Has working and living in Russia changed you as a person?
It’s all about flexibility. I’e always had an ability to multitask, to tackle something else within a related sphere. For example, somebody came to me and said: “You’re a hotelier, we need hotel standards, can you help us out by formulating them?” So I wrote some hotel standards for Russia, and that involved training programmes and creating branding. It was one of those occasions where people said: “Well John might know.” I had a lot of connections in Moscow, so I was able to arrange things quite easily.
Does that mean that multi-tasking is a really good thing to be able to do in Moscow?
There are many many opportunities in Moscow, and the longer I stayed here, the more opportunities I saw. The one thing I didn’t want to do was to be involved in things that were boring. It’s never been boring, it’s always been challenging. It’s not an easy place to live, but it’s a lot easier now than it used to be. If we parachute ourselves back 20 years, one of the biggest differences is that it wasn’t so difficult to find people, because there were only about four places where people used to meet. It pushed us all together, and you all helped each other.
When I first came here, the first things I was involved in was marketing a pub called the Red Lion. This was a challenge, because my Russian was limited to what I had learned in James Bond movies. I used to communicate using card tricks and by doing tricks with glasses. People said: “come and see this crazy Englishman down at the pub”; and they did in great numbers. I was very fortunate. Mick Lange who now runs AAA English and I worked together and he knew a company that supplied Karaoke equipment, which we installed in the pub. The pub was mobbed, as karaoke was something new in Moscow then. There was this short Japanese guy, who was a regular who stood a little way back with the radio microphone and when his music came he changed completely into Nat King Cole. It was spookily brilliant. So it’s not just the things I’ve done, but it’s the friends I’ve made and the delight of being asked to be involved in things.
The crisis in 1998 was not so easy for everybody. The Scottish Society which had been going for three years, and was run then by Tom Crozier who was leaving, had a problem getting people to keep it going. I was asked to help out at the St. Andrew’s ball. The Chieftain that year was an Irishman, Michael O’Leary. Anyway the ball was at the Radisson Slavyansky and it was huge, and very amusing. They did a Full Mc Monty, it was hilarious. Up until that time I had spent seven days a week working, incredibly busy, doing different things, and it was really nice to be involved in something like this. Then the Irish Club asked me to get involved, in the days when they took over the New Arbat to have their parades, I became known as the kind of Master of Ceremonies of Choice. “John’ll do it, he doesn’t talk too much, he’ll keep things moving.” And that takes me back to my hotelier days before I came to Russia, when being toastmaster and master of ceremonies was part of the deal.
Presumably you must like Russians or you wouldn’t be here. But what do you do when things go wrong? What advice would you give?
I think it’s all about honesty. A Russian proverb explains a lot: “I’d rather be slapped in the face with the truth than kissed with a lie.” If things are going wrong, or have gone wrong, that’s it, that’s a fact. If everyone knows exactly what the situation is, and acknowledges it, then you can solve the problem or move on from there. I have been involved with the Taganka charity for children for the past 10 years, and I was there just this Saturday. The mums were there, and it’s not easy for them because some of their children will never grow up. It’s all about honesty, which you can see in their faces too.
Do you prescribe to the current image of Russia from abroad?
I don’t see it as being any different from anywhere else really. The alphabet maybe is different. I think it’s easy to stereotype.
Have you had any really bad times here?
Health was a bit of a concern at one stage. Although medical treatment can be very expensive here, my trust in Russian doctors has been reinforced. In general, I have been very fortunate here. My life has been interesting.
How long do you plan to stay here? Do you have a long-term strategy?
I did five years plans, at the end of the first five years, I thought: “will I be here in another five years? I don’t know.” I never had a plan to leave, so therefore I had a plan to stay by default. There have been a succession of really interesting things which have kept me here. I worked abroad in France, Germany and Switzerland before coming here. To be in one place for so long is remarkable. Yes, I could go to the South Coast of the UK where my family now is, and I suppose that one day I’ll ‘retire’ in inverted commas, but when, I don’t know. I think I need to work in England for a while before I could respectfully retire, to re-acclimatise. I remember being in New York after Moscow, and the taxi drivers there would say: “slow down!” I think every day has a challenge for me. As long as it stays like that, I will stay. Obviously this relates to employment, and it will be a choice that ultimately will be taken from me, as opposed to one that I can make. But in the mean time I enjoy it, I love it.
Why did you grow a beard?
I used to have a goatee type thing. Then in 2005 or thereabouts, I grew it for Christmas, to be Santa. In the pub a month later the idea came of selling my beard for charity, so that’s what we did, and we raised quite a lot of cash! So it used to be grow the beard then chop it off in January. I have now become a really popular Santa and invited to appear in a large number of places from the Irish Embassy to hospitals and schools. A few years after my Santa debut I decided to stay in Santa mode all year round, although I may need to trim it down next year if we have another really hot spell in the summer.
Final words of wisdom:
It’s a big city, a small village, a great place if you come at it with good grace. Then it will delight you. It can be a challenge like any big city, and I’ve lived and worked in a number. But there are some great people here, the friendships you develop in a situation of diversity like this brings out strength and unity. Also I think it is really important to get involved. If you can do something to support the less able, or do anything like go to a school and give a talk about something that you are interested in, in a language that they would love to learn, do it. If you have time, or you can make time, the rewards on your investments are going to be huge.