What is an expat in Russia?

Definition of expatriate in English according to the Oxford English dictionary:



Pronunciation /ɪksˈpeɪtrɪət//ɛksˈpatrɪət//ɛksˈpeɪtrɪət//ɪksˈpatrɪət/

  • 1A person who lives outside their native country.

‘American expatriates in London’

  1. 1archaic An exile.

If we take the first meaning of the word, we are all expatriates, end of story. The term is all inclusive and at the same time very exclusive. Do we consider Polish workers in the UK or Syrian refugees in Berlin to be ‘expatriates?’ In Russia, do we include citizens from Central Asia, can ‘starbaiteri’ be expatriates?  What about Poles, Ukrainians, Indians and Chinese? In what way do ‘expats’ differ from ‘foreigners’, ‘migrants’ or ‘immigrants? By how much they earn, by their social standing, by what bars they go to? Perhaps the size of their ‘packages’, and the schools that such people send their children to and so on can be used to determine whether a person is an ‘expat’ or ‘just?’ a ‘foreigner.’

Clearly the Oxford definition differs from the way that the word is actually used. This is not unusual; the English language is fluid, adaptable and dictionaries sometimes simply cannot keep up. It has, however occurred to me recently when reading the current sleuth of articles announcing the latest exit of expats from Russia, that the earth shattering declarative headlines such as ‘Expat Exodus’ and ‘You Are No Longer Needed’ is not matched by any real attempt to clarify who we are actually talking about.

So who are the expats? Looking at the way the word is used will perhaps reveal some clues. In its mostly negative country report on Russia, HSBC has placed Russia 32nd in its overall ranking of expat destinations, down from 17th in 2014. Elsewhere in its Expat Economic Survey it is reported that ‘only’ 13 percent of expats globally earned $250,000 a year or more, with Russia topping the table, followed by Singapore and Bermuda. At least that was what was reported; I could not find that figure in the HSBC’s reports, perhaps they wisely deleted it. So according to this way of looking at Russia, we can now presume that expats are high earning people who mostly rent accommodation and enroll their children in international schools and do not like confronting cultural encounters. My earnings are less than one tenth of the $250,000 a year benchmark, so I might as well not even get out of bed in the morning because I know that whatever I do, I will never make the expat grade. Perhaps I should join a counter-expat underground movement. Grrr!

But wait a minute, what then should we call the hundreds of thousands of Indians, Poles and Ukrainians who live here? I doubt that too many of them make the grade either? Perhaps expats is something to do with post-colonialism? That could well be part of it, because many of us are paid decent money precisely because we are engaged in disseminating knowledge, skills and outlooks originating in the once colonial West. We are the unconscious tools of globalisation, that nasty neoliberal anachronism for world domination (half serious joke)! A West which was, and in some cases still is, colonial in its outlook.

The danger is, however, that one group of expats tends to think that all foreigners who have come here think in the same way, or at least should do. In the past, we all got on famously with each other, when the ‘West’ was the West and ‘Russia’ was Russia. Today, what with Trump, Brexit, sanctions and everything that has happened here and there over the past decade or so, we have one group or other that claims the high moral expat ground; generally speaking those which fit into the HSBC mind set and those who aspire to do so, and a collection of different other expat worlds which partially overlap, but yet often do not coincide at all. There is one group of ultra-high fliers who do not attend any of the expat functions for example, and there are of course the diplomats who are not able to take part in ritualistic group selfies. There are those who simply do not care, and there are some exceptionally gifted people who can glide between these different worlds. As for me, I encounter parallel universes, not even worlds, full of say academics and to lesser extent international school teachers who earn far more than many realise thank you, and who are often offended when they are called the ‘e-word’.

One of the many theories that has been floating around inside my head to explain all of this recently goes as follows: Russians in the European part of Russia are, dispute they own insistence that they are a special hybrid race, actually Europeans, at least more European than eastern. Thus those of us who also come from countries with a base Christian culture can actually integrate quite easily, without losing our identities.  This can be seen to result in fragmentation of the great ‘expat’ idea in Russia as people who have integrated to a greater or lesser degree may not wish to spend too much time with people who have not integrated. When I was an expat in China, even though I spoke (at the time) fluent Chinese, I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never ever integrate and thus felt at home mixing socially with other expats whoever they were and wherever they came from. If there was a hierarchy of expats it wasn’t felt; the cultural difference between us and them was sufficiently wide to create a common, accepting, non-Chinese cultural space within China. Such a space is difficult to find in CP. Another theory is that living in Russia has got too political. Here we are in a polemic environment in which some embassies have had to retreat to political roles only, which has inevitable led to the alienation of some who have grown to understand (but not necessarily accept) the Russian view of the world, thus one group of foreigners stands against another politically, and this can divide people. It is true that many of us remember the days when we all stood together, forging a life for ourselves here against all odds, and in many cases very successfully. Following that narrative, we have become victims of our own success; we have created hundreds if not thousands of individual worlds for ourselves and our families that are not by default comprehensible for many newcomers. Busy surviving, we have perhaps forgotten that as the surface level of Russia constantly changed, we changed as well, depending on how deeply we engaged in Russian culture. The speed of our journeys has not been standard; time passes by at different speeds at different depths of cultural immersion, and gears don’t mesh when they cannot synchronise.

Whatever the reason, at the present time, we have a situation where not all foreigners feel comfortable with the connotations and implications of the word ‘expat.’ The problem is, er, what other word do we use? ‘Immigrants?’ No way! Foreigners sounds a bit naff to me, but until someone comes up with something better, I go with that.


John Harrison © RussiaKnowledge