‘We had no option left’: Ukraine execs turn their business skills to evacuating employees past Russian soldiers

March 14, 2022, 11:01 AM UTC

The electricity had been cut, and so too had the water. Food was running low. The cold seeped into their bones. For a week, the family sheltered in the basement of their home in a western suburb of Kyiv, listening to the artillery blasts outside grow closer and closer.

By day eight—March 8—the prospects of staying safely underground were dwindling fast.

“We had no option left,” says Anastasiia Starykova, 31, a human resources director for a private equity firm in Kyiv. “The only way was to leave by foot through the forest,” she says. “We took a small backpack, with matches, knife, and a flashlight to survive in the forest.”

With that, the young professional joined more than 2.5 million Ukrainians who have fled in less than three weeks, in the biggest mass exodus in Europe in generations.

Amid the devastation wrought by the war, one of the most jolting factors has been the lightning speed in which thriving, middle-class lives have been obliterated—a dizzying transformation, on a mass scale, in the heart of Europe. Entire communities, with thousands engaged in business, have seen their lives changed beyond recognition in the space of a few weeks, stripped of their possessions, their families ripped apart—with little sense if and when they might ever recover.

Snipers on the roof

In interviews before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Ukrainian executives told Fortune that they were determined to keep their businesses running in the face of impending war. Even as Russian forces massed on the borders, they scarcely believed the war would happen.

Anatoliy Amelin, strategy director of the company TitanEra, told Fortune in mid-February that he had stocked up on ammunition and a carbine, but he was confident that there would be no war, because President Vladimir Putin had deployed far too few soldiers. “They would need 1 million people, three or four times more than they have,” he said then.

Within days, Amelin found himself frantically organizing his neighbors into military defense units, which got down to making Molotov cocktail explosive devices in their high-rise apartment building in Kyiv.

Men meet in Anatoliy Amelin’s Kyiv apartment building to discuss armed defense.
Photo courtesy of Anatoliy Amelin

Now Amelin’s neighbors keep round-the-clock watch, rifles in hand. His 20th-floor home offers a bird’s-eye view of the Russian advance on the city. The building’s garage—filled with late-model SUVs—serves as a bomb shelter for those who have not fled. “We have organized a group of 50 men who patrol our homes,” Amelin told Fortune. “We have several dozen weapons, and snipers on the roof.”

Last week, Amelin evacuated his parents to a rental apartment 320 miles away, in the southwestern Ukraine town of Ivano-Frankivsk. He thought that was a safe distance from the war front. But last Friday, he was catapulted out of bed when four Russian rockets blasted Ivano-Frankivsk’s airport, two miles from their temporary home; Amelin says he plans to return to Kyiv soon to help defend the capital.

A boss’s swift action

For Starykova, the human resources director hiding with her family in the basement, her rescue depended on the swift action of her boss, Andrey Gorokhov, CEO of UMG  Investments, a private equity firm in Kyiv with more than $400 million in assets.

When Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Gorokhov, 45, was in Spain on a business trip and immediately swung into action to help protect his 5,000 employees and their families—about 20,000 people in all, he says. Most of the men opted to join the military fight, while women and children were helped to safety, mostly inside Ukraine.

“We evacuated more than 1,000 people connected with our business organizations,” he says. Ten of his employees stationed in Mariupol have been besieged in that port city for a week, cut off from the outside world, and Gorokhov does not know if they are still alive. Gorokhov evacuated his wife and two children last week to Warsaw, where the family is now living in a hotel; his wife is severely disabled from the degenerative disease ALS.

As a busy corporate executive, Gorokhov did not expect ever to be tasked with leading wartime logistics. Yet he says Ukraine’s deep business know-how has proved hugely useful in the war effort.

He has divided UMG Investments’ staff into teams, which procure essentials for volunteer soldiers, like satellite telephones, bulletproof vests and helmets, as well as food and medicines; organize supply convoys from neighboring countries; and find lodging for thousands of displaced people. Those high-function tasks have harnessed the skill set his staff have spent years honing at work, he says—and his company is far from alone in mobilizing its resources to support the battle against Russia. “There are thousands like this, corporates,” he says. “A significant part are private equity investment guys, all stopped because of the war.”

Frantic rescue efforts

Amelin, the TitanEra strategy director, also sits on the board of the Ukraine railway company, which he says has worked hard to keep trains running, in order to evacuate people and deliver critical supplies.

He says he has decided to pay his staff “for the duration of the war,” no matter how long; most have joined the military battle. Likewise, Gorokhov says he kept enough cash reserves to pay his 5,000 employees for the next six months. Meanwhile, he says he will devote his efforts to evacuating or protecting his staff and their families.

The riskiest evacuation of all, he says, was of Starykova and her 12-year-old daughter Kira from their home west of Kyiv.

In frenzied text messages last week, he began preparing the human resources director for an intensely dangerous escape—one that she and her child would not necessarily survive.

With time running out to flee, Starykova texted Gorokhov whether they could leave by car.

Screen shot of text messages arranging the escape from Kyiv
Photo courtesy of Anastasiia Starykova

“It won’t work,” he texted back.

“Maybe there are detours?” she asked.

 “Fire. A lot of it,” he texted, describing the road conditions in her area.

Gorokhov says he struggled to organize a safe way out for her. “At any price drivers would not go into the heat of the battle,” he told Fortune. Finally, he rented an armored car for $5,000. But the driver would agree only to wait for Starykova more than seven miles from her house. To reach the car, she and Kira would need to walk through fierce fighting, in a forest, then a field and a highway.

Harrowing escape

For hours, they crept silently through the forest, listening to the sounds of Russian soldiers close by amid the trees. “We heard them, we saw them,” she told Fortune. “We tried to be invisible.”

Terrified, they finally emerged into an open field next to the Zhytomyr highway that runs west out of Kyiv—the scene of intense fighting. She grabbed her child’s hand, and ran, the sounds of gunfire around them. “It was the worst thing in my life,” she says. On the other side of the highway sat the armored car Gorokhov had hired—her lifeline to survival.

Starykova and young Kira finally made it to Warsaw on Thursday, March 10. But she left behind in Ukraine her parents, as well as her husband and brother, both of whom have joined the volunteer forces fighting the Russians. She has no idea when she will next see them, and this week will begin looking for a school for Kira, in the Polish capital. Even when the war ends, she doubts she will feel safe again in Ukraine. “Any moment, I could wake up to a new war,” she says.

Amid the horror of their escape into exile, Starykova says she was suddenly struck by the date they fled their home: March 8, International Women’s Day—a holiday widely celebrated in Ukraine. “Usually my husband would give me presents and flowers,” she says. “We give presents and flowers to all women in the family.”

This year’s holiday gift for her and her daughter, she says, was fleeing to safety.

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