In 1982 I visited Russia on school trip. I remember the impressive architecture of Red Square, the delight of St Petersburg (the sun shone), and a stunning night at the ballet. However this was Communist Russia, and I also remember being shocked by the queues for basic foodstuffs, the empty shelves in ‘Goum’, the basic accommodation in our ‘intourist’ hotel and the terrible food, which seemed to consist mainly of sour cream. I remember the demand for our jeans amused us all and a few kind friends did donate theirs…!
Russia has changed dramatically in the intervening years and I was fascinated to talk with Margarita Gokun Silver about the challenges and joys of Russia twenty nine years later. Margarita was born in Russia, but left shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union and is now married to an American Diplomat. Regular relocation is therefore a feature of her life and previous postings have taken them to Russia, Uzbekistan, Argentina, Italy, Poland and the Ukraine. Margarita lived in Russia from 2005 – 2009, currently lives in Miami, Florida and is owner of the Global Coach Centre where she develops and delivers expatriate and cross cultural training programmes and coaching.
This article gives an insight into the attractions of life in Russia, the challenges and the strategies that Margarita suggests will help expatriates adapt and flourish in Russia.
The first attraction that Margarita highlights is the sense of adventure and challenge that can come from a relocation experience to Russia. Ironically the extent to which you value this ‘attraction’ will depend on your personal ‘sense of adventure’. Possessing this, and an openness for challenging situations means that Russia will be a fascinating and exciting place for you; “It is never a boring place and will keep you on your toes…. be prepared to be open and to experience these differences positively” Margarita advises.
Russia is a vast country, 17,075,000km square to be precise, and so there is a wonderful opportunity to explore beyond the normal tourist trail of Moscow and St Petersburg. However travel beyond these cities is not easy, and whilst Russia caters well for tourists centrally, once you head into rural Russia you will need your sense of adventure, an open mind and an enthusiasm for ‘taking life as it comes’.
Margarita describes the Russian culture as fascinating, with a huge history, and great literary, dramatic and artistic influences. If you are interested in understanding Russia’ influence and impact on world history you will find this an excellent opportunity to indulge and absorb your passions. If you find yourself living in Moscow or St Petersburg there will be a great number of opportunities to participate in a wide range of cultural events, which Margarita describes as an enriching experience.
Expatriates relocating to Russia with family will always have educational considerations uppermost in their minds. The international educational options Margarita reports are good. There is a large Anglo-American school in Moscow and a smaller Anglo/American School in St Petersburg. Margarita’ daughter went to the latter and she says that it provided a small and friendly environment that she and her daughter enjoyed greatly. There are also a number of French, British, German and other schools.
An additional attraction for parents with children is the wonderful opportunity for children to learn sport, ballet and music. The Russian government invests hugely in educational opportunities for children in these areas and provided your children are happy to learn Russian they will benefit enormously and enjoy these programmes.
One of the most important issues for anyone moving abroad is the opportunities that exist for building a new social life. Social interaction and friendships are fundamental to easing the adaptation process. Whether you make friends with the locals or other expatriates often depends on language, access to local or expatriate communities, and how open the local community is to integrating with expatriates. Margarita describes the Russian society as pretty closed; it takes time to develop friendships with the local people. Even as a fluent Russian speaker herself, Margarita found that integrating with the Russian people was difficult initially. However there is a very good expatriate community and this Margarita suggests is where you should start in your initial attempts to build that all important social network. This does not mean you should not attempt to make friends with the locals, just accept that this can take time.
If you are interested in learning another language then Russia will certainly provide you with that challenge. Margarita warns that very few people will speak English on the streets or in shops, and so you will have to learn some basic Russian in order to shop and get around. You could have a driver to take you around, but most expatriates enjoy being self-sufficient and take language lessons to obtain a level of Russian that enables them to function day to day.
One of the greatest challenges for Margarita was the ‘winter’ weather. Her current sojourn in the sunshine capital of the US must be wonderful in contrast! In St Petersburg the winters are tough; months in a row without sun, and day-light only between ten in the morning and three in the afternoon. Add to this the heavy snow which causes the side-walks to become covered in slush, sand and salt, and life is pretty unpleasant out-of-doors. Moscow has just as much snow and is even colder than St Petersburg, but it has the advantage of being sunnier. Margarita advises a pair of very sturdy boots to help navigate the footpaths, and watch out for falling icicles – a serious winter hazard she warns.
