John Harrison

The site was launched in July 2017, and the story of how and why, may be of interest to readers, as we celebrate our first one and a half years of existence. 

Moscow expat Life  magazine, of which I was the editor of, hit the rocks shortly after the 18thissue came out in March 2017. The publisher, Kim Waddoup had valiantly kept that publication going, and paid my salary, despite losing a large amount of his own money which he put into the project. The story of that magazine is best told by Kim himself, however let me just say that we probably started a magazine for expats at precisely the wrong time – only a year before Maidan. Nevertheless, for the following few years there was enough ‘expat life’ in Moscow to justify the magazine’s existence, and we enjoyed ourselves, thanks to Kim, within the ‘expat’ framework. In the end, the high costs of designing, printing and distributing a magazine added to the increasing weakness that the constant haemorrhaging of expats from Moscow caused. Fewer expats = a smaller market = no advertising = big time loss. Kim had to take a defensive position as regards whatever assets he had left in Russia. He left for a warmer climate, I don’t blame him.

John Harrison (left) and Kim Waddoup, 2016.

Before Moscow expat Life, there was another print magazine called PASSPORT magazine, which was initially started by two starry-eyed foreigners, one of them being yours truly and the other, my then partner Glen Cox in 2003. We were both working for a real estate agency called Intermark at the time. I pulled out of the new project almost immediately, actually after the bill for the opening party and preparations for the first issue came in. Glen continued with the project but also eventually saw beyond what can only be called the illusion of glory that being a publisher can bring, as his credit card debt increased. All praise to Glen though, as he carried on with the original concept, which was to basically provide a much-needed passport of information for foreigners living in Russia at the time. Editorial standards were high, there were some good writers and editors working for the magazine. This led to the magazine becoming respected, which meant that it became easier to sell advertising. A bit.

One of PASSPORT’s more interesting covers, this one from February 2010

Eventually, Glen had to seek serious financial help. Enter the American John Ortega, who took over the magazine and financed it from March 2004 to March 2012 when it eventually closed. Many didn’t like John, he sometimes came across in a brash way, and seemed to personify the gung-ho 1990s where spending hundreds of dollars for a night out (per person) was not unusual (he usually tabbed the bill for nights out at restaurants and exclusive wine tasting events, somewhat to the amazement of the magazine’s advertising manager), however it was only because of his generosity and persistency that the magazine lasted so long. I will not say how much John ploughed into that project, it doesn’t matter, although he may have got something from the magazine in PR terms. John is a hero and represented the idea of western capitalism and independent thinking of the time.There were still many foreigners then in Russia who were of the mindset that Russia was going to be like the west, thus they could put up with all ‘sorts of shit’ because in the end of the day they would get their money back. Many (but not all) foreign or partly foreign enterprises were actually making good money, to say the least, in those days. By 2012 it was clear that Russia was not going to be like the west for a while yet. Russia is Russia. After the financial crisis in 2009, more expats started to leave Russia than were arriving.

The PASSPORT website is still up in the internet graveyard: as is the Moscow expat Life site: Both sites are meaningful tributes to their publishers and also valuable sources of unique information for a whole generation of researchers who want(ed) to find out about how foreigners saw Russia in the first decade of this century. I was fortunate to have edited the trial issue of PASSPORT and all the issues from January 2010 onwards, so I opened and closed it.

It may be of interest to know how these magazines worked. PASSPORT followed the traditional triangular publishing model of publisher, sales manager and editor. Ideally, these three roles are not supposed to interlinked, although the publisher and advertising manager usually work closely together. Under the classic model, the editor enjoys real independence from the publisher; and advertorials are marked ‘sponsored content’ or the like. Editorial is credible and all of this increases readership. At PASSPORT this model worked reasonably well. We were able to pay writers and photographers. I remember with amazement now that I was able to pay $600 for a cover shot, as late as 2005. This was of course a pittance in comparison to US rates at the time. Some money came in from advertising. In a good month we actually covered our costs, however I think we made a profit in only half a dozen of the 97 issues of PASSPORT, of less than $1000 per issue. I would go to John and ask for money using comparative loss as justification: “Well John, we didn’t lose as much this time last year…” John’s face muscles did not move as he stared stoically through me, no doubt thinking why he had gotten involved with these “goddam” journos in the first place. But the next day all would be forgotten, literally. He would take us all out for dinner. Although we were not paid a great deal, we certainly did wine and dine well. This carried on for years.

