Interview with Sergei Markov

Selection_289Sergei, who are you?

I’m a Russian who was born here, went to school here and lived here for 26 years. Then I got on a plane and went to New York without a ticket back.

What year was that?

It was 1991, right after the coup.

What happened after you moved to New York?

I stayed there for 17 years. When I arrived I didn’t have a job and did not have permission to get a job. Before I went to America I had a good job and had received a good education. I had a job at BP exploration as executive assistant to the CEO, I left all this behind. I was not challenged, I was bored.

In America I started to look for jobs in the New York Times. After 6 months of cleaning cars and brushing up leaves in New Jersey, I found a job on 63rd Madison as a Russian-speaking secretary. When they met me they hired me as a manager in an investment-related job for a company that was doing business with Russia, which I was very glad to get.

What about your personal life?

When Russians emigrate to the US, many become clustered in a Russian-speaking environment, leaning towards Brighton Beach and surrounding areas, or you have to forget where you are from and become American. Some people go to extremes and change their name, and become Sam or Jon or whatever, and they become totally involved. In general, business is not a problem; the social and cultural aspects are a major challenge. You have to totally stop communicating with Russians and make Americans your friends. Having an accent is the least of your worry.

So I decided to become an American. It took me two years to realise that in fact I would never ever become an American, and there are many reasons why I couldn’t do that. One of the reasons is that I do not want to give up what’s called heritage, point of view, mode of thinking, attitudes to life, money, and friendship. Things that are treated very differently in the United States. In this respect, Russians there are closer to the Hispanic community, or even to the Black community. I’m talking about the way they communicate, and loyalty to friends.

Russians are acceptable mostly only to intellectual Americans; to people who have a wide outlook.

What made you stay so long?

It was mostly a set of circumstances. Firstly because my employers offered to sponsor me for an H1 working visa. After my initial success, I changed my job three times, looking for better conditions and hoped that somebody would sponsor me for a green card, but nobody did. I ended up marrying somebody who didn’t have American citizenship, and when she eventually got it, she refused to sponsor me. I did get custody of my very young daughter child, but only after three years, as I was then illegal without working papers. It then took me another two years to get a green card and a proper job. After 5 years of doing odd jobs I got a position in an investment bank in New York. As soon as I got the green card I was on a plane to Moscow within a week on business.

I then started a series of non-stop New York-Moscow travelling, on business. I made that trip 25 times. Eventually in 2009 we (myself and my daughter) moved back to Russia.

What made you move back?

The main reason I left the US was the same very reason I left Moscow in 1991; because I wasn’t challenged. It was never my intention to work in a large firm and move up the corporate ladder. I always worked with entrepreneurs in smaller situations. I founded a 3D animation company. We did 3D virtual manuals instead of print manuals. I felt I had learned everything I could in social and business life. In a way, being a Russian was an advantage in America, because, for example, people would put me through to the right person when I phoned them because I had a foreign name.

For me, everything changed after 9/11. New York became a different place for a year. People became friendly, but it was a turning point for me in the United States. New York and America was castrated on that day. I think 9/11 was the end, and the beginning of something new.

For the first year and a half after I moved back, I worked for the same firm that I was working for in New York, doing the same kind of things. I am very happy to be here. I haven’t regretted a single day after returning. I now have no desire at all to live in the US. To visit, yes, but to live, no. There are many reasons.

What about your daughter, do you think that moving back here would be right for her?

I knew that I would move back, but it took me a long time to get a green card and look after my legal situation. As an expat, I visited 40 private schools in New York to see which one would be the best one for my daughter. Then an opportunity came up to put her in the Russian school at the permanent mission at the UN in New York. The teachers are Russian, and the teaching methods are Russian. I saw a unique opportunity for my daughter to assimilate the Russian way of life whilst living in the US. She went to kindergarten with black girls, I deliberately put her in a multi-ethnic environment for three years.

My daughter is the kind of person: where I am going, she is happy to go too. So when she went to school here in Moscow, it was a relatively small transition.

What were the main difficulties for you settling back into life here?

The biggest difference and difficulty is that there is a completely different mode of thinking here. Even after four years back in Russia, I don’t think like my Russian friends who are business people. On a linguistic level, I don’t formulate my sentences in proper grammatical order, which relates to thinking, because I think very structurally. English is a very structural language, very logical. Being a linguist, I can analyse this from different points of view. Speaking and thinking in a logical manner