Mr. Ambassador, what are then main differences you notice about Moscow between when you last served here, in the 1980s?
It has been a long time since my last posting here, and I have since worked in Bagdad, Brussels, New York and then Washington, and I have gone back home to Dublin between postings. Memories of the city back in the 1980âs are of a grey city, not lit up at nights with neon lights or, in some places, not even street lights. None of the effort which is made now to highlight the beauty of the buildings was evident then.
The other big difference is traffic, which seems to be very bad here. In my days, fewer people had personal cars and any foreign cars were driven only by foreigners; there were a lot of lorries, but the streets were nothing like as congested as they are now. I am somewhat surprised when I hear that the traffic problems now are a lot less than what they were a few years ago.
When I was preparing to come back here again and was looking at what I needed, one of my colleagues who had served here in the interim period said: âyou donât know where you are going.â Moscow has become a consumer society. Thatâs the big difference I suppose. Moscow has very much become a consumer society. In those days we used to import quite a lot of our essentials from Copenhagen or Helsinki. There was a special diplomatic store for diplomats, but the range of goods you could buy was quite small; now however, there is wide availability of products.
Also, the streets here, for pedestrians, were actually quite dangerous, some cars drove through pedestrian crossings, whereas they seem to be a lot safer now. But in general, the way that the city looks is quite different.
In my experience, the winters have been getting milder and milder, and also later and later. What about the people, how has Russiansâ attitudes to foreigners changed?
Iâm not sure, I think that there is a book published recently âWhy Donât Russians Smile.â This is all about peopleâs perceptions of Russians not always being correct. I personally always found Russians to be very helpful and friendly. There is an initial stage where you have to break the ice. I find that there is a lot of similarities between the Irish people and Russians. I think also there is a very strong sense of family and a pride in their culture that we also have in Ireland.
On my return, I think and this is based on early impressions, that there is a greater openness. Partly because now there is a greater interaction between Russians and people from other countries and much more familiarity with foreigners. Of course, equally important is that more and more Russians travel abroad on holiday or on business trips, or on other forms of cultural exchanges. All of that is extremely important, and we [in the embassy] try to promote cultural and people to people contacts as much as possible.
I remember, that in the Soviet era, most foreigners came here on Intourist trips. They would be ferried around on busses and trains, taken to their hotels, and the interaction wasnât very great or sometimes didnât exist. You would get chaperoned to museums where there might be a guide book in English or, if you were lucky, an audio book might have been available. Otherwise, you would have to find your way around on individual tours, a daunting prospect without a good command of Russian.
Whatâs it like being a diplomat here now in comparison with the late 1980s when you were here last?
My first job here as a very young diplomat was my first posting. In those days we had a very small embassy. Now the embassy is a much larger operation including a visa office and three Irish state agencies. In addition, we didnât establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union until 1973, so I came at an early stage, when we were still in the process of building political, economic and cultural links. Those linkages have developed quite rapidly since then.
The Irish community is much larger than during the Soviet era. The Irish community, then, was limited predominantly to a small number of students who were attending Russian language courses after which they returned home. There was no real resident Irish community. It was only after I left, during the perestroika period that the community began to grow, and more and more people came. I think the community peaked in the 1990s when there were about 3,000 Irish here.
Irish citizens were involved in many different areas of life, business operations, teaching, self-employed etc. Some got married and settled down here; that is much different to my first term here. Numbers have now fallen, they are probably about 350 Irish in Moscow. It is a small community, but very active.
To give you an idea of the changes that I am talking about our St. Patrickâs Day events were generally held in a single reception room in the embassy, where we would have a small group of people attending (less than a dozen in 1981). In contrast, this year, I hosted a reception on the 17th of March, and over 500 people were present.
We are very lucky to have St. Patrickâs Day as a national holiday, as we have a whole âIrish Weekâ of celebrations around it. Now we have a parade, a week of Irish events; a music festival, a film festival and cultural events, and also events in St. Petersburg.
One of the other events held during that week is the charity Emerald Ball which is organized by the Irish Business Club, headed by Avril Conroy, a long standing resident of Moscow. This year over 375 people attended and raised 8 million roubles for charity.
We are very grateful to the Moscow city government for their assistance in organising these events and we wouldnât be able to do what we do without the Cityâs support.
One of the first events which I attended following my arrival here here, was the Moscow Feis â which is the Irish term for an Irish dancing competition. 700 contestants from all over Russia participated and adjudicators travelled from Ireland to judge the competition. Irish dancing is very popular here. So also is traditional music and we host music events here in the embassy throughout the year.
Do you think that the number of Irish expats has bottomed out?
The general impression I get is that the current situation is quite challenging, economically and professionally but some people who have been here for a lengthy period tell me that it is important to stay the course. Some of our citizens are well established in Russia. Russia is now home for them. That is quite a different profile from those who were here previously. We encourage people to register at the embassy, but not everyone does, so the figures we have are only approximate.
Ireland has always been a popular place for Russians to go to, because of its rich culture. Is travel to Ireland by Russians still going on, or has that also suffered because of the economic and political situation?
It still goes on, and itâs one of the things we try to push as much as we can. We hold a number of tourism events, promoting both educational tourism and more general tourism. In 2014, before the crisis began, our visa office here were handling about 17,500 visas a year. In fact this was our largest visa office in the world. That has of course been impacted by the depreciation of the rouble. The most recent figures show about a 15% drop in figures. Another issue which impacts is the absence of all year round direct flights between Russia and Ireland; S7 has direct flights to Dublin over the summer months. Nevertheless, Ireland is an attractive location for Russian holiday makers and offers a quite unique experience for visitors which appeals to Russians.
I find it interesting that the knowledge about Irish culture here is huge, I was aware of this to some extent in the Soviet era, that people knew about Yeats and Joyce, but the knowledge base seems to have expanded tremendously. There are Russian academics who have spent most of their lives looking at Joyce for example. We try to a lot of work with the various libraries and universities here as well, to foster greater understanding of our two cultures.