Having to use a keyboard that doesn’t use a standard UK layout instantly turns me into a 90 year old man. Where normally my hands glide over the keys with robotic rhythm, I’m reduced to hunting and pecking for every character, slowing my work to a crawl. I can relate, then, to Russian PC users, who are finding it harder and harder to get their hands on Russian keyboards under the country’s sanctions-circumventing ‘parallel imports’ scheme, per a Kommersant report (opens in new tab).
Russia published its list of brands for ‘parallel import’ at the beginning of May (opens in new tab), in response to ever-mounting western sanctions and the departure of countless tech companies (opens in new tab) following its invasion of Ukraine. The system permits Russian companies to purchase restricted goods from outside Russia, provided they were acquired legally in the country they’re being bought from.
It’s a pretty weird system to explain in abstract terms, so here’s a concrete example: Apple products are no longer sold in Russia, but Russian retailers that want to keep selling Macs and iPhones are permitted by the parallel import scheme to purchase Apple products from vendors in countries where the company still does business. Russian businesses can’t acquire Russian-formatted devices directly from Apple, but they can approach third parties based in China, Serbia, or elsewhere and stock up that way. The problem is that those devices are going to be set up for Chinese and Serbian users, including their keyboards.
It’s playing havoc with Russian workflows from Bryansk to Vladivostok, and it’s even got the government in a spin. The contracts that Russian government departments have with their workers require that everyone gets a workstation with a keyboard with a familiar Russian layout. When a big chunk of the two million keyboards that Russia imported in the first half of 2022 don’t come with that contractually-mandated layout, they become worse than useless for the purposes of government work. It’s liable to get worse; experts are predicting that non-Russian keyboards will make up 10% of the country’s stock by the end of the year.
At least one segment of the Russian economy is benefitting from the keyboard chaos. Demand for laser engraving of keyboards has doubled in recent months, to convert keyboards with Turkish and Arabic layouts to Russian Cyrillic. The Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade actually recommended this as a solution in response to Kommersant’s original report, suggesting that “the cost of the final product will be practically unchanged” by the cost of a cheap engraving process. It probably will void the warranty on whichever device you’re unboxing and firing lasers at, though.
Global sanctions on the Russian economy have made this a make-or-break period for Russian tech, which has been compelled to quickly disentangle itself from a huge swathe of western tech companies that it’s relied on for decades. Another Kommersant report (opens in new tab) from June showed that 60% of the laptops the country is currently importing don’t have any OS at all on them, while in recent weeks Russian game devs have been pushing for the government to fund a ‘national game engine (opens in new tab)‘ to replace the likes of Unreal and Unity.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on, the situation is only likely to get worse.