4th Edition. 1st edition published in 2013, 2nd edition in 2015, 3rd in 2017.

Published by Intermark Relocation, Moscow, Russia

Available in late June.

Review by John Harrison

The somewhat iconic ‘Why Russians Don’t Smile‘; has been updated by Luc Jones, the author. Here is what he wrote for RK to explain why the book was updated:

Russia is possibly the most misunderstood country in the world, as least from a Westerner’s perspective. Our mistaken assumption is that since Russians look like we do, they must therefore think, act and behave exactly as we do. Then, when they invariably don’t, we struggle to comprehend why not.

There are countless stereotypes about Russia, often exaggerated by the international media, none of whom have any interest in portraying Russia as a ‘normal’ country. The narrative is rarely positive, and the feeling amongst both Russians and foreigners living here is that the story has been written to fit in with the Editor-in-Chief’s mindset. 

My initial decision to write the first edition of ‘Why Russians don’t Smile’ was to serve as a myth-buster for foreigners coming to Russia/CIS on business, or perhaps planning to move here to live and work. After being presented with a copy, the usual response was: “Thank you, but I wish I had read this several years ago, before I began dealing with Russians!”

For subsequent, updated editions, I have changed the angle slightly so that it appeals more to Russians who work with foreigners. Whilst it’s unlikely that the book will teach Russians much (if anything) that they didn’t already know, many have commented to me that it’s interesting to read about how they are viewed by outsiders.

The 4th edition has just been released, and I have added a section about the Far East of Russia, and have considerable expanded & updated the chapters about some of the CIS countries, notably Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Azerbaijan & Uzbekistan. This is to reflect the significant changes in each region, plus their growing attractiveness amongst businesspeople based in Moscow.

Enjoy this latest edition and as always, I welcome feedback, both positive and critical.

I was kindly given the opportunity to read the latest edition and was pleased to see that Luc Jones has managed to acquire a number of additional commercial backers for his new edition. This means that the book is liked, read and is useful. Fraser Lawson from the book’s publishers, ‘Intermark Group Inc.’ (Intermark is active in many spheres it should be noted) has written an interesting foreword putting more recent developments Russia in perspective, and making it clear what a very different country Russia is in comparison with 2010. There being ‘no return’ to the ‘go-go’ days of the ‘noughties’ (the days of the anything goes Wild East), or the early 2000s when foreigners enjoyed a kind of ‘Golden Age’ in Russia. Having said that he points out that the country still offers real opportunities for those prepared to play by the new rules, or rules which were actually on the statute book a long time ago which are now being enforced.

The book offers a short and surprisingly good introduction to Russia and the CIS, covering history, geography, religion and nationality. On reading through it, one becomes immediately aware that the target audience are business people, and basically all the information offered is tailored to provide useful, if not vital information for anybody contemplating, or already working in Russia who perhaps missed out on Russian (or Soviet for old timers) studies at university, and more importantly (excuse me all you you academics out there), real ‘hands-on’ experiences. At this level, this work functions very well, and fits a niche that is not really been met at the moment by any current publication.

Book reviews can be subjective, and as Luc Jones has mention that feedback, even critical, is welcome, I will allow myself to mention a few shortcomings which in no way defeat the overall positive reaction on seeing this work which does, at a minimum, provide a great deal of very useful information for certain categories of people, which Luc includes under the overall umbrella of ‘expats’. These people are, I read: Mostly senior management of multinational corporations who spend 3-4 year terms in Russia. ‘Repats’; Russians who emigrated to the west and have returned to take up senior positions, as well as ‘Russ-Pats’; westerners, like me, who came here because they are genuinely interested in the place. Herein lies the problem with this book, because it is difficult to see how ‘Russ-Pats’ can actually benefit from the wealth of information that is in this book.

The very term ‘expat’ is somewhat of a controversial subject for such people. “I am not an ‘expat’” I heard a very respected member of the community saying, as if he was being called a dirty word. The problem here is in the interpretation of what an ‘expat’ is. I gather from this book that an ‘expat’ is a person who works in a senior position, and earns enough to utilise the services of relocation companies. According to that definition, the multitude of foreign teachers, for example, who now outnumber the number of businesspeople by far are excluded, regardless of the fact that many of them earn as much (especially those working for International schools) as middle ranking businesspeople or more, are not really expats, and most do not feel themselves to be so. This is especially true if one also considers that their salaries are relatively crisis-free, (crises happen frequently here – when are we not experiencing a crisis?, one foreigner recently asked me). If there is a problem with this book, it is that it tries to include ‘Russ-Pats’ within the concept of ‘expats’, when in fact they can belong to very different mind sets. There remains no real representation for this group in Moscow, perhaps because a stereotype that has not been busted is that they are not financially significant. The other reason is that many of these people no longer look at life in terms of only being connected with financial success alone (the influence of Russian culture), although most are, quietly, doing nicely, thank you.

It is presumed that the West means the Anglo-American West, although the author does offer a declaimer by saying that ‘Africans, Asians, those from the Middle East…’ are not really the target audience as the companies that they work for are ‘likely to be based in Europe.’ There are, however, many well-off ‘expats’ who visit and work in Russia, such as Indians and Chinese who do not particularly celebrate western culture although they abide by (sometimes reluctantly) western business norms, and this is a distinction that has not been pointed out clearly enough.

Speaking as a self-admitted ‘Russ-Pat’, who ‘God-forbid’ owns and enjoys a dacha, the book sets out to ‘bust myths’ and it does to a certain extent, but the title itself is rather a misnomer to me. It is not really relevant if you hail from Scotland, for example, which I have done for the last 10 years. Try walking round weegie-land, even on a sunny day (which there aren’t many of, this summer excluded), the word ‘dour’ does not go far enough to describe the expressions on people’s face, although they are not as dour as my respected colleagues who inhabit lands to the North East of Karelia, who are as not known for being exceedingly smiley, although also, ‘expats’. If we presume that Luc wishes to bust the very old fashioned myth that Russians don’t smile, then the title works.

The book offers excellent advice for those seeking employment in Russia, but rather amusingly does not mention some rather embarrassing aspects such as the fact that many wives of male executives do not look at a posting in Russia particularly positively, because they know only too well what kind of competition Russian women may be (for their husbands). In this case, the concept of a ‘trailing wife’ may hold an additional, perhaps too touchy a meaning. This is a controversial subject talked about behind guarded IWC doors.

As already mentioned, the book does manage to pack in a wealth of really useful information for those wishing to engage in business here, and is well worth reading. The ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s’ are very useful and even amusing. The section on superstitions is also useful to look through, although Russians do not regard these beliefs as being superstitions. I have to admit that the section on the Russian psyche is boldly accurate, when looked at from a western point of view, which is the standpoint of this book, however, the book veers off into rather dangerous territory when covering the attitudes of Russians towards foreigners. Such attitudes vary vastly in accordance with education levels, income, age, experience, location, and a host of other factors. The trap of trying to make this book a definitive work on Russia, is a completely impossible task, but is very seductive isn’t it?

There is a welcome addition in the new edition to regions and cities outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Perhaps Luc Jones is going too far to include a section on countries which used to be part of the old USSR, but I suppose that there is a stereotype that these countries are similar enough to Russia to be included within the covers of one book.

Overall, this edition of ‘Why Russians Don’t Smile’ is a worthy achievement, and I do recommend it. It packs a very large amount of information into 159 pages. However, perhaps the author should, in future editions, consider not to try to cover everything, or create several books.