Retire in Russia? Mike Chalkley’s Story

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When expats get to retirement age they head off back home from wherever they came from, or if they come from a country with a moderate climate like Britain, they might chart a course for somewhere sunny like Spain or Thailand. Very few, if any, voluntarily stay in Russia. Mike Chalkley, a long-time British expat decided to buck that trend and stayed on with his charming wife Natasha. I wanted to find out why.

Before I interviewed Mike, he showed me round his ‘house,’ complete with massive lounge and reception room downstairs, three bedrooms, guest lounge and living space upstairs. The property has the personality of a private house and the functionality of a 5 star hotel. Even more interesting was what he had to say.

Selection_030Why did you decide to retire in Russia?

“I realised a long time ago that retirement is all about working out what you want to do. It’s not about living on a nice desert island with palm trees, from which you get bored with in a few weeks. I personally don’t like it when it’s hot all the time, I like a bit of rain. Living in the jungle isn’t really my cup of tea either. There are problems wherever you go. So you have to ask yourself: ‘how am I going to retire?’ This is really the same as asking: with whom am I going to retire? Ideally with your wife, lover or whoever.”

“When I was coming up to retirement, people said: ‘you can’t retire Mike, you’ll be bored, and you’re involved with so many things. In three months you’ll be back at work.’ “Yes, in the old days I could work 19 hours a day, then it was 15, and then 12 before I’d get tired. Natasha asked me why I was working so much, I said that I needed more money. She asked: ‘why do you need more money? What For?’ It doesn’t matter whether you go vertically upwards or downwards when you kick the bucket, it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got, it really doesn’t unlock any doors or gates, or supply any furnishings or whatever. So we worked out how much money we would need, and we realized that we had just about enough. Then we just did it, we retired.”

“Retirement really isn’t about doing nothing. Even the house, which I suppose is a big hobby, isn’t enough, I have recently taken up the keyboards again, something I haven’t done since I was a boy. The important thing to remember as you come up to retirement, — the older you get the less active you can be. I don’t do 35 mile runs like I used to do when I was 35 years old. Your health and your mental ability and everything else begins to slip, and you are going to get older and older. If I can keep gradually degenerating like this until I’m 90, I’ll be very happy, thank you.”

How does it work out legally?

“I used to come here on work visas, like everybody else, then I got married, and the problem with visas and having to come to get visas became more acute. Then I found out that I was entitled to get a thing called ‘vid na zhitelstva’ (residents’ permit). I applied for that, it meant getting medicals and so forth, but that came through, and I transferred it down here because legally you have to register where you are living. Now I have to renew it once a year, but that is easy. Maybe in time I will get a Russian passport. I am able to have two passports here, as long as I inform the Russian authorities, and the British don’t care how many passports you have got. Legally, living here is not a problem.”

“I have nothing of worth in the UK, but they do pay me a state pension. I also have some small private personal pensions; one of them only pays £10 a month. Applying for the UK pension was easy, I filled in an online form, phoned to check that everything was OK, then they wrote back to say that your pension is this, and it started. I used my son’s address in the UK, and that’s the address I use for all official correspondence, like bank statements. The British state pension cannot be paid to Russia. They will pay to any European country plus to several others, but not to Russia. So I gave them an offshore account, and they were happy with that. Now I simply go to the local ATM machine and withdraw my pension.”

Does that mean that your pension is not index linked, because you are not living in a UK approved country?

“Yes, I think that is right. What was interesting was that when I filled in the form, the very nice lady asked me: ‘do you have a wife?’ I said: ‘yes, she’s Russian and therefore not entitled to a pension.’ She said: ‘No, your Russian wife, no matter what age, is entitled to a pension.’ I was very surprised. I must admit I haven’t tracked that down, as it is probably only going to be a small pension, but nevertheless, we worked out how much money would be coming in, and we worked out how much we needed to live on, and we realised that we can do this, but not in Moscow. If you want to retire in the centre of Moscow fine, but if you go out two or three nights a week, spend $100, $200 on a meal and everything else, suddenly it’s expensive. We probably halved our costs by moving here; we could afford to retire here.”

“On the money side, we had to plan. The largest cost is the cost of living. Number two is looking after the building you are living in, in terms of heating, repairs and so on, number three are the luxuries as I call them. After 14 years with the same car, I had to accept that I needed the luxury of a new car. They aren’t cheap, so we worked that out. If I am still around, in another 10-12 years, I might want to change my car again, so I need to plan for that. Having said that, I’ll be nearly 80 then! So what sort of car will I want and what sort of car will I be able to drive? I had some money in reserve, when the rouble was flying around all over the place, so I followed by my instincts and put it into property. So we now have a flat in Obninsk, which we can rent out for a little bit to supplement our income. That might pay for holidays.

What about friends and culture, do you miss Britain at all?

“I have children and grandchildren in England, and I do miss them. But I do see them; they either come out here or they make an effort to meet us when we are abroad. I don’t see them every weekend, sure, I don’t see them enough. But on the other hand, Natasha has two sons and they are miles away. They are further away geographically in Russia than my two sons are from me here, and it’s just as difficult to go and see them. My daughter has been here 4 or 5 times. My eldest son is an accountant, which I smile at because it’s one of the jobs that I never wanted to do, and my youngest son is with Airbus, so they all are able to travel quite a lot.”

“England I certainly don’t miss. Since 2001 I have only been there to attend funerals and weddings. The smell, smoke, control, the can do’s, the can’t do’s, put me off. Even pensions are taxed. Whenever I go to England, the moment I get back to Russia, I sigh with relief. People say that they have to retire to England, because that is where they come from. I actually say: why? I’m English, I could have been born on an aeroplane or a boat or somewhere. It really doesn’t matter, it’s where you like to be that is important. After 20 something years in Russia, I obviously don’t hate the place. I miss my friends in Moscow, but they come here quite often. And I now have local Russian friends here. In our local village of 11 people, there is a couple who are just a bit younger than we are. They are our greatest friends; they come round every weekend and are here for Christmases. We talk, we advise each other and do a lot of vodka drinking! If anything happens, they are immediately on hand. We always have a big Christmas event. I cook ye Christmas turkey, and make my own Christmas puddings. Last year we had 21 people sitting at our table for Christmas dinner, and it is fantastic having a house as big as this, which allows us to able to invite so many people and have many people stay over! Christmas is the highlight of my year.”

“Basically, we like it here, we like waking up in the morning and looking at the wild deer. We are inundated with birds, to just wake up in the middle of nowhere is beautiful. We are also self sufficient if we need to be, with our own water supply, and back up generator. It obviously helps to speak Russian.”

“On the health front, the older you get the more you might need treatment. That might be a problem here because an ambulance could take a little longer to get here than in Moscow. We use a private clinic in Obninsk, which is about 45 minutes away by car. They have a whole range of doctors with a wide range of expertise from bones to eyes, they cover everything. Because it’s private, we can get to see a doctor normally within 24 hours, if it is an emergency we do have to wait, but usually not for long, perhaps 20 minutes. You get your x-rays, injections and prescriptions all in one go and it’s not expensive. I have heard of English people going back to the UK for treatment who end up coming back here for the same treatment. I do have a Russian state medical card, which I have never used, but if I do have to go to a hospital, they would no doubt accept me. But this would probably take a bit longer to be treated than when using a private service.”