That Place Called Russia 1. Introduction.

John Harrison

Over the past few decades, many foreigners, often known by that catch-all word: ‘expats’, have ventured beyond the borders of ‘safe’ Western countries and made it to countries such as Russia and China which were previously closed. Why did they venture so far? Why do people travel to other lands? Why did migrants cross the seas and then the plains to the West coast of America? Money and career development is the obvious answer. The new place called ‘Russia’ offered fantastic opportunities for the ambitious and courageous to gather shekels in the 1990s, and still does although the ‘market place’ has changed considerably and requires a real ability to adapt.

There are many different kinds of people within the world of ‘expats’ and there are even some foreigners who do not wish to be associated with ‘expats’ at all. One part of this community of foreigners is made up by professional expats — such as accredited journalists, diplomats, and businesspeople who are posted to Russia. In the 1980s and 1990s they found the ‘Wild East’ a tremendous challenge but at the same time, to be a Pandora’s box full of both opportunities and shocks of mind staggering proportions. Some loved it, some hated it, but nobody can ever forget it. In recent years, however, Russia has become in many respects more similar to other western European countries, a few people even say that business practices are more regulated and transparent than many countries, so the surprise element has perhaps seeped out of the equation, but the underlying difference in culture and all that culture entails, remains.

In the early days, there were not very many professional expats. Only a handful of companies from each major western country was licenced to operate in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After legislative changes were introduced by Gorbachev in the late 1980s, something quite extraordinary happened in Russia – an explosion of capitalism, albeit with certain Russian characteristics – shook the country. More and more corporations set up shop in Russia, particularly but not exclusively in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and brought with them an increasing number of foreign experts, with management experience and technical know-how. But the ‘professionals’, who were mostly highly educated and skilled, often with experience living in other countries previous to coming to Russia were soon outnumbered by another group of foreigners. In about 1990, the floodgates opened. The word spread that Russia was ‘hot’, and the girls even hotter. Large numbers of people, particularly young men saw Russia as a good place to make money; they could leverage their western know how at a time when the country was on her knees. Their know-how was in many cases nothing exceptional, but in Russia, their view of the world and way that they did things was very much in vogue, and their services were much in demand. As a theatre designer once said to me: “all you [foreigners] needed to do in the late 1980s was to walk down the street with your levis on, and people would stare, with spell bound expressions. They wanted to talk to you, they wanted you.” That sort of attitude didn’t really change until the mid to late 1990s. Then it changed very quickly. Few of the ‘pioneers’ – for that is what they were, spoke Russian; but it didn’t matter as most Russians (at least those who they came in contact with) spoke English to varying degrees, and anyway, “all the girls wanted to speak English,” as my friend Tom said to me.

However, the self-made entrepreneurs and their senior professional expatriates were not the only foreigners in Russia. There had been a trickle of students (two or three hundred in all from all western countries at the most per year, and the figure varied dramatically deepening on how strained East-West relations were), post graduate research students and even university lecturers coming to the Soviet Union since the 1960s. Education was one of the only ways to circumnavigate the Iron Curtain if you weren’t a diplomat. When Russia suddenly became the place to go, and Russia Studies courses, selling themselves with newly set up language exchange programmes within the new Russia, the number of young western students who travelled to Moscow, St. Petersburg or certain selected provincial centres such as Voronezh and even Kiev (Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until December 1991) grew exponentially. The language course programs and exchanges lasted months, possible as much as a year. Having returned home to finish their studies, the students graduated with more than a degree, they finished with knowledge of a brand-new country which was transforming before their very eyes. But that, as yours truly was to discover, did not help them acquire jobs in the new Russia. Finding a job in the tough, take it as it comes, gone tomorrow Russia, was quite possible but not easy without the necessary street skills, something that academia alone failed to provide.

The foreigners who came to Russia to earn money boarded a roller coaster of exceedingly interesting and often traumatic adventures. They rapidly spiralled upwards into positions that enabled them to do things that they could not have dreamt of, and were earning very reasonable sums of money, mostly tax free. In those days, the western media was not hostile, and being in Russia was considered to be sort of funky despite the mafia type stereotypes which abounded at the time, and which, surprisingly (for a stereotype about Russia), was pretty accurate for all of three years.

