Russia's Marquee Tech Company, In Trouble?
One Former Board Member Says Yes.
March 25, 2022
Google, a multibillion-dollar, homegrown
technology company that dominates the
country’s e-commerce, offering everything
from search engine results and food delivery
to car sharing and an online marketplace.
Yandex is a bellwether for Russia’s
high-tech economy in the 21st century.
Now, with Russia bombarding Ukraine and the
West pounding Russia with crippling
sanctions, the company’s future is in doubt.
On March 7, Yandex announced the resignation
of two board members, quoting them as saying
“our hearts are with the entire team in
these challenging times.” A week later, the
deputy executive director resigned, after he
was hit with European Union sanctions. Then
Yandex announced it was looking to sell two
of its most visible content divisions to
focus on its other businesses.
Western sanctions, meanwhile, have led to
the company’s shares being frozen on U.S.
stock exchanges. That in turn has led
shareholders to seek repayment on bond
guarantees, but the company says it doesn’t
have the $1.25 billion to cover that amount.
The now-untradable stock is down nearly 80
percent from November, when Russia’s
military buildup on Ukraine’s border first
started grabbing public attention, wiping
away more than $20 billion in market
“The future of Yandex depends on the future
of Russia, not the other way around,” Esther
Dyson, a well-known American technology
consultant and investor who was one of the
two board members to resign earlier this
month, said in an interview with RFE/RL.
Tonia Samsonova, who ran a
question-and-answer service called Yandex.Q,
resigned in protest earlier this month,
accusing the company of censoring the
Ukraine war from its search engine and news
service, which garner millions of daily
As President Vladimir Putin’s government
seeks to enforce loyalty and silence
opposition to the war, Yandex risks becoming
“an engine of propaganda” for a
“dictatorship,” she said.
'You, My Former Colleagues, Are Also
Responsible For This'
The Kremlin had been cracking down on
independent journalism and media companies
for years, using a “foreign agent” law to
tar, then punish a number of publications,
broadcasters, and individual journalists.
After the February 24 invasion of Ukraine,
authorities took further steps,
criminalizing independent war reporting by
making the dissemination of “deliberately
false information” about the use of the
armed forces punishable by prison time. It
is also illegal to discredit the military.
Russian media, including some of the most
well-known independent outlets, fell into
line. Some prominent organizations were
shuttered; journalists began fleeing the
Yandex’s homepage is a major portal for
Russian-language news and, like with Google
in the West, a major driver of traffic to
other news outlets. Yandex News draws an
estimated 30 million Russian users.
Headlines, however, began guiding readers to
official, state-run, or state-allied media
companies. Searching Yandex News for the
words “war” or “invasion” yielded no
On March 1, a former head of Yandex News,
Lev Gershenzon, published a letter on
Facebook in which he all but accused his
former co-workers of complicity with the
Russian state by hiding news of the war.
“The fact that a significant part of the
Russian population may believe that there is
no war is the basis and driving force of
this war. Yandex today is a key element in
hiding information about the war. Every day
and hour of such ‘news’ is human lives. And
you, my former colleagues, are also
responsible for this,” he wrote.
Reached by RFE/RL, Gershenzon, who left
Yandex in 2012, declined to comment further,
saying only that “if they had listened to
me, and did what I suggested, this wouldn’t
“I said what I wanted to about this whole
situation. I think it is enough,” he said in
On March 18, Yandex announced it was looking
to sell Yandex News as well as Yandex Zen,
an infotainment channel, and instead focus
on developing other businesses such as
advertising, taxi services, e-commerce,
self-driving cars, and other ventures.
Dyson, who had been one of the
longest-serving Yandex board members,
declined to give further details of what led
to her resignation, which occurred after
what one other person described as a
contentious board meeting in February.
“In the current political environment in
Russia, it has become impossible for the
team to continue to provide a free and open
platform for information for the Russian
public without breaking the law and putting
the company and its employees at risk,” the
company’s March 7 statement announcing their
Dyson also declined to describe internal
deliberations that occurred surrounding the
news and search engine features.
