- When did you first visit Russia, and what brought you here?
- My home town, Sheffield, is twinned with Donetsk in Ukraine. Both are big industrial mining centres. When I was 16, my family spent a fortnight’s holiday in Ukraine at the invitation of Russian friends (whom we had met by correspondence) as part of the twin towns cooperation programme. We didn’t stay only in Donetsk, we went to the Crimea too.
That is how I first became acquainted with Eastern Europe and the Russians. When you are 16, you are very impressionable. I was fascinated by everything Russian – the language, the music, the people. Then our Russian friends moved from Donetsk to St. Petersburg – from Ukraine to Russia. And I had a gap year before starting university. Our friends invited me to stay with them for six months, and I jumped at the chance!
He was born in Sheffield, in the North of England. As a child, he travelled a lot with his parents. As a teenager, he spent two weeks in Ukraine. He first visited Russia in 1999, before commencing his studies at Manchester University. He graduated from the Department of Linguistics. Having obtained his degree, he went to St. Petersburg, where he lived for seven years. In 2010, he moved to Omsk. He works as a translator and an English language teacher. In 2012, he opened his own online English language school, OTUK – Online Teachers UK .
- Why did you come to live in Russia permanently?
- I was captivated by Russia. I read Russian books, listened to Russian music and studied Russian at evening classes, after my studies at the university. I was always economising, saving money, and spent all my summer vacations with my friends in St. Petersburg. It was unforgettable! Therefore, when I finished university in 2002, I knew for certain that I would go to live in Russia.
- What were your first impressions of St. Petersburg? Has the city changed since then?
- St. Petersburg is a fabulous city. There is something magic in the architecture and atmosphere of its historic centre. I remember that at first I was struck by the contrasts and contradictions of the city: beautiful historic buildings and the crumbling concrete apartment blocks of the outskirts, the cathedral with a museum of atheism in the basement, the beautiful girls in fur coats, clacking along the snow-covered pavement on high heels. This was all quite unusual for someone who was used to British rules, logic and infrastructure. Everything was new, I was always learning something. Each day was unlike the previous one. I visited St. Petersburg again recently, on my way to England. Although there is something in this city which will never change, the contribution of the past ten years is also quite remarkable. The successful middle class had expanded. St. Petersburg was always a window onto Europe for Russia, and it continues to develop along those lines.
- Why did you move to Omsk in Siberia?
- In a word – for love. One evening I was at a birthday party. I wasn’t feeling like celebrating anything, but I went. And I got to know a girl from Omsk. We talked for the whole evening. A few days later I flew off to England, and she to her homeland, Siberia. For the next five months we wrote to each other every day, and became very close. And one day I said to her: “What would you say if I moved to Omsk?” She was quite amazed! But if you want something, grab it and hold on with both hands! I got on the aircraft, and now I have a Russian fiancée!
- How do the Russian provinces differ from the capitals? Do they treat foreigners any differently?
- You mustn’t forget that Russia is one of the world’s biggest countries. It is very varied. To be honest, I was completely unprepared for the move from St. Petersburg to Omsk, and my new home brought me quite a few surprises. It was as if I had gone back ten years in a time machine. There are not the financial resources in the provinces that there are in the large Russian cities. This affects both the infrastructure and the population’s income. Moscow and St. Petersburg don’t comprise all of Russia.
I would say that people in the provinces are closer to the land, they are more conservative and exceptionally hospitable. It is not a problem for a white English-speaking foreigner to make friends here. However, the geographical remoteness of the provinces leads to a certain prejudice about race, gender and sexual orientation. For better or worse, Western political correctness still has to reach many corners of Russia, and foreigners have to be prepared for this, particularly in the case of the Russian older generation.
But in general, they treat foreigners very well in Russia. We are in the minority here, and we have privileged status. Ask any ex-pat who has spent more than a year in Russia, and he will tell you that the main reason he is here is because of the people. Russians are interested in studying foreign languages, and contacts with a native speaker are a great help for language practice. Furthermore, Russians are simply interested in how people live in other countries. The English are not like that. They are not very interested in foreign languages. We think that if they don’t understand you in France, all you have to do is speak English louder!
