“But here, everybody is mixed up together…” Jo Miller
When did you move to Russia, have you settled into this place now?
In 1995. Yes, I’m pretty settled here now. I have a job, and I’ve had a job the whole time I’ve been here. I’m not married, I’ve never been married, I don’t have a family here, but I am settled with my job and my friends, and my life, I have a good life here.
Meeting anybody who says that they have a good life in Russia at the moment, particularly an unmarried female, is quite unusual. Most ladies I know don’t stay here very long.
I think it has something to do with the time line. I first came here in 1989, in the Soviet Union, when everything was completely different. I came back as a graduate in 1992 and after that I really wanted to get a job and move back here. After my master’s degree, I worked for the US government for a while and then returned and worked for a non-profit organisation. But that’s not what I stayed in, I got a job with a Japanese company and I was with them for 7 years and I have been with my present company for almost 11 years! We do logistics, customs clearance, and value-added services. Among other things, we help companies import, it is very interesting.
So you are the first to see the impact of any changes?
Yes, we are right on the front line. Interestingly, the trade we see now is pretty much what it was before the [present] crisis.
What about the sanctions?
Eventually Russia will find a way around the limitations. The fact remains that everybody still needs to trade with Russia. You can’t say you are a global company and ignore Russia.
When I go back to the UK and meet with my family and friends I always experience a little bit of trouble trying to communicate what is actually going on here. Do you have the same problem when you go back to America?
My situation is a bit different. Apart from my family, all of my friends and acquaintances have something to do with Russia. But yes, it is hard to explain to people who have never been here what it is like. America is a very small bubble and is very self-contained, even though we like to say that we are not. But we really are, it depends where you are. We are sitting in Russia but we are also sitting in Europe right now. You can get on a plane and be in Western Europe in two hours. America is so much further away in every sense from Russian culture and everything to do with Russia. There are people who have studied Russian studies and know what Russia is all about, but they are a very tiny part of the American population.
And you are one of them. You are different from many of the professional expats who are posted here by their companies for a few years and then move on.
Yes, I did study Russian, I love Russian history, I have my Masters degree in Russian, I know more about the history of Russia than about the history of any other country.
How do you find the foreigners here?
I find them a bit isolated, it’s because many of them don’t speak Russian, and not everyone speaks English here. It’s questionable what kind of relationship you can have with somebody, even just a friendship is difficult when you don’t speak the same language. I think that in the late 1990s the type of people coming over here changed from people who were really into finding out more about Russia to more opportunistic people who heard about the wild atmosphere that was here in the 1990s, but was not here in the 2000s. In a way, I think that people should come over here before they take a job here, to find out what it is like.
How do you find the Russians? Are they still ‘Russians’ to you, or just like people? I have been here a long time but there are still things that I can’t accept.
I have come to accept Russians as they are. I have a very interesting small group of Russians who I know, apart from the people who work in the company that is. My friends are mostly musicians, that’s just the way it has worked out, they are a bit different from the ‘normal’ Russians whatever that is. I think that Russians are different form Americans, especially the men.
In what way?
I think that Russians as a whole are very emotionally driven, that can be good and that can be bad, and the men are very much like that. I think there is a lot more male authority here. I am sure that lots of Russian men do not treat their wives with that much respect, which is pretty hard to accept.
In general, the education level is very high, even if people don’t use it, even if they are not doing a job that demands that, even if somebody who has only been in college for a year, he or she somehow knows an incredible amount about the world.
So do you think there is a big cultural difference between countries?
Yes, sure. But the differences are exaggerated. The main political conversation in America right now is that everybody is an enemy. I think a lot of what is taught in American colleges is all wrong, people aren’t taught to remember and respect, we are cutting ourselves off from the whole world. But I do believe in American exceptionalism. I am a conservative Republican.
You aren’t afraid to say that!
So when Trump won it was a moment of joy for you?
Yes, and it was also a moment of shock. Nobody thought he was going to win, except the people who were running the election campaign, they had their own polling system, they knew. They didn’t even tell Trump, they were maybe worried that something might happen. Just when you think that big business and the global community is taking control, the working guy comes up and says: “This is my country, and now I’m going to take it back.”
So you see this as being a strong show of democracy?
Are you not disappointed though in the way that Trump’s policies are going now, in particularly in relationship to Russia?
I don’t think that before he was elected, President Trump had any particularly strong feelings about Russia. He never really did anything big here. He has a lot of holdings in a lot of other countries. Of course now, what is happening behind the scenes and what the press is reporting on are completely different things.
Has the press really become that powerful?
Some people have become naïve, there are a lot of people who are very out of touch with what is going on. It is difficult for Trump even to hold a press conference, they have turned into shouting matches. That has never happened before, there has always been a certain modicum of respect for the government of the day.
When you say that you believe in American exceptionalism do you think, like I do, that every country is in fact ‘exceptional.’
Yes, that is what I mean.
So countries should be what they are?
I think that there is a tradition of American exceptionalism, in that it is exceptionalism by God, so there is a religious aspect to it as well. But when Trump came out and said let’s make America great again, the same thing as Reagan said before him, that was completely natural. So, yes, I love my country and I don’t see a big problem with that.
Do you think it is possible to live abroad for a long time and not lose your identity?
Yes I do. If anything, I have become more certain of my own identity. I have acquaintances here who have become very Russian in their thinking. But many people become more certain of their own identity when they live abroad and become more British or American or whatever. And yet they also communicate with and understand Russians, and respect them. It’s different from the way we think it is going be.
Do you think that it is difficult for expats to ‘come out’ and show their true political colours, whatever they are, on the left or right?
No, I don’t think it’s difficult, I think that usually people tend to associate with like-minded people, but the one thing for us here is that we are expats, we might be Americans or whatever, but we are expats. Sometimes only after a few years do you get to know what somebody really thinks about an issue. There was an event here (Chicago Prime) the day after the election, and there were a lot of people in the corner who were very very depressed. I knew all of those people. The same thing happened when we celebrated the inauguration here. The same people were there in the corner, but they still came, and we still spoke to each other, and that says a lot. In your own home country, you may choose your friends, you may not talk to people who earn a lot less or more than you do. But here, everybody is mixed up together. People here have huge political differences, hugely different social standing, but everyone comes together. I’ll get on Facebook and have massive arguments with somebody about politics and then a few days later we’ll meet together and joke about it. We have to be together, we can’t afford to lose each other here.