— I understand, Richard, that you have lived permanently in Moscow since 2005.
— My Russian story began way back in 1993, when, as a programmer, I wrote my diploma theses in the company Mikroinform. It produced Leksikon, a Russian-language text editor for personal computers, which was very popular at one time. I was, after all, an electronics specialist, according to my first diploma awarded in Holland.
— And this second diploma was from the North Carolina University, was it not?
Richard van Wageningen has been the managing director of Orange Business Service in Russia and the CIS since 2013. This is an international provider of communications services and system integration in 220 countries, and it has offices in 166 of them.
He graduated from Groningen State Polytechnics in Holland and the University of North Carolina in the USA. He started his career in the Russian subdivision of AT&T, an American corporation. In 2005 he became head of the Russian department of the British telecommunications corporation British Telecom. Since 2010 he has headed the company Linxdatacenter in Russia. This is an international supplier of solutions for data processing centres.
— I studied economics there. But that was several years later. I first came to Russia unexpectedly, as you might say. I read and article about AT&T in a magazine and noticed that the director there was a Dutchman. I decided to phone him. We had a good talk, and he arranged a four-month attachment to Telmos for me. This was a joint venture between AT&T and MGTS (Moscow Urban Telephone Network). After two months, they took me on permanently. So I spent eighteen months in Moscow.
— What impression did it make on you?
— I was a student, everything interested me. My best friend, also a Dutchman, was working in the Moscow Times newspaper. He lived in the centre, we went to Red Square and travelled to Zagorsk. At first there was much that I did not understand in this huge city with a population the same as that of the whole of Holland. For example, what is a dacha? Or the Moscow shops of that time. Today you pick up a trolley in a supermarket, collect your products and go to the cash desks. But then you went to some ”gastronom”, each department was a shop in itself. If you bought milk you paid for it on the spot. Then you might buy a baton loaf, and you would have to pay for it at the bakery department cash desk.
— Did you know Russian at that time?
— I knew none whatsoever. I picked it up somehow as I went along. When you are a student, you know, you have the brains, the time and the desire to do such things.
— Do you think it is absolutely necessary for someone working in Moscow to speak Russian? Or is it possible to manage with English?
— You have worked in Holland, Saudi Arabia and Portugal. You have studied in the USA. You are in a good position to make comparisons. Where is it easier to live and work, and where is it harder?
— First of all, easier does not mean better. I am a Dutchman, I was brought up on Dutch culture. It would probably be easiest for me to live in my homeland. But if you take drive and excitement into consideration, I certainly like it better in Russia.
— How do you assess the Russian telecommunications market?
— It has very good prospects I won’t quote any figures, but last year our business went very well, we achieved a high ranking among other companies in the industry.
— The current international situation, the notorious crisis and the effects of the crisis in the Russian economy must surely have had a great impact on your work?
— We did not lose our clients. For us, growth continues. The plan for 2015 was formed taking account of the present situation. We calculated several development scenarios for ourselves. And we hope everything will proceed normally.
— Is our bureaucracy a real pain?
— There is bureaucracy in Russia, of course. In some respects there is more, in some respects less. I take a philosophical attitude to such problems: things are as they are, and you have to work with them. It’s like traffic jams. If you just sit there and swear in a traffic jam, nothing will change. And I prefer not to swear. In the struggle against bureaucracy, we begin with ourselves.
— So what in your view are the main dangers a foreign entrepreneur coming to do business in Russia might face?
— I would put it this way: sometimes a man thinks that he will begin to make money quickly here, although he knows very little. For example, he has not studied the law or his potential partners. This is dangerous. Before thinking about how quickly you will make money, you need to have a good idea of what you are going to do and where you are going to do it.
— Does the way of thinking of Muscovites, their approach to life and work, differ in some way from, say the Western European?
— In cuisine too?
— Well, we have the same basic foods: potato, meat and herring. We also like kefir, pancakes… But anyway, my colleagues often say that I am more a Russian than a Dutchman.
— Do you live in a rented apartment in Moscow?
— Previously the company paid for my accommodation, so there was no point in buying my own. Now I’ll have to think about it.
— Is it expensive?
— We live virtually in the centre, near the Belorusskaya metro station. Of course it isn’t cheap. But it’s the same everywhere. I reckon we’re paying quite enough.
— In your view, is Moscow an expensive city for a foreigner?
— Yes, it is. For example, we spend considerably more on food than we would in Holland. But in the dacha, as is customary, we grow our own potatoes and other vegetables.
— So now you not only know what a dacha is, you have one of your own.
— Yes, near Tarusa, 150 kilometres from Moscow.
— That’s quite a long way.
— Yes, but there are some beautiful places round there. My wife’s grandfather, who was an air force pilot, has a small dacha there. Then his relatives moved there too. So we too bought a hectare of land, and built a dacha on it. We could live there the whole year round. I have a Russian sauna and a table for Russian billiards. I try to spend my days off there.
— You can’t enjoy the journey, particularly in summer.
— The dacha has a sort of out-of-town office. I can be in contact at any moment and up-to-date on company business. Therefore I can sometimes allow myself to travel out to the dacha after work on Thursday. We return to Moscow very late on the Sunday. It may be a little tiring, but for me it’s worth it. At the dacha I have a hobby: riding around in a jeep. I have more than enough places I can go. Russia is not Holland, only two hundred by three hundred kilometres. You can’t get up much speed there.
— The Dutch are a sporting people, I have seen for myself how everyone there either jogs or rides a bicycle. What about you?
— Can Moscow be considered a city safe for foreigners?
— You don’t say!
— Yes, have you ever been out walking in either of them? On some streets, even in the centre, it’s simply a nightmare. There are people sleeping on the pavements, on mattresses of some kind. I was in Paris recently, and one of my colleagues warned me frankly that I’d do better to use the metro, the streets can be dangerous late in the evening. Of course, you always need to think about things. For example, in a café or restaurant, I speak Russian. Obviously with an accent, but I am often taken for someone from Riga or some such place.
— You have your work and family here. What do you miss most about being in Moscow?
— Probably only my parents and brother. By the way, my parents come here two or three times a year. The last time was for the May celebrations, we all lived together at the dacha.
— Do you often go back to Holland yourself?
— Not often recently. Once a year on business or to see relatives. I can’t say I’m particularly homesick for Holland. Well, maybe I am right now, particularly for Dutch cheese; I can’t get it here because of the sanctions.
— So you feel at home in Moscow?
— I always work in a place I like to be. This refers to the specific company and the specific country. If I do not believe in the company, its opportunities and prospects, or if I don’t believe in the country where I would have to work, then I can’t and won’t work there.
— So you’re not planning to leave here in the foreseeable future?
— We have just bought some saplings for the dacha, I want to grow a small forest on the plot. Does that answer your question?