Interview by John Harrison
When did you come to Russia first?
I came here for the very first time in 1994 as a tourist, but moved here – the first time, in the fall of 2000 – as a student at Moscow State University. I stayed then for six months, did a bit of freelance translating work, and then returned last year, in 2016.
Being able to visit in 1994 must have given you a really useful insight into Russia?
Yes, well let me start by saying that I’m perhaps a bit of an unusual American, because I’ve always loved Russia. I had always dreamed of coming here, ever since I was a small child watching the Soviet gymnasts on TV. The Soviets were at their best then, during the Perestroika era. Everyone around me was saying, Oh, the Russians (“Russians,” of course, because it was, in fact, Russians that were at the center of the system) are so cold and stone-faced, but in areas such as artistic gymnastics they managed to produce the most innovative and expressive choreography that I’ve ever seen – to this day, in fact. It actually died in 1989/1990 with the end of the Cold War. So I found it hard to accept the things that I was hearing about them.
I don’t have very vivid memories about my visit in 1994, but I do remember that it felt like a dream come true because I had wanted to visit Russia for so long. Conditions were particularly grim then, of course, but I remember being excited about it nonetheless.
When you got here in 2000, was it very different from what you thought it was going to be like?
That’s a good question. That was the tail end of the ‘Wild 90s’ I guess. But it was still pretty wild and yes, I expected that in many respects. Experiencing that period was interesting as you could really feel the post-independence dynamics of Russian society, and it gave you a sense of the enormity of what people were going through.
I think that the Western opposition to (and, I would also say fascination with) what was happening in Russia at that time, particularly coming out of the Cold War period, further solidified this antagonistic relationship that we have with one another. I would say that that exists on both sides, actually. Whatever people in the West might have thought about Russia, they were rarely indifferent. And although this dynamic has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, I think that remains the case for many people.
So as I mentioned, I came back in 2016, after 15 solid years of not seeing Russia at all. On a superficial level, things have changed enormously since 2000. As soon as I got off the plane last year, I felt like I was in a movie. I was shocked to see people dressed even more conservatively than I was. I’ve spent a lot of time in Armenia in the last several years, but things are changing at a different pace and in different ways there, so I was definitely not prepared for what coming back to Russia would be like.
I also feel like my day-to-day life here is a lot different now in terms of ease of living, etc. Of course, there are still issues with corruption on a large scale, but I don’t feel like I experience the little problems that I used to have on a daily basis. I now work for a small/medium-sized business and I haven’t faced issues with being asked to pay bribes or anything like this since I’ve been with the company.
So in these respects I think things have changed. But I think that Russia fundamentally remains the same place that initially attracted me here when I was a child.
That’s really interesting, what for you is the underlying Russian experience?
It’s hard to say, but I think it comes down to a deep, instinctive understanding of the fundamental things in life and in their culture. I feel that in America we are constantly trying to change things, whereas in Russia people are more easily able to extract the interesting elements of life simply from what already exists. Of course, you could say this about a lot of places, but I think it is particularly true here.
If you look at the Arts, music, literature, you feel that when Russians do something they are doing it out of the depths of their soul, places deeper than we in the West are used to being in touch with. They don’t create things to try and emulate other people. I remember that during my first time here I listened to Russian pop music, and I felt like even it had a great deal of integrity. That integrity is what makes Russia so interesting. A lot of times you’ll look at something in other countries that seem to be some kind of poor adaptation of someone else’s creation, but I rarely feel that in Russia.
I often envisage meetings between young Russians and young Americans, and I feel that there would be tension between them, because in America we always feel the need to improve things, beat the system, etc, and it’s not necessarily like that here. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with self-improvement and I myself am definitely a product of this system. And many people would attribute the lack of activism here to government oppression and the fact that activist causes are discouraged. While I certainly see this tendency, I also think that we tend to get so carried away with our causes in America that we sometimes end up vilifying people that don’t feel the same way. And ultimately this becomes hypocritical because it almost gets to the point where our so-called altruism or whatever we claim to advocate gets pushed aside in favor of our own egos.
Looking at it the other way, does living here make you appreciate things about America that you didn’t appreciate so much before?
