How long have you been here?
About 7 years
Full time here in Moscow?
Pretty much full time yes
Why did you come here?
I ran into a Russian oligarch, who said you must teach me English, (Russian accent) âYou donât understand, I was brought up in the Soviet Union. I didnât think I would need English, the only place we were allowed to go was Bulgaria. So now, everyone around me, my 14-year-old daughter, everyone, speaks English. Itâs embarrassing,â he said.
He said âcome to my villa in Saint-Tropez this summer and just speak English to me every day for two months. You will stay in a four star hotel nearby, everything provided. I have two targets for this summer â learn English and lose some weight.â So that summer there were three of us. Me. Him; a billionaire, and his massive personal trainer called Vitalik. And by the end of the summer I lost some weight and Vitalik learned English.
So whatâs that got to do with coming to Russia?
Well, I managed to parlais two months into four as he then asked me to teach him French so he was the first person to get me a visa and I came over to Moscow with him.
So you have been teaching all the way through?
More or less. Or interpreting, translating, proof-reading, in company-training.
So how did you get into this comedy thing?
I just heard about a year and half ago that somebody was doing stand-up in English in Moscow. It got started by a guy called Ivan Yavits who is in his late twenties, I think. Heâs a university lecturer, and he just âstood upâ one day and started performing, I think initially as a way of keeping things interesting for his student.
But you had never done it yourself?
No. But I remember thinking that if I were still in London, I would have tried it by now, because I always loved it so much. So I went along and there they were. By the time I joined, there were already 5 or 6 guys involved, some of them wanted to be actors so they wanted stage time or a creative outlet. But around November 2014 a whole bunch of guys started at the same time. Me, an Italian, a Canadian and some other English guys; all at once we were quite a big group, we were doing open mikes every weekend. By February, we found a place that would host us regularly – Jim nâ Jacks on Myasnitskaya. Itâs very Darwinist, stand-up. If you canât hack it you fall away, thereâs only so many times you can stand there and not get the laugh you were hoping for â three or four times, maximum. Though some people stick at it, even if they are not funny at all. And thatâs a pretty sad sight. Thatâs just some form of masochism. Or self-flagellation. And public. To each his own, I guess.
But how do people understand your humour, it is a foreign culture and humour hardly ever translates?
I think youâre being a bit extreme there. Iâve given it a lot of thought, and Iâve tried Open Mics in Russian five times now. My performances were, well, they received a mixed response. One of the main reasons is that the audience is very young and all concentrating far too much on appearing cool. Thatâs the number one priority for the evening. Not having a good time or having a laugh. Whatever. Hell, I was probably a bit like that too, when I was 19. And there is a different mentality of course, and sense of humour. About a year ago I said âis everybody having a good crisis? Sir? Madam? Having a good crisis? (I meant economic) Russians are great that way – they often answer âAaah, this is my third.â Then someone older walks past and says, âyour third? Ha! This is my fifth! In time of Brezhnev – no toilet paper for two weeks, that, my friend, is crisis.ââ I just got a polite round of applause but hardly any laughs. It was a case of âoh, that was quite clever, wasnât itâ¦â But where was the involuntary physical reaction? The laugh. I realized I had a lot of work to do to win them round. You canât make someone laugh that doesnât want to laugh. So I quit.
So how does it work in English? How do Russians understand the humour when it is in English?
We have to slow down a little, thatâs for sure, telling stories is better, obviously wordplay is out, puns are out as well. Adrian, a Canadian guy who has left now would just tell these hilarious stories about travelling on the Metro or running into the cops or running into babushkas or his kooky landlord, and they went down really well. Russian audiences love hearing about foreigners struggling with the peculiarities of day-to-day Moscow.
So itâs not the humour that you would do in London, you have adjusted it, it has become Russianized? You are adjusting yourself culturally to be able to engage?
Itâs knowing your audience. Very important. Doing your best for them.
So you have all sorts of different kinds of nationalities coming and doing humour, different kinds of humour?
The scene is quite healthy now, we have had quite a lot of new blood recently. We have a Jordanian, an Italian, some Americans.
How many people come to these events?