“Now you get more and more propaganda
results before you get search results,” she
said. “First you have the advertising, then
the propaganda, then you have the news. You
cannot get that information [about the war]
on Yandex anymore.”
Asked if there was an order or edict issued,
either by the company or by a government
entity, Dyson declined to answer directly.
“It's not like suddenly the sun sets and the
next morning, it all changes. It happens,
like all these things, somewhat gradually,”
she said. “It was kind of before the
invasion of Ukraine but after the discussion
of the invasion…again, things don't happen
overnight, you sort of have a sense they're
The other board member who resigned, Ilya
Strebulaev, a finance professor at Stanford
University in California, declined to
Yandex did not respond to multiple e-mails
from RFE/RL seeking comment. A receptionist
who answered the phone at the company’s
Moscow headquarters said there would be no
immediate comment and there was no immediate
response to questions submitted by e-mail.
“My father was in denial after the war
began,” Samsonova, a former Moscow-based
reporter whose question-and-answer service
was bought by Yandex in 2019 and renamed
She told RFE/RL that three days after the
invasion, “I went to Yandex.ru to see the
top five news items. There was nothing
[about the war]. I just realized there is no
way that he, who does not speak English,
could know about the news, about the war.”
On March 2, Samsonova, who had been
negotiating her exit from the company for
several months, resigned “in connection with
the fact that Yandex does not publish on its
home page Yandex.ru information that Russian
forces are bombarding Ukrainian cities and
killing innocent people.”
“I consider today’s actions of the company
to be crimes and [they are] accomplices in
the invasion and war,” she wrote.
'Not What Yandex Was Designed To Do'
Before the war, the screws were already
tightening at Yandex, which currently
employs around 18,000 people, most of them
at its headquarters in Moscow.
Three years ago, the Kremlin sought to
change its governance structure, and
essentially seek a veto over its board. A
compromise plan resulted in the government
getting two board seats and a “golden share”
-- which gave the state “the power to block
transactions and temporarily remove Yandex’s
management if it deems it in the national
interest,” according to the Financial Times.
The effort also coincided with the
prosecution of Michael Calvey, an American
investor who made a prescient $5 million
seed investment in Yandex two decades ago.
The prosecution of Calvey, who ended up
getting a 5 1/2 year suspended prison
sentence for embezzlement, spooked the
business community, both Russian and
Yandex's revenue -- driven in large part by
advertising -- could plummet with Russia's
economy headed for its sharpest contraction
since at least the early 1990s. Economists
say Russia’s gross domestic product could
decline by 15 percent this year.
Yandex’s other businesses outside of
“content” continue to generate substantial
revenues for the company. Yandex Eats, for
example, is a leader in food delivery and
like its Western counterparts -- Uber Eats,
Grubhub, Deliveroo, Frichti -- it flourished
during the COVID-19 lockdowns imposed in
Moscow and other Russian cities.
Yandex Eats was in the news this week after
hackers accessed and leaked a database
containing thousands of names and addresses
across Russia. Regulators said they were
The sale of the news division is inevitable,
“As an outsider, I would say the sooner they
can do it [the better.] And by sell, I mean
‘sell’ in quotes,” she said. “It will be
the content is going to be representing the
government, it might as well be owned by the
government. Or by people close to it,” she
“I don’t have questions about the company
itself. I have questions about its ability
to…[keep] providing real information,” Dyson
told RFE/RL. “I hung on as long as I could,”
Samsonova predicted that Yandex would
continue operating in Russia even as the
government further restricts the free flow
“Yandex will remain in Russia, it won’t go
anywhere,” she said.
“But whatever Yandex is now -- there is a
building, there are accountants, engineers,
mergers-and-acquisitions people -- this is
not what Yandex was designed to do,” she
“What will Yandex be during a military
dictatorship?” she said. “It will be an
engine of propaganda.”