─ When was it that you first came over to Moscow?
─ Way back in 1979. I came for a little bit of Russian language practice. My university friends were learning French or Spanish, but I wanted to do something out of the ordinary. Which is why I chose Russian and Chinese. After university, I received a grant from the British Council to learn Russian, and I spent a memorable year in the Russian capital, practising my Russian and getting to know the Russian culture. I also lived for a time in China, but that was later.
Came to Moscow in 1987. Worked at Raduga publishing house. In 1989, founded the media company IntoRussia Ltd., helping Western companies enter the Russian market. Since 2006, editor-in-chief and director of CRE (Commercial Real Estate magazine), published by the Russian company ImpressMedia. Since September 2008, editor-in-chief of Moscow’s Passport Magazine, aimed at expats in Russia. And, since 2012, editor-in-chief of the magazine Moscow Expat Life. John Harrison is Professor of PR and Social Networking at the American Institute of Business and Economics. As well as this, he is a renowned artist, regularly featuring in exhibitions in the capital (www.johnharrisonart.net).
When I got back to London, I started looking for a job. But who’s bothered that if know Russian? The Cold War was at its height. It came to the point where I took a job as a taxi driver just to makes ends meet.
A job did turn up: in Moscow. In 1987. At the Raduga publishing house. I translated Soviet detective novels and some other dubious literature into English. It enabled me to rent a flat.
Then, I set up my company IntoRussia Ltd. We were helping businessmen establish contacts, printing brochures, writing screenplays, making films, producing promotional material. But it was only a small company and it didn’t really have the resources. Even now, Russia is not the most economically stable country in the world, and then, it was all the more so. Basically, I gave it all up and went back to London. I studied Russian literature and received my doctorate. Then I worked for a couple of years in Beijing. In 2006, I came to Moscow again. I was the chief property editor, and then editor-in-chief, of Passport Magazine.
─ How did Moscow Expat Life magazine come into being?
─ Passport Magazine is a magazine for expats. A couple of years ago, it was experiencing problems, and had to close for financial reasons. The niche for an English-language magazine about foreigners living in Russia became vacant. And so, I turned to the British entrepreneur Kim Waddoup who has been successfully doing business in Russia for several decades. I had known Kim for a long time by then, and we had even been about to start another magazine, but the time wasn’t right. And then, two years later, it all came together: Kim and I were in the right place at the right time, and we launched Moscow Expat Life. We adapted several of the concepts from Passport to the new publication. And we concentrated on the life of expats in Moscow, to better understand their issues and concerns.
─ Has anything changed in the lives of expats in Russia in recent years?
─ Up until the events in Ukraine, Russia was moving towards the West, and the differences with Europe were becoming fewer and fewer. Some foreigners were even complaining about this. Now, even the people who come here are not the same as before. In the 90s, Russia attracted real cowboys, looking for an adventure. Now though, those who come to Moscow already have their good overseas job lined up here. Expats are sent here by foreign companies or are invited by Russian ones. This went on before, but what is particularly characteristic now, is that: coming to Moscow today are highly qualified professionals, top-level management, and not those in search of adventure. For them, Russia is just another foreign workplace, one which pays well, too. Whereas before, the conditions here were considered to be unique. Then, people came here not just for the sake of money and their careers.
─ Were you also looking for adventure?
─ Of course! On the wall over there, is a painting I did from life in the 90s: a queue for meat. There wasn’t any meat. I remember I couldn’t even buy sugar. Tinned meat, horsemeat, jars of sprats. But that was an adventure, I liked it! I was enraptured by music, I made friends with musicians, hung out with the underground, immersed myself in the cultural scene.
─ Do you still keep in contact with those in the arts scene?
─Yes I do. But in recent years, people, Russians included, are more and more concerned only with money. Their psychology has realigned itself towards earning money. And in this respect, Russians are no different from, let’s say, the French or Germans. The days of romance have gone. A severe, materialistic way of life reigns supreme. Even so, Russia is still not the West. Everything here can change within the space of a month.
─ Are you not up for adventure anymore?
─ For the last ten years, I have been working exclusively as the chief editor of magazines. It started with a magazine about property: I set up and headed the magazine CRE Russia, published in Moscow by ImpressMedia. Then there was the English-language magazine Passport. And now, there’s Moscow Expat Life. We help our readers – expats – to get a better grasp of the fact that they are living in Russia, and not in the West, or in the East, either. The people here have a unique, Slavic culture. Very few understand it properly.