- How did you get the idea of running your own business? How are things going with you?
- I am a linguistics and social anthropology specialist, which I became because I have always been interested in languages and culture. I began teaching English in 1999, when I was in Russia for the first time and had nothing with which to occupy myself. As a result, I followed in my father’s footsteps, and teaching work became my profession. Before opening my own business, I taught in two state universities and several private language schools, and worked as a freelancer. Every day I had to travel to three or four addresses in the city. I spent more time on the road than I did in class. This made me think about an alternative.
A friend of mine asked me to take on one of his colleagues via Skype, and I decided to try. Those first Skype lessons went very well. My pupil, having improved his English, got a well-paid job in Singapore. After that, “Radio Sarafan” got going. Pupils recommended my services to friends and colleagues in various Russian cities. I was no longer restricted by addresses and journeys. and was able to increase my teaching load and maximise my income. The next logical step to follow that was to create my own business and put my brand, not myself, on the market.
Today we have a small professional team of English teachers working in OTUK, and my main role is managing the business. We intend to expand our activities from the beginning of the new academic year. We concentrate mainly on the Russian market, and offer individual courses to business professionals in the big cities.
- What is the price of your services?
- ₤15 per lesson.
- You have been in Russia a long time now. How do you think Russians differ from Western Europeans in general and the English in particular?
- Western tourists who come to Russia often complain that Russians don’t often smile, and interpret this as inhospitality or unfriendliness. But here you have to make a distinction between how Russians behave in public and private situations. In Russian culture, a smile is rarely used as an element of social etiquette. For Russians, a smile is a reaction to a corresponding emotion. But those same Russians who look so serious and inaccessible in the street prove to be very kind and friendly if you have dealings with them at work or at some function.
I remember that during my first visit to Russia, my friend asked me: ”Why do you ask so many questions?” As soon as we went out into the street, I started: where, when, with whom, how much and so on. I always planned ahead to the finest detail – even Saturday evening. And I reached a turning point when I realised that life does not always go according to plan. Russians are certainly more flexible. They adapt more easily to changing circumstances. When I ask my Russian friends who visit me in England if they experience any kind of culture shock, the answer is a firm “No”. You won’t surprise Russians with anything!
I think the language gives important hints to understanding Russia. Russian has many synonyms for the word “friend”, and still more words to denote their nearest and dearest. Friendship and family relations are very important in Russian culture. And collectivism is also important. Russians often say “we” rather than “I”. Russians are inclined to share, and have a simpler attitude to material prosperity. They are generous, not penny-pinchers, when it comes to friends and relations. Russians do not accept acquisitiveness or egotism, they constantly appeal “to conscience”. It seemed very strange to me when a cat who attacked the shoelaces of an unsuspecting guest was described as “having no conscience”. Even cats are supposed to have a conscience in Russia!
The English are quite different. We are diplomatic and evasive, but Russians put their cards on the table at once. The English are more careful with money, and rely more on individual responsibility than social solidarity. We guard our reputations and aggressively assert our rights; Russians rely more on fate, and take a calmer attitude to life. We cannot live without rules, laws and the like; Russians get round the rules when they can, rejoicing in freedom. An Englishman has a heart, a Russian has a soul. This list could go on for a long time.
But we also have much in common. Both Britain and Russia were once great empires and superpowers. Now we have a more modest status, but the habit of considering ourselves “the best” is deeply rooted in the national consciousness. We may grumble and criticise our respective countries, but in fact we are very proud of our historic achievements and rich cultural heritage. Both peoples look on American culture with ironic amusement – while of course recognising their state achievements. And we both love to drink, be it a pint of ale or a glass of vodka!
- How do you spend your leisure time in Omsk?
- With friends. As guests, at table with a bottle of cognac, or in summer at a barbecue picnic on the river bank.
- Would you call Omsk one of the developed cultural centres of Russia?
- To be honest, not yet. We are a long way from the European part of Russia, stars of the capital’s stage rarely come here. There are, of course, a few museums and art galleries, but the cultural landscape of Omsk cannot be compared with that of Moscow or St. Petersburg. However, if you want to see Russian life as it really is, Omsk will find something to show you!