Later I was to realise that those were the good old days. As the editor I was able to commission articles. This luxury hopefully enabled us to put together a rich package of articles each month not just for expats but for anybody wanting to know about what was happening in Russia, beyond the political level. We could afford sub editors – Alevtina Kalinina, for example, provided a series of interesting articles on the Arts in Moscow, John Bonar concentrated on business stories, Ian Mitchell on books and whiskey (they go together), Ross Hunter on a children’s section and Charles Borden together with John Ortega created a whole culture of wine tasting in Moscow.

By force of circumstances, Moscow expat Life broke many publishing traditions. Now there were only three roles — publisher and editor, with Kim handling sales and some editorial with me concentrating solely on editorial, distribution, and both of us engaging in PR activities. In line with modern publishing methods, MEL as it was affectionally called, was actually run on a shoestring. It looked solid, but in fact, because there was so little money coming in, and publishing is an expensive business, it was run out of three computers, Kim’s, mine, and the designer’s who all lived in different places. At some stage I was phoned up by Kommersant who wanted to interview the ‘editor-in-chief’ in ‘our offices’. The interview was to take place the next morning, so we hastily re-arranged one room of Kim’s offices which he used for his successful exhibition business, put up some banners, and hey presto we had an editorial office. They took some great photos of the headquarters of this new publishing empire, and the interview wasn’t bad. The writers received zilch for their efforts, so I ended up doing a lot more writing than at PASSPORT, mostly under pseudonyms. At first, I thought that this minimalistic publishing model wouldn’t work for a printed magazine. I was wrong. The writers; mostly expats, wrote about things that they knew about and were interested in, and these were the same things that people in the expat community were interested in, so the magazine became popular, within that community. Kim, like John Ortega before him, was brilliant at organising networking events and his signature ‘Moscow Good Food Club’, and ‘Moscow Business Networking’ events at Night Flight bolstered the publication, and these functions provided platforms for people to be in the right places with the right people, and then have their photos published in the right magazine, which everybody saw. This helped find people to write articles, for nothing. Both Kim and John were excellent at marketing; at creating desire, which we fulfilled. The downside of this publishing model was that articles sometimes were one of a kind, and the idea of the magazine being a glorified club was not everybody’s cup of tea, and it would be difficult to say that it was journalism.

The glitzy mythology we were creating only existed as long as the expat community was a glitzy and desirable place to be. The great expat exodus was already gathering momentum when the first issue came out in November 2012, but by mid 2015, 10 issues in (MEL was a quarterly), the expat community was probably at less half of its pre-2009 strength. By 2017 we were down to perhaps 10-30% of pre-2009 strengths. I say ‘maybe’ because despite what people may say, nobody actually knows the figures. The embassies ceased to record numbers a long time ago and the computerised records from the relevant Russian government agencies, if they exist, are not available, so I am going on what various ambassadors have told me they have estimated over the past decade. There is another problem with the term ‘expat’. Determining how many expats there are means that one knows what an expat is, and this was a problem I came up against time and time again as editor of MEL. Are people from Eastern Europe, India and a host of other countries ‘expats’? The answer was yes, they are expatriates, but their wealth and/or position rather than nationality was their entry ticket. So under this model, an ‘expat’ was more to do with status rather than anything else. The was not to everyone’s liking.