─ In which way, then, are the Slavs different?
─ Friendship here is not like it is in the West. Friendships are built slowly, indeed over many years, sometimes a whole lifetime. And business here, in a certain sense, is clannish. Business partners are often found through friends and relatives. Advertising barely works here, and PR brochures, overall, go straight in the bin. They say that Russians are unsmiling and gloomy. But why am I obliged to be jolly? – asks the Russian. Russians are honest. They are organically incapable of publicising themselves. To a Russian this is an utterly alien cultural phenomenon.
─ Is it possible to calculate how many expats there are in Moscow, in Russia?
─ It is a far from straightforward question because not only do the statistics themselves vary, but so does the way people from other countries are categorised. According to some estimates, about 500,000 specialists come to Russia from Western Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Of these, around 100,000 are top-level management. Some maintain that all 500,000 can be classed as expats; others, that only 100,000 of them. Overall, of course, demonstrably more than half of them are in Moscow. There are quite a few in Saint Petersburg, too. Fewer in the other cities. The further away you get from Moscow, the fewer of them there are.
─ In which parts of the Russian economy do expats tend to work the most?
─You can find expats in any of the large Russian cities where there is industry, and the way they are distributed largely reflects the structure of the Russian economy. There are a lot of expats in the oil and gas industry and generally wherever there is mineral extraction going on, a lot in the banking sector, in IT, HR companies, and in companies’ HR departments. There are many expats in the education system. In terms of numbers, there are more there than in the banking sector, but as far as total income is concerned, their presence in the banking sector is more significant. The role of foreigners in the Russian economy is a noticeable one: vast amounts of money move through the companies they work in.
─ And what is the geographical pattern of expats’ origins?
- Most of all come from the neighbouring West. Many from Eastern Europe, especially Poland: there are around 50,000 in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. But not all of them are expats in the strict sense of the word: sometimes it would be more accurate to say that they are just living in Russia. There are also a lot of expats from Western European countries: Germany and Britain. There are about 5,000 Britons, more from Germany, but, in any case, they aren’t in the hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands.
─ What trends in Moscow expat life have you observed?
─ A noticeable reduction in number. I think that over ten years, the number of expats in Moscow has diminished by at least a third. But that is normal. A million foreigners are not what is needed here. Many left because of the crisis: the Russians simply did not have the money to pay foreigners higher salaries. Then, for that money, it was possible to hire two to three local workers who had, by that time, already begun to gather the necessary qualifications.Now, Russians have accumulated experience, enough of it to occupy those positions laid claim to by expats. Of course, many key positions in large foreign firms are still held by expats, but the general trend of replacing expats with Russians will, I think, endure.
─ Do expats, your readers, ever find Moscow lacking in something which they are used to in the West?
─ For those who come here now: companies provide them with a flat, medical services. Expats receive the full package of Western services. I’m talking primarily, of course, about top management and valued experts. But there are also teachers and doctors.
─ Do expats stay on for long in Russia?
─ Usually they sign a contract for three to five years. Expats strive to give a good account of themselves in Moscow. As a rule, Russia is not their first overseas job, just another stepping stone in their career. Once they’ve finished working, they leave. There is a high level of uncertainty here, which is usually the reason why expats go. They get tired of having to solve problems they have only just solved because the situation has changed yet again. But some expats do stay on in Russia long-term.
─ Is it difficult for a foreigner launching a business in Russia?
─ In the 90s, it was possibly simpler. But it can be done now, as well. The main thing is to respect the laws of the country in which you are living and working.
─ We’ve been talking only about work. What about leisure time? How do you relax?
─ I have a dacha near Vereya. There’s a house with a garden. But I don’t do anything with the garden: I decided to let my land revert to its natural state. The neighbours are horrified.
─ Do you not find the Russian winters off-putting?
─ They are wonderful. It’s a severe climate, but winters are supposed to be cold, otherwise what kind of a winter is that. Although the climate has changed: the winters aren’t what they used to be. The Russian winter is sometimes similar to those in London. In summer, it’s hot. I remember the peatbogs catching fire. That’s another one of my paintings: people sitting at VDNKh in smog masks, smoking.
─ And the clubs which expats frequent, do you go, too?
─ Yes, but more so through work. I never used to. I wanted to talk to Russians, and get to know Russia. Now I understand that a club can be interesting and useful because it is where people from various backgrounds and various countries share their experiences. That kind of interaction helps you to understand what is going on around you. And, for business, that is always important.