Russians Living Abroad

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Having travelled extensively and lived in not far shy of twenty countries, I have witnessed first hand how homesickness can grip people suddenly, especially in God-forsaken countries in the Middle-East where this resulted in many a moonlight flit back to normality. I am well into my fourteenth year here in Moscow and one highly prevalent characteristic that I have noticed amongst Russian people is their deep love of their immediate family.

I decided to take advantage of an upcoming trip to the UK and meet a couple of the thousands of Russians who have made London their home, as well as meet a couple of people who have been to other countries, to establish what they liked and disliked, and did they suffer from what the French call ‘le mal du pays?’ Before embarking on my journey, I asked some people who haven’t been to England what their perceptions were of the country and its people, and a couple who had and encountered some surprisingly different opinions.

Elena, who works for an oil company said: “people from the UK are polite, conservative, tradition orientated and proud of their country. As a child I watched Miss Marple with its lovely houses and gardens, and this helped shape my opinion.” This contrasted sharply with Anastasia Dyakova’s thoughts (she’s the General Services Manager of Repsol) who speaks four languages fluently but hasn’t visited the UK: “British people are snobbish, looking down at people; they are rather reserved and aloof as well as being emotionless and pallid in complexion.” While living in Paris she had the unnerving experience of a visiting England rugby team with its vociferous supporters wreaking havoc and running amok. She prefers the Russian extreme weather in lieu of our tedious grey and overcast skies.

Alexey and Lidia of Yandex have been to England twice and are upbeat saying they would love to live in London with its polite and intelligent people who are well organized and thoughtful. They said our TV is better and enjoyed the combination of old and modern London has to offer, and in particular, loved the quintessential pub culture. I also contacted Anna who was seconded to London a year ago with one of the ‘big four’ and she lamented: “’I’m afraid my language skills are still poor (not true at all) and I feel I spoke better and was more confident a year ago- I miss Moscow!”

I set off for London with an observation from Ivan Turgenev rattling around my head: ‘Russia can get by without any of us, but no one can get by without it.’ First up I met Oksana Solomou who works in Holborn as a legal recruitment consultant for Laurence Simons International and who came to London in 2007, is married with a son aged nine and a daughter of six. “Legal recruitment is much more sophisticated in the UK compared to Russia,” she said, “but the first thing that struck me was everyone on the trains was wearing trainers with their suits (a new one on me) but changed into shoes in the office. People here smile a lot, are polite, health conscious and behave with etiquette.” She was also impressed by how green and how full the parks are. Her children attend private school, which is a very family orientated one as they are well nurtured. She has never felt uncomfortable being the only Russian speaker in her office but feels that foreigners are far more readily accepted in London itself than outside of it. Her children also attend a Russian school on Saturdays to learn about their heritage and culture.

I ask if she misses her family back home and at this juncture there’s a hint of lachrymosity as she discusses how close her family is though her sister is also in England. Modern communication means she speaks to her parents most days and visits as often as she can, though they tend to come to England. I ask her about the negatives and she immediately states how expensive London is: “100k a year doesn’t get you to second base here – we visited Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ in the theater and three tickets cost us 200 pounds. Transport is very expensive here and organic food still isn’t as natural as we get in our dachas. People have children much later in life here; I plan to celebrate Christmas with family and friends and will also celebrate our Orthodox Christmas.”

If ever you wanted a picture definition in the dictionary of Positive Mental Attitude, then look no further than Anna Bastrakova of Citibank who’s been managing their Russian clients in the fancy smancy HQ in London’s Canary Wharf – a lively village within London, housing a plethora of the financial fraternity. “I find English people to be quite reserved and polite, almost to the point of ambiguity, and had to adapt from my Russian personality to fit in with their conservative, slightly closed personalities, which encourage cliques that are difficult to break into the inner sanctum. English people are perfectionists for procedures in comparison to the same business back home, adopting a ‘precise Pricilla’ attitude. They are however considerate and respectful of people’s privacy.”

