The very first winter, I bought a fur hat with ear-flaps
— I grew up in the suburbs of one of America’s oldest cities: Philadelphia. I studied Russian Language and Literature at university and carried out research into Central Europe, Eurasia and Russia. The first time I came to Moscow was as an exchange student in my third year in. I noticed something instantly: America is highly structured. Americans think logically, whereas the majority of Russians are very spontaneous. For example, some students and I had been making arrangements to go to Red Square five evenings beforehand when, half an hour before we were due to go, the Russians on my course suddenly changed the plan completely, and we ended up going to eat in a restaurant instead. And there a lot of such examples.
America is highly structured. Americans think logically, whereas the majority of Russians are very spontaneous.
— Did you manage to find a job back home after university, or did you find yourself on the “Eastern Front” straightaway?
— In the States, I worked on projects related to protecting the rights of indigenous ethnic minorities. I was already working with Russian experts while I was over there.
— When were you invited to come and work here in Moscow?
— That was in 2011, for the recruitment agency Action. It is owned by a Frenchman: most of the clients were French companies. At my going-away party, my friends sent me off with these words: “Stay away from any bears, buy a big shovel for clearing away snow, and don’t drink too much vodka”. And they weren’t joking. That is exactly how many young Americans see Russia.
I was working as a headhunter. I was recruiting highly qualified experts to positions in foreign companies operating in Russia. I have to say that it was ideal preparation for entering the Russian market.
— Did you have to shovel any snow?
— No, but in my first Moscow winter, it reached minus 35. I bought a sheepskin hat with earflaps on the Arbat: its tradename was “Anna”. The flaps protected my face and cheeks perfectly from the icy wind and flurries of snow. My friends used to joke with me: “How is your Anna doing?” “She’s keeping me warm!” I used to say.
— Did you find it hard to lease a flat?
— When I was looking at relevant letting websites whilst still in America, I was pleasantly surprised at the prices shown. As I presumed, it was possible to rent a flat in Moscow for $700-$900 a month. It was comparable with prices outside the District of Columbia. At the time, I was living in a five-bedroomed apartment with a large kitchen and bathroom; there was also a swimming pool, gym and cycle path, and it was a nine-minute walk from the metro. And for this apartment we were paying $1,200 a month.
When I arrived in Moscow, I was staying with a friend. I was hoping to rent somewhere after a week. I had the phone numbers of several estate agents, and I would drive round with them to look at the flats. And guess what? By the time we’d get to a particular flat, somebody else had already rented it, leaving me feeling rather stupid. I remember I went myself to a place on Tverskaya that was advertised. The landlord had described the flat as having a large room, a kitchen, its own bathroom, and a window looking out onto a quiet, leafy courtyard. When I got there, I saw 10 other flat-hunters hanging around outside the door. We went inside. It looked like no-one had cleaned the place since the Second World War. A dim light bulb was hanging from the ceiling, and the corridor was festooned with the electric lead held in place with insulation tape. The window in the flat was like a cat-flap: about the size of an exercise book. In the one-metre by one-metre bathroom, they had contrived to squeeze in a shower and tray, a toilet, and a washhand basin. And for the pleasure of renting such “opulence” in the centre of the capital, the landlord wanted 35,000 roubles a month (about $1,100).
We went inside. It looked like no-one had cleaned the place since the Second World War.
After searching for a month, I finally found a one-roomed flat in Polyanka for 38,000 roubles. In winter, a whole snowdrift collected on the balcony, through the gaps in the frame. I lived there for nine months. But I got a good taste of genuine Russian reality.
— How much money do you need in your pocket to come to Moscow?
— To find a place to live, you need $1,500, plus the same again to hire the services of an estate agent, and the same again to give the landlord as a deposit. So, that’s $4,500 already. You can live modestly in Moscow, while you are looking for work, on $700 a month. That’s enough for basic food. But you must have some money set aside for your ticket home in case it doesn’t work out for you.
I want it to be so, and that's that!
— What would you say about the Russian mentality? Does anything about it surprise you?
— I gradually came to realise the meaning of the Russian word avos. People in Russia often do things on the off-chance. In other words, with the unconscious hope of striking it lucky. Sometimes you are in luck and it comes off, but it can also not come off, and success passes you by.
I left the recruitment agency after a year. Then, I was recruiting English-speaking teachers and translators, and providing marketing services to Moscow companies preparing to enter the western market. I was part of several startups.
— Are Russian partners different in some way from your American colleagues?
— American businesspeople calculate both the effectiveness and productivity of everything. But often, unfortunately, Russian businesspeople don’t. Or, they have certain kinds of calculations which are just to say: “I want it to be so, and that’s that!” That kind of groundless stubbornness.
— Is it possible to close a deal in Russia by “word of honour” without having to draw up papers?
— Here, a lot of people like to talk about cooperation, about collaboration. But in reality, in small businesses in Russia, people often look for ways of cheating both the government and their partners.
— Have you had a similarly negative experience?
—Yes. For three months, from November to January, I was working with a school in the Sokol area of Moscow for the children of wealthy Russians. The parents wanted their offspring to undergo some preparation before they were sent off to study at boarding schools in England and the US. I was teaching literature and helping with marketing. Pay was by the hour. Everything was fine for the first two months. At the start of January, I fell ill. They called me and told me that I had to come in to work. I was working 12 hours a day for the whole of January. They hadn’t got round to signing my marketing contract. They were taking a long time collecting the necessary paperwork and permits. In the end, they said to me: “We owe you a pile of money: we can’t manage it. We can only pay you half”. And they still thought that I would carry on working for them.
Don’t sit with your arms folded
— A lot of people in Moscow now understand English. Does an expat need to know Russian?
— I would recommend learning Russian, if you want to make a success of it in Moscow.
I would recommend learning Russian, if you want to make a success of it in Moscow.
— You now work for Unilead Network. What does the company do? Are you happy with the team?
— The company is involved in mobile advertising, and partner programmes for websites, blogs, and social networking groups. We have put together a young, ambitious team of 25 people working according to the precept: honest work with pay per lead. All three of the company owners are Russian. They are a new generation of businesspeople who want to work in an honest fashion. It is interesting working with them. I report to the CEO, and my work includes business development analysis. I develop strategies for Russia as well as for the rest of the world.
— How much does an expert of your calibre receive in Russia?
— 90,000 - 150,000 roubles a month.
— Would it be more in the US?
— A little bit more. But there wouldn’t be the same rate of growth. Look at me. I graduated in 2011. And I have already helped to bring about large investment deals, as well as facilitating the start-up of three companies. In the USA, this would hardly have been possible.
— Do you not have any plans to start your own business?
— I have experience in designing and promoting my own projects. I find myself now at the stage of generating new ideas based on consideration of past mistakes and failures. Things will become clearer in about four months’ time, but it is too early to say anything about it just yet.
If you are prepared not to be naïve, to be proactive, and are not afraid of taking a few knocks, then you should come to Moscow!
— Does this mean that it is worth it for the foreigner to go to work in Moscow?
— It depends on the situation and person involved. The Russian market is very dynamic. You can find investment, so long as you don’t sit with your arms folded. Another thing is that it is not straightforward finding responsible partners. But if you are prepared not to be naïve, to be proactive, and are not afraid of taking a few knocks, then you should come to Moscow!