A Russian soul with a heart in Ukraine

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Evgeni Utkin welcomes me to his basement cultural center in central Kiev, opposite the fortified embassy of Belarus, Ukraine’s neighbor, where tens of thousands of Russian troops were recently stationed. He wears an ocher yellow hoodie that matches the striking modern art on the walls. Utkin not only praises the vibrancy of the Ukrainian capital, he radiates it in today’s gloom.

Utkin is a celebrated entrepreneur, the godfather of Russia’s tech sector after the chaotic transition from communism in the 1990s. Though he’s still an active tech investor, he’s also a philanthropist and a big figure in Kiev’s art and music scene. Although he was born in Russia and speaks Russian, he is a strong supporter of Ukraine’s Western orientation and was an activist in the 2014 Maidan revolution against Russian interference.

This rich life story is not only a testament to how the destinies of Russia and Ukraine are intertwined, but an expression of faith in Ukraine’s future. “I’m Russian with a Russian soul,” says Utkin. “But my heart is here in Kiev.” Many other Russian native speakers, like Utkin, now feel strongly connected to the Ukrainian identity, but sometimes also feel discriminated against.

Utkin was born in Soviet Russia, just across the border from Ukraine’s Luhansk region, which is now controlled by pro-Russian separatists with the full support of Moscow.

He studied electrical engineering in Moscow and built up a successful IT services company, which he then sold to the Russian conglomerate Sistema. He floated Sistema’s technology division on the London Stock Exchange in 2007, making it the most valuable technology company in Eastern Europe. After leaving Sistema, he became a serial entrepreneur and investor in Russia and Ukraine.

Utkin, who supported the 2004 Orange Revolution when Ukrainians called for a rerun of presidential elections fraudulently won by a pro-Kremlin president, said he decided to leave Russia after his 2008 invasion of Georgia.

He took part in the 2014 Maidan protests in Kiev and played the piano in the streets amid the commotion. After Moscow annexed Crimea and instigated a separatist war in Donbass, Utkin set up a tech cluster to support Ukrainian forces. His prominent role cost him his Russian businesses, which were expropriated. But his mother and sister still live in Russia, as do many of his friends.

Like many in Kiev, Utkin is struggling to believe that Moscow could launch a full-blown offensive against Ukraine. But he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a mission to rebuild an empire. “The Russian Empire cannot exist without Kiev. It used to be the mother of Russian cities. It is so important for the Russian people.”

Moscow also cannot afford Ukraine to be economically or politically successful, Utkin says, because it would show Russians that an alternative to authoritarianism is possible. “I think they are afraid of Ukraine’s success because it could change the parameters of values. It would put people at the top of the pyramid, not a tsar or a general secretary.”

Utkin was inspired by popular power at the Maidan protests, when up to 1 million Ukrainians demonstrated against Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s pro-Russian president. Moscow has portrayed the Maidan movement as a fascist-led coup. Utkin believes Ukrainians are less deferential to authority than Russians. He recalls that when running companies in Russia, his employees “treat me like a tsar and put the responsibility on me.” But in modern Ukraine, “no one expects anything good from above.”

Even in the absence of a full-scale invasion, Russia’s military buildup is already hurting Ukraine’s economy and discouraging foreign investors and visitors. Dutch airline KLM suspended flights to Ukraine this week. Foreign investment in three of Utkin’s companies, including Ukraine’s leading cloud-computing provider, has stalled simply because of war warnings, he said. It would only contribute to the brain drain of Ukrainian talent.

Russia’s military build-up along the borders is apt to undermine confidence in Ukraine’s potential, he believes. “The main war is here,” he says, tapping his head. “This is propaganda”

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