Many of these people were soon to find that the companies who employed them closed down, been taken over, gone bankrupt, or perhaps never existed in the first place. The journey down from dizzy heights was short and painful for many. But they were young and strong and this was the experience of their lives. Up they came, they might have changed jobs a few times, started a company, sold it and created another which went bust, and then re-invented themselves in ways that were/are only possible in Russia. Most of these people, as at the time of writing, have abandoned Russia, found things didn’t work out for them at home, and returned to Russia, a process that might have happened more than once. Bad as Russia may have been, it provided opportunities for people which are very hard to come by elsewhere. Most, however, left Russia after things started turning nasty financially after the 2008 crash, or hung on for a few years, but when relations between the West and Russia turned very nasty in 2014 onwards, sold out while the going was still relatively good. Some died of natural causes (alcohol is organic) and others are still with us, enjoying a kind of ‘after-life’, quietly and successfully teaching English, drinking with the few remaining fellow foreign friends and living off investments if they were lucky and wise. That white-haired person by the bar of an expat hangouts such as the bar at ‘Chicago Prime’ might now be teaching , happy to be getting a good hourly rate which will be 5 or even 10 times more than Russian university professors receive per hour lecturing, even though the teacher concerned may be unqualified. Native English speakers still being highly valued here, and perhaps all those linguistics are actually not very useful of your client actually wants to speak the language. But, that same foreigner (yes, usually a man in Russia) by the bar, only a few years ago, might have been running a multimillion dollar company behind unmarked doors in a non-descript Moscow office building not very sure about where to put his money because he was making too much of it.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that business people were the only foreigners in Russia. Certainly, we hear about them more than anybody else, because they are the most vocal through their clubs, associations and contacts with the embassies and press corps. The English language international press is generally dominated by news and views for and from this section of the ‘community’ of foreigners in Russia, and their views are generally held to be representative of the wider community of foreigners. At least that was the case up until roughly the year 2000, when the views of many foreigner business people, and not only of the business community, began to seriously diverge from that of their western governments and main stream media outlets. More shall be written about this in the final chapters of this book.

Other groups of foreigners who are hardly ever mentioned include the many hundreds, indeed thousands of qualified school teachers who went to work in Russia. What do the people working in the Arts here think of Russia? What do the academics and scholars who are still here think? And what do people in business who have actually managed to survive and adapt think now? One possible reason why the views of such people are hardly found in various medias is perhaps because they see little point in telling others about their experiences, for two reasons: firstly, nobody would believe them without sympathising, and secondly, they have started to acquire a curiously Russian quality – that is of being rather good at experiencing the ‘now.’ In other words, life is good.

People’s perceptions of Russia have changed depending on how long, and how deeply they have ‘got into’ Russia. Everything in Russia appears to be interconnected, although that may be a rather hippie thing to say. Even such a solid thing as the economy is not free of cultural influences, and I am sure the same could be said about any economy. However perhaps because of her geographical and political isolation, cultural differences in Russia appear to be more marked, despite the fact that European Russians look very much like Europeans, and in fact ARE Europeans. After 30 years here, I can say that Russia is not something that you can ‘do’ in a few weeks, months of even years. Russia appears to be an ongoing experience, it is a mountain to be climbed, the scale of which one only begins to appreciate on approaching what looks like a peak but in fact, quite tragically, only appears to be a high point in the foothills. Then you find out that since you have been on the journey that tectonic plates have shifted and the place called Russia occupies a different place in the global make up of things. The tensions between those who believe that culture is down the road from politics and those who believe the opposite is discussed indirectly in this book, as is the necessity to avoiding simply putting it all down to ‘culture’.

The task of understanding Russia is further complicated by the fact that many Russians themselves are only now really coming to terms with what it means to be a Russian. Many foreigners, and I include myself in this description, were incredibly naive when they arrived, but not perhaps as naive as the majority of Russians who arrived in Russia when they woke up on the 27thth of December 1991 to find out that they were no longer living in the country they grew up in. In that sense, using the word ‘expat’ in a country full of ‘expats’ is inappropriate. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for us, the country they were raised in did not provide any survival training in capitalism, and I think it can be said with a fair amount of certainty, that most did not fully understand the implications of what had happened. Their own fundamental desire to better themselves was sincere, which made the pain even more appalling when it all came tumbling down in the early and late 1990s under Yeltsin, thus setting in motion a chain of events which led to the recreation of a strong, but different centre much to the chagrin and genuine offence of all the western institutions which had so wanted Russia to become part of the West.

Gaining an understanding why western ways have failed to catch on in Russia is the underlying message of this book. I have framed my writings primarily on my own and other foreigners’ actual experiences in Russia, rather from secondary sources. To place the political and economic changes within some kind of credible framework, from time to time I will apply to respected external sources. The first chapter of this book will be posted on the RussiaKnowledge site next month and concerns a description of events which led up to my move to Moscow in September 1987, and a subjective look at the view of Russia in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, as I think it is important to record some of the sentiments towards Russia in those times whilst I am still able to do so. I hope you may enjoy reading these chapters, they are not the final version of this book. Any feedback would be particularly welcome harrisonj@outlook.com  .

All rights belong to John Harrison under UK copyright law.   

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