Margarita describes the Russians on the streets or in the supermarkets as gloomy and not overly friendly. You also get the feeling that no-one really cares about the general public environment. This superficial view does not accurately reflect the true culture of the country, to understand this you must look deeper and develop an understanding of the history of Russia and its impact on the modern day culture.
When the Soviet Union fell apart, people started to look out simply for themselves. The philosophy became “I do what I want and if I’m OK that’s enough”. For this reason it can seem as though there is no public pride. Margarita told the story of a woman waiting at a bus-stop. She had sat on a bench and as she stood up someone noticed that she had chewing gum on her skirt and pointed it out to her. The lady took the chewing gum off, but instead of throwing it in the bin she replaced it on the bench!
Historically Russia, as a result of communism has been a collective society, one where relationships and community were valued before the individual. Since the end of the Soviet era and the advent of capitalism there has been a move to more individualism in society in general. However family and friends are still very important in Russian culture and Margarita cites this proverb as one that demonstrates how valued friendships are in Russia: “Don’t have 100 rubles, but have 100 friends”.
So it is really the external environment that gives the sense that people don’t care. Whereas in the past old ladies would have shouted at youngsters who dropped litter this is no longer generally the case. Duty and obligation that enforced good public behaviour in the past has now pretty much disappeared. However Margarita explains that there are movements trying to bring back some of the more positive aspects of the old collective thinking.
Business management in Russia can differ to the typical western management style. Although this will vary from company to company and will depend on the internal corporate culture. Generally, Russian employees will give the initiative in the workplace to the Boss, expecting clear direction about what needs to be done. As a result some Western Managers complain that little initiative is shown in the work place and are frequently frustrated when work is not followed up.
Margarita emphasises the importance of learning about the corporate and national culture. Understand the differences between how ‘you’ do work back home and how ‘they’ do work in this specific organisation in Russia.
For Russians in the workplace, relationships are very important. Therefore the new expatriate manager needs to spend time getting to know their team and building relationships rather than emphasising tasks and focusing on accomplishments and visible achievements.
Strategies for living and Working in Russia
- Cross Cultural Training – invest time in this before leaving your home country, this provides the foundation which may be topped up by additional cross cultural/expatriate coaching once you arrive in Russia. Taking time out to reflect upon your experiences and learn from them means that you are able to build your personal awareness and develop strategies that are effective for living and working in Russia.
- Learn Russian: Take thirty minutes out of each day to learn some basic Russian, it will help you to cope with everyday life and also shows that you care sufficiently about the country. It will also enable you to attend and enjoy cultural events and travel around Russia more comfortably. This in turn will feed into your cultural understanding and appreciation.
- Initially employ a driver: If you are living in Moscow or St Petersburg, try to employ a driver for while at the start, so that you can learn your way around. Always carry street maps in your car and bags.
- Accompanying partners: For the accompanying partner, Margarita emphasises the importance of learning the language and getting involved in the expatriate organisations. There is a good International Womens Clubs in Moscow (www.iwcmoscow.ru) and also in St Petersburg (www.iwcstpete.com). Also try InterNations.org which has an active group in Moscow and St Petersburg. Try to take group language classes as you are likely to meet other expatriates and so make new friends more easily.
- Don’t suffer in silence: there are plenty of groups, networks and online support programmes. Margarita emphasises the importance of recognising the need for help and then searching for appropriate solutions.
- Working in Russia: For the accompanying partner wishing to work whilst living in Russia, Margarita says permission to work needs to be sought and the petition supported by the employed partners company. If this is not possible then there is the option of getting involved in volunteer activities or developing an on-line business.
Margarita is the founder of the Global Coach Center and an Expatriate and Cross-Cultural Coach who works with individuals and companies to help them be more effective abroad. In addition to individual/group coaching and training, Global Coach Center offers a plethora of online resources and self-help for expatriates. Of note is an online cross-cultural training – “Welcome to Living and Working in Russia” (FREE excerpt recording available) – developed by Margarita and available for self-study online 24/7. You can learn more about the Global Coach Center here.
Author: Louise Wiles. Louise is an Expatriate Coach providing products and coaching support for people who are either working through a relocation decision, planning and preparing to move abroad or adapting to a their new life abroad. If you would like to contact Louise you can email her: Louise@SuccessAbroadCoaching.com or visit her website www.SuccessAbroadCoaching.com