Anna’s main loves are the parks and horticulture on offer despite shelling out a hundred quid for the Chelsea Flower show. She loves the many musicals to choose from and has accordingly wised up to the concept of paying well in advance to reduce the expense. Yoga and gym membership are ‘de rigeur’ for city professionals, and despite coughing up £1750 a month for a one bedroom apartment, she lives just ten minutes walk from work thus negating the horrendous transport costs. Anna hails from Chelyabinsk and travels to Russia every two months on business as well as visiting her mother in Bulgaria once a year. “London is so cosmopolitan and diverse, and the only thing I miss is the expanse of the Motherland compared to the UK. I’ll celebrate both Christmases and am happy to be here for the foreseeable future.”

Meet mother and daughter, Marina and Masha Lazareva respectively, the latter being a slim, attractive and statuesque 20 year old who wouldn’t look out of place on the ‘runway.’ Marina decided to send her to Shanghai for six months to study Design and Photography as part of her ongoing university education here. The problems started almost immediately with her being marooned 70km from Shanghai in a dormitory with little to do in any free time on offer. Not only that, but there was a dearth of internet available thus eliminating YouTube and Facebook.

On rare visits to the city, Masha said “I was shocked by the disgusting hygienic habits of the locals in the subway which was vastly overcrowded, with people munching on food then throwing any waste on the floor. The streets above were so overcrowded as to give the impression of a permanent demonstration.” Any respite was met with her Chinese counterparts (diminutive in comparison) wishing to be photographed with her. Any food on offer was heavily spiced unless you specified otherwise. Meanwhile, thinking all was fine, Masha’s parents were planning a surprise New Year’s visit until a late night phone call 5 weeks in indicated the situation was the very antithesis. “I was flabbergasted,” said Marina, “I thought she was happy, so we hastily arranged an exit visa home.”

What did she miss about Moscow? “My family and friends, Russian food and the beautiful language. My parents have been wonderfully supportive since my return.” Marina conceded: “I think China was too much of a culture shock, and in hindsight we may have been better sending her to Europe or America.”

The loquacious and sagacious Anastasia Fedorova, journalist and broadcaster, aka ‘the girl with the golden voice,’ spent some childhood years in London before being abruptly torn away from her doting grandmother, the family matriarch. Her father was in the oil industry and subsequently posted to Houston resulting in Anastasia being shunted off to boarding school there aged 11. “It was tough for me as Russian children are very domesticated and at the same time I had to get to grips with American English as opposed to British English, so you can imagine that asking for a rubber in class resulted in much laughter in my direction.” Just for a second her eyes start to mist over as she recaptures the loneliness, wondering what on earth she had done wrong to be cast into the wilderness that is boarding school life — a subject I’m more than familiar with myself having been sent away at the princely age of seven.

Anastasia was a ‘straight A’ student and graduated to study fine art where she was to meet her future husband. However, her passion for radio, fueled by her grandfather being an absolute aficionado who secretly listened to Voice of America in their Moscow apartment, was never far from the surface, and so it came to pass her destiny came to fruition. “I was determined to get my foot in the door even if it meant washing the floors in one of the many Michigan radio stations then on air. I had dabbled in the regimented 9-5 life and realized it wasn’t for me, and didn’t want my father’s corporate life, preferring instead the joie de vivre of being my own boss with my own hours.” Her talents quickly came to the attention of the station’s hierarchy, having not just got her foot in the door, but smashing it down in the process, and was duly awarded with producing her own show.

In 2011, she decided to return to her roots and showcase Moscow to her husband for a month. “I had a sneaking suspicion a changing point in my life was just around the corner and sure enough Voice of Russia offered me a job with the Washington bureau. Moscow had changed out of all recognition and it was a culture shock being a Muscovite again albeit a hybrid one. I find myself thinking in English and spent 50% of my time in the USA this year, but am now busying myself with various recordings and writing which is my true métier.”

There’s no doubting in my mind that ‘you can take a Russian out of Russia, but you can’t take Russia out of a Russian.’ This is exemplified by the writer Sergei Yesenin who declared:

‘If the heavenly host should beg me, come and live in heaven above!’

I shall say: ‘Don’t give me heaven, but the Russia I love.’