Of course, I am fully American, and I always will be. Of course I have come to further appreciate what America has to offer, the institutions we have built, the rule of law, etc. At the same time, things are very chaotic at home right now and I actually really appreciate living in Russia during the Trump age because it’s helped me put things in much greater perspective. I have three higher degrees in the humanities, the most recent being in conflict studies. While all of these disciplines tend to be associated with the extreme left of the political spectrum (and most of their scholars tend to remain there), if you really look at the message of something like conflict studies, it should put you in the middle. And for this reason, I’m particularly glad that I happen to be living here now.
In Russia I have friends of all political stripes. I have good friends here who are both liberal and conservative Russians, as well as Westerners from across the political spectrum. I consider myself extremely fortunate to know all of these people, and the more I talk to people here, the more aware I am of the increasing lack of dialog in America, and to some extent throughout the West right now. Everyone has a point of view for a reason, and I’m grateful to be living in an atmosphere where things are a little more “hands off” politically and I feel like I can take a step back and simply talk to people on a human level without getting caught up in a political whirlwind.
Everybody is saying how awful Russia is, particularly some Russians, who are saying bad things about the place all the time, it makes the foreigners look quite positive.
Again, I am lucky because I have many different circles of friends here. I know people who worked or studied in the West and are very much opposed to the regime here. I also have friends who may or may not support the regime per se but who certainly haven’t forgotten the fact that they used to be the other Superpower and want a strong leader who will give them a sense of pride. I think that we Westerners could certainly do a better job of trying to understand what people in former communist countries – and Russia in particular – have been through in the last 25 years. I think that sincere dialog is extremely important, and until people really make an effort to understand where other people are coming from, we will continue to have issues with one another.
I have run out of difficult questions!
It must be really interesting having so many groups of friends and living in these different worlds. Do you find that the foreign community is a bit isolated?
I think that there could be greater mixing, yes, but I’ve certainly lived in countries where expats are more isolated. Everyone loves Russian women, of course!
Please tell us a bit about your job.
I work for two companies that recently underwent a de facto merger. One of these is an American, British owned recruitment company, and the other is a South American owned tax/audit/legal consulting company. The staff of both of these companies is primarily Russian. I am the Client Relations Director for both parts, so I am in charge of selling all these services. Of course, it’s a very difficult market now, but it is not an impossible one.
What is it like living here as a woman?
There are different aspects to that question. If you are talking about safety, as my background is in conflict work I have worked in war zones and I know how to determine when there are actual dangers to be faced. I don’t feel this in Russia at all, and I’ve spent time in places like Chechnya, Dagestan, etc. In terms of why I would I want to live here, being a woman, this is a question I get asked a lot: how do you compete with Russian women?
That’s the underlying question.
That’s fine, people ask me that all the time. My answer is that I am not here for that reason. I am here because I am genuinely interested in Russia.
Do you think you are going to be living in Russia for a long time?
I think I will always be connected to Russia somehow, but in all honesty, I can’t say for sure. It depends on the economy and how things go with my work. I also run an NGO in Armenia and do a lot of freelance work on the side, so my life has many aspects to it. At the moment I’m happy here, even though the economic climate is a challenge.
What you advise would you give people who are thinking of coming here?
It depends to a large extent on what you want to do here of course. If people want to run a non-profit organisation, then I think it’s going to be quite difficult. But the most important thing is to be open-minded. I think that there are a lot of great things that Russia has to offer. It has gotten easier for minorities here, as well, at least in Moscow. The last time I lived here I would not have invited certain friends to visit because I didn’t think it would be easy for them here, but now I have friends of all racial/ethnic types, sexual orientations, etc., and they all have a place in society. Of course, there is still a long way to go as far as human rights are concerned – particularly for Russian citizens – but I wouldn’t fear for the safety of visitors now. We have issues in these areas in America too, of course.
Do you think that Russia is changing on a deep level at all?
The whole world is changing, I think, and it’s hard to isolate the idea of deep change in any one country these days because everything is connected. As some communication channels are being blocked, others are being built faster. While technology and other aspects of 21st century society are, I think, bringing people from different societies together, there are definitely still things that fundamentally distinguish Russia from other places. So, do I think that Russia is going to become a full-fledged western democracy in 50 years? Of course not. But I think that there are aspects of life that are making life significantly different in comparison to the way they were in the very recent past. And I think this process is going to continue.
Thank you very much Sarah.