
While the main highway toward the Polish border became packed with traffic, Bezverkhyi drove along a northwestern route that ran closer to Belarus, where Russian troops had been massing.
As they fled, the war closed in. An hour after they passed by the airport in the city of Hostomel, Russian attack helicopters tried to secure the area, igniting 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 Russian tank column, he learned later.
“We were by all means lucky,” Bezverkhyi said.
But with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky imposing martial law, most males between the ages of 18 to 60 could not leave the country, including Bezverkhyi. So he set up shop at his in-laws’ home, a farmhouse in a village less than 20 miles from Poland with chickens, geese, pigs — and a fast Internet connection. Families of several other SOC Prime workers around Kyiv also retreated to the village.
“There’s enough potatoes and eggs for everyone,” Bezverkhyi told them. As of Friday, that’s where they remained.
With the large community of software developers in Ukraine and Boston’s growing cluster of tech companies who employ them, SOC Prime is hardly the only local startup directly affected by the war.
Analytics software company DataRobot and automation app developer AirSlate are assisting hundreds of their programmers who are in the region. And some individuals are jumping into action as well, from venture capitalist Semyon Dukach, who personally flew to Romania to hand out cash to refugees, to Andrew Smeaton, chief information security officer at DataRobot, who went to Ukraine to drive a co-worker out of the country.
At SOC Prime, Boston-area employees have donated large portions of their salaries to an assistance fund for Ukrainian colleagues, and they continue to help organize and communicate with those at risk.
Mark Bermingham, SOC Prime’s vice president of marketing, who is based in Boston, has also been working to maintain the spirits of those affected. He started a daily video meeting to unite company employees from all over the world with co-workers from Ukraine. “There’s no agenda,” he said. “It’s around compassion, conversation, connecting people.”
Daryna Olyniychuk, a marketing team leader based in Kyiv who works for Bermingham, managed to get on a bus to the Polish border with her 5-year-old soon after the invasion. Her husband stayed behind. At the border, they waited in line for 10 hours to get across and meet friends.
And the SOC network continues to try to get people out. On Thursday, the wife of a co-worker crossed to Poland and Olyniychuk is helping her find an apartment.
“My story is not something special, there are thousands,” she said, fighting off tears. “I’m not doing something amazing to my mind. I’m a lucky person compared to many, many other people that are staying in Ukraine without any work, without a home, and without any opportunity to leave.”
Far from the combat (for now, at least), Bezverkhyi is joining the fight using his expertise in cyberthreats. Russia is renowned for its computer attacking capabilities and has been probing Ukraine’s critical infrastructure seeking weaknesses, he said.
He has also created a live online map displaying data from radiation sensors and wind gauges around the country. Bezverkhyi is most afraid that the Russians could create a nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Russian military forces took control of the plant early in the invasion.
“Where are the limits to their cruelty?” Bezverkhyi said. “I really don’t know.”
Aaron Pressman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.