It depends, the biggest crowd we got, ever, was probably about 100. I host a show at Stand Up#1 on 21 Novy Arbat at 7pm on Fridays. Weâre talking about 20-30 people, usually. As the name suggests â itâs the first dedicated stand-up comedy club in Russia. Yes yes â in this land of smiles! For me this is certainly a huge cultural moment. Up there with accepting Christianity from the Byzantines or at the very least, the fall of the Berlin wall.
Tell us about this new project you are doing in radio.
I was interviewed by Moscow FM last year and I stayed in touch with them and at the beginning of the year, for a laugh said âhey, when are you going to give me my own radio show?â But it just so happens that they recently rebranded â to Capital FM. I went to see the new program director and heâd already been thinking about doing something like that â something along the lines of a comedy hour. So now every Thursday evening we do a show called: CAPITAL FM Standup. Itâs on 105.3 FM from 7-9pm.
I then post the show as a podcast and people from overseas are downloading it. There are not many podcast with a tag of âexpatsâ out there. This is one of the first few. We talk about any funny things connected with Moscow, and now we have listeners from outside Russia. We have a thing where I say a Russian word and Cris Righi, my co-host, has to guess what it means. Like âÐ±ÐµÐ»Ð¾ÑÑÑÐºÐ°â (beloruchka), – âwhite handsâ which means somebody who doesnât like to get her hands dirty. Or âÐ·Ð¾Ð±Ð¼oÑÑÐ¸Ñ â (zomboyashik), â zombie-box. So television. Chris already had radio experience when we started so he really helped me slip right into it.
Are you thinking of staying here for a long time? Itâs quite difficult to get out isnât it?
A bit like sending troops into Afghanistan, you can get in, but you canât get out.
They keep on sending more!
You could end up staying here as long as I have unless you find somewhere else in the world that is as good as Moscow, right?
Christopher Hitchens once described London as lying in a warm bath. Youâre just lying there, thinking âshould I stay here? Should I get out? Itâs comfortable. But in an âalready-deadâ apathetic kind of way. The whole of British society is designed to lull you into this anodyne, obedient, middle-England suburban, semi-conscious state. Which always just left me asking âis this all there is?â In suburbia no one can hear you scream, right? Itâs not for me. I like the buzz of Moscow, itâs alive. Growing, growling, grizzling, impatient, self-important, scarred, wounded. Thereâ s a certain energy here that I miss, for all itâs faults. And I know exactly what they are. Itâs nothing Chekhov or any of those other clever bastards hadnât already mentioned over a hundred years ago.
Have you changed over the seven years you have lived in Moscow?
Probably a little bit yes. I prefer the shorter version, these days. Shall we say.
If you went to China for 3, 4 or 7 years, would the same thing happen to you there?
Well youâre the person to answer that.
I donât think so, because these two cultures are just close enough for there to be some cultural overlap. But with Chinese culture, in my experience, the gap is too wide, and you will never ever be Chinese. And you wonât look Chinese.
Itâs definitely not Europe, but itâs close enough to get your feet under the table. I was having dinner with my brother and some of his neighbours once and he announced that I was living in Russia, and everybody said: âoooh,â as Russia always manages to keeps itself in the headlines for one reason or another. One woman asked: âso what do you think of Putin?â I was like: oh yeah, love him, LOVE HIM. What else could I say?
So I asked: âWhat do you think of him?â At which she snapped back; âI think heâs a brutal dictator who should be assassinated!â
My brother works in international relations â so very politically engaged â looked over his shoulder at me from the stove with an expression that said: âDonât Steve. Just donât!â By this I mean, he knows Iâd take great pleasure at destroying all arguments and objections one by one but Iâd just end up humiliating her in front of her friends and teenaged children and most likely ruin the evening. So best to just nod and smile.
Where to begin? Crimea isnât half as bad a state invasion as the Gulf. Whatâs a little land grab between friends? Compared to over 100,000 people killed, maimed or otherwise fucked up for the rest of their lives? Yet, itâs OK for us in the West to assassinate people we donât like? I could go on and on, of course.
Anything else you want to say?
So people can download the Moscow Expats Podcast on itunes or listen on soundcloud.com/belkovsky and of course come and start your weekend with us – with a giggle at 7pm on Fridays, 21 Novy Arbat at Stand Up Club#1 maybe even take part. Get on stage and see how you do!