Tony Watkins

Selection_548Tony Watkins is well known (amongst other things) for his band: ‘Tony Watkins and the Smokebreakers’. What has this ingenious Irishman been up to for the last two decades in Moscow?

When and why did you come here?

I came to Russia for a change of life experience. I had been living in London before that for 10 years. I came here in the summertime, it was beautiful weather, and there were very attractive girls on the street. When I flew back to London my house had been robbed, I lost everything. I kind of decided that this was a sign for me to move, to do something different. Then I got a job here with Schweppes. That was 19 years ago.

At that time, there were a lot of Irish here. The Duty Free at the airport; the supermarket; all the Irish Bars. The Irish were everywhere, there was a community here already. I wasn’t heavily into it at first, because as soon as I arrived in Moscow I was sent to St. Petersburg to manage an office there, where the Irish community was much smaller. Then I came back to Moscow, and started the band, and became much more involved in the community stuff. But it wasn’t a very organised sort of community then, it was a bit of a mix mash of different people. There were different groups that would do their own things, but over the last 12, 13, 14 years, principally under the leadership of Avril Conway, things have really come together. Because of the band, and being on the board of the Irish Business Club, my role was automatically cast as entertainment manager. I suppose that guarantees that I always play at the events; fortunately we are good enough to do that.

How did you name your band?

The name of the band: Tony Watkins and the Smokebreakers, came about when we were rehearsing. Every one else in the band smoked apart from me. Every thirty or forty minutes, the guys would say: “OK, we need a ‘перекур’ (a break for a smoke)”, so when it came to work out what to call the band, it kind of automatically came out: Tony Watkins and the Smokebreakers. But I’ve regretted this for the past 18 years, because it’s so long and you can’t remember it. We should have come up with something short like Abba, the Beatles, the Carrots or something. We have played, I think at the last count, in 52 Russian cities, so we’ve been everywhere. We were actually funded for four years by the Russian Youth Unity Party, who sponsored us to go to different regions to play concerts for different cultural events, basically a long weekend every month for four years. It was an amazing experience. I could write a book about all the adventures we had in some places in Russia. We have also played in Europe, we were in Ireland last year, and we are going back there this coming year, playing at a couple of festivals. The band has been evolving over all these years; so far Tony Watkins is the mainstay of the group.

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I also wrote a book, based on 9/11, called Love Roads. That was my big project and it got published in the West, 5 or 6 years ago, just when the last crisis happened, which was very bad timing. But the key thing about the book was that it was 20 chapters long and came out together with a 20-song album. Most of the people who have read it seem to have liked it.

You seem to be really well integrated here, as do all the Irish I have met here. Why is that?, not all nationalities seem to be able to get into the fabric of this society as seemingly easily as that.

I think generally, we Irish are a little bit more sociable, are perceived as being friendly. We don’t have as many barriers perhaps, we’re ready to speak to anybody. I think that those personality traits maybe worked well with Russians when they were coming out of this previous era. I know what I found from my personal experience, and I lived in Scotland, London and the US before coming here, I genuinely found that the Russians were the warmest people once you got to know them, the relationships were way stronger than those from the US, and I should know because I worked for an American company. I think that there is some kind of mutual trust and goodwill between Russians and Irish.

How is the crisis affecting you on a personal level?

This might be my last year in Moscow, simply because I am required to go somewhere else. When you build a business, and have pretty much done everything that you can do, in terms of margins, there is not much else you can do. If an opportunity comes up to go somewhere else, where you can make a difference, then that becomes attractive. Having said that, I am still not sure whether I really want to move. 19 years is a long time, and I like my life here, and to walk away from this probably will be the most difficult, heart-wrenching decision that I have ever made, in my whole life.

Living in Moscow has been a fantastic experience. It has been absolutely an adventure, and most expats who have been here a long time have been through so many ups and downs together. Unfortunately I feel that we are in a bit of a down, and I especially feel sorry, not for the expats, but for this generation of Russian managers that have come through over the past 10 years. I wasn’t an expat before I came here. I made a conscious decision to move my life here, which was a very different from many expats who first came here 20 years ago. A lot of them were not necessarily the best people from their companies, it almost felt sometimes like: we can’t use Jimmy in Germany, so let’s send him over to Russia, where he can’t do a lot of damage. So my impression was that, the first generation of expat managers were really poor peers to look up to, that’s my personal opinion. I think a lot of rubbish was flushed out of the system in the crisis of 1998. The employers and staff that came post-1998 on the expat side were much stronger managers. I think that the next generation of Russian managers that followed are much better balanced in terms of understanding the needs of selling and marketing. I feel sorry not for expats at all, many of them will go off and find positions elsewhere, I genuinely feel sorry for those Russian managers who are now likely to be very disillusioned with their lot for the foreseeable future.