By 2017, there were fewer successful professional top-level manager expats from western countries in Moscow. The CEO of Renault Moscow, told me only two weeks ago that he is the only French man working at the company in Moscow. Armies of educated teachers and educators, many of whom are earning good salaries, as well as long-timers who have settled down in Russia are the new norm. As editor of MEL  I came up across people who did not want to be called ‘expats’ from mid-2016 onwards. “I am NOT an expat!,” said one foreigner from the U.S. angrily to me as early as 2015, even though he was of course an expatriate and earning well. He was protesting against the networking in a night club, misogynistic concept of expat life that we were creating. The world had moved on, and the expat world became just one of many available for foreigners, particularly as our home countries are predominantly post-deference. The connotations one associates with expats in Moscow is changing now, with forward looking business clubs leading the way. By calling a magazine ‘Moscow expat Life’, quite apart from the commercial problems, we had shot ourselves in the foot without realising it, although the high-flying pro expats are still here, they are all highly interesting people and are represented in the business associations/clubs.

Meanwhile, in March 2017 it became clear to Kim that MEL was no longer a going concern, although he had realised that a long time before that. In a state of shock, I started playing around with the idea of a web site, as a printed publication was, and still is, out of the question. I was heavily criticised for abandoning ship, except that nobody knew that the ship was no longer there, I was never a partner and could not survive more than a couple of months without income in freezing water. I spent sleepless nights relearning html coding, gave up, started again, and then decided to forget the whole thing. Then, by accident, I heard about WordPress, bought a template for about $50 and was up and running in one day. The site doesn’t cost very much to launch and maintain, but it does cost time. 

It was time for a rethink. Instead of catering solely for people living here, why not create a project that would be of interest to foreigners living here, whoever they are, and at the same time be interesting for people interested in Russia abroad? In this sense the new project has some of the characteristics of PASSPORT magazine. Hence the simple idea – Knowledge about Russia, or ‘RussiaKnowledge’ (RK).

The new project had to be non-political, but that soon proved to be impossible as the geopolitical situation had become so bad that writing anything that remotely says that living in Moscow is not dangerous, worse, that it’s enjoyable meant that one is immediately accused of being a Putin’s Useful Idiot. That being the case, we decided to unabashedly write about some of the good things that are happening here, and have posted material about the bad as well, and will continue to do so. Another RK principal is that all material posted on the site should be original (not copy/pasted from a collection of articles selected by a google search function on Russia). The other main idea is to try and explain Russia in terms of culture, because I for one, believe that this is the underlying secret to understand Russia, any country in fact. This of course is impossible, as trying to explain a culture as diverse, different and deep as Russian culture and still keep an audience is daunting. But recently, somewhat magically, some wonderful writers such as Daniel Brooks and Michael Craig have materialised who look at Russian culture from a foreigners’ point of view, and that is interesting. Whilst some people want to read Russians’ own understanding of their own culture, foreigners can act as a bridge. It has been fascinating for me to find out what people like to read the most over time, something that a website allows one to do, and the most popular articles are unbiased informational pieces about Russian culture (at least as unbiased as one can be even though whatever position you take in any dialogue, does mean you adopt some kind of bias) and ‘how to’ informational articles about education for example. The expat articles are also widely read, but only locally.

Talking about statistics, the site has between 250 and 600 unique visitors a day, with an average of about 1,000-2,000 page views a day, at least that is what the stats programme in WordPress tells me. One of the many differences between a web publication and printed publications is that readers can access archives, instantly, and now we have 309 articles (as of 30.12.18); there is quite a lot of material there. About 45% of readers are in Russia, the majority are in the US, UK, Europe, Australasia, India and places like Thailand where many of the previous expats have made their homes.   

These are as yet early days, I am aware that this project could really take off, but to do that, it also needs to be properly financed. There is so much more that can be done, so many more fascinating parts of this country and her culture to be written about. Whilst the site is low cost the time needed to run it isn’t. Some of the authors which hopefully you enjoy reading need to be paid. They do not receive much for their efforts but nevertheless it does add up, as the frequency of articles is now also on the up. I am very lucky to have Brookes School as a sponsor, they have been fantastic, but to maintain and improve standards, and attract professional writers to cover more areas, I have to ask for sponsorship. If you want to get on board a project that I think can become something important, and can hopefully benefit you as well, please do let me know. Soon.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2019 from all of us at RussiaKnowledge. 

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John Harrison © 30.12.18