Digital art

How a Silicon Valley exec escaped Ukraine and became a digital soldier

How a Silicon Valley exec escaped Ukraine and became a digital soldier
Written by Publishing Team

In the middle of the night on Feb. 24, Gennady Galanter woke up to the ground shaking. Outside his window, Ukrainian military vehicles were rolling down his street in Odessa, Ukraine, preparing for a Russian invasion.

Galanter, who grew up in the southern port city but has lived in the Bay Area since 1991, had flown to Odessa three days earlier. He had come, in part, hoping to coordinate evacuation plans for the 150 or so Ukrainian employees of his Silicon Valley artificial intelligence company, Provectus IT Inc. But he also figured he could squeeze in a visit to his “genius Jewish dentist,” Alexander Prudius. Galanter had recently broken his front tooth in half, and Prudius was the only person he trusted to fix it.

In the first few days of the war, Russian military forces concentrated their attacks in the north of the country on the capital city of Kyiv and on Kharkiv. Odessa was largely spared the kind of destruction seen there. But since then, the city on the Black Sea has emerged as a strategic target. By capturing it, Russian forces hope to cut Ukraine off from the rest of the world. Odessites are now preparing for a massive attack amid blaring air raid sirens and intermittent shelling.

Hours after waking up on that Thursday, Galanter posted a video on Facebook of an eerily quiet Odessa street. “Odessa, Ukraine, early morning, February 24, 7:12 am,” he said, narrating the scene in a grave voice. “Get out,” a friend wrote in a comment. Part of him wanted to stay and fight, Galanter said, but with his wife and infant child back in Portola Valley, he decided he had to go.

Thus began a chaotic five-day odyssey that took him to two borders seeking a way out, put him shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainian refugees on a bitterly cold ferry ride across the Danube River one night, and came to a close at a table in one of Bucharest’s finest restaurants.

Gennady Galanter, co-founder and board member of artificial intelligence consultancy Provectus and native of Odessa, Ukraine, chats with a group engineers as they launch a distributed denial of service attack on Russian targets at home in Portola Valley.

Gennady Galanter, co-founder and board member of artificial intelligence consultancy Provectus and native of Odessa, Ukraine, chats with a group engineers as they launch a distributed denial of service attack on Russian targets at home in Portola Valley.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

That Thursday passed in a flurry. Galanter recalls waiting in a long line for gasoline with his friend Saveliy Libkin, a famous chef and restaurant owner, with whom he’d made plans to leave the next day. The dental work he’d hoped to fit in got started but was unfinished, and he spent much of his last day in Odessa “running around toothless.”

Before he left the morning, Galanter took a cab to Tairovskoye Cemetery to visit the graves of his next deceased mother and grandparents. Per Jewish tradition, he brought a pebble to place on his mother’s grave.

“When I realized that the country might fall under occupation, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have another opportunity to come back. So I went to say goodbye,” Galanter said.

His family had fled Odessa once before, 80 years earlier. “My grandparents had to evacuate to escape Hitler,” he said. They left in September 1941 to avoid capture, but his great grandmother, then 103, refused to leave. She wanted to stay to protect the family’s extensive library. “I’m not going to leave these books,” she told the others. She was murdered by Nazis in front of her home, Galanter said.

When Galanter, now 58, moved to California at age 31, the Soviet Union was on its last legs. Though he never lived in an independent Ukraine and spoke Russian his entire life, Galanter returned often, making the country his second home. Over the years, he became deeply patriotic, and in February 2014, marched down Odessa’s streets carrying a giant Ukrainian flag as part of the Euromaidan Revolution.

“I want to drum my chest and say I’m Ukrainian,” he said.

With his US passport and personal connections, Galanter had advantages over many Ukrainians, more than 1.5 million of whom have already sought refuge in nearby countries since Russia’s invasion began. Even as he prepared to leave, many of his friends had to stay behind to care for elderly parents who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, leave. Some of his Provectus employees would escape, while others remained in Ukraine.

An hour before Galanter was supposed to leave with Libkin, he was still at the dentist’s office. His friend had been crystal clear: “We’re not waiting.”

Gennady Galanter, co-founder and board member of artificial intelligence consultancy Provectus and native of Odessa, Ukraine, chats with a group engineers to launch a distributed denial of service attack on Russian targets at home in Portola Valley.

Gennady Galanter, co-founder and board member of artificial intelligence consultancy Provectus and native of Odessa, Ukraine, chats with a group engineers to launch a distributed denial of service attack on Russian targets at home in Portola Valley.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

Finally, minutes before they were scheduled to leave, Galanter, teeth finally intact, ran out of the dentist’s office and into Libkin’s car. With Libkin’s wife, Marina, they drove 30 miles to the Moldovan border. Through a friend at the Bulgarian embassy, ​​Libkin had secured a spot at the back of a convoy of Bulgarian diplomats, seemingly ensuring safe passage out of Ukraine.

Three hours later, Galanter posted a video from Libkin’s car as it drove past a line of cars that appeared to stretch for miles. But in the chaos and traffic, Libkin lost track of the convoy. At the Moldovan border, they were on their own, so were forced to turn around. Staring at the line of vehicles that hadn’t budged in hours, they made a split-second decision to drive south toward the Romanian border, where the two friends split up.

It was 3:30 am on Feb. 26 by the time Galanter arrived in the Romanian town of Tulcea, crossing into the country on a late-night ferry ride, huddled in the freezing cold with Ukrainian women and children. Husbands and fathers had delivered them to the border and gone back to fight in the war. A stranger gave him a ride to a hotel in Tulcea, refusing to take any payment. Libkin and his wife would make it to Tulcea the next day, with plans to take refuge in Vienna.

By Feb. 27, the three were in Bucharest, dining at Artist, “the top restaurant in the city,” free of charge once the owner learned they had fled Ukraine. The next day, Galanter was boarding a plane to Vienna and finally another to San Francisco. On March 1, he made it home to Portola Valley, where he hugged his wife, Elena, and his 1-year-old daughter, Mia.

Though he chose not to take up arms, as he was leaving Ukraine, Galanter hatched a plan to help fight the war from 6,000 miles away.

“I figured that I’m probably going to be more effective outside of Ukraine, rolling up digital troops instead of going and fighting myself,” he said.

His aim is to mobilize his own brigade of Ukraine’s IT Army, an international group of hackers that may already number more than 400,000, according to a Ukrainian official. The group would help defend Ukrainian websites against Russian cyberattacks and launch their own, waging war on Russia’s propaganda machine.

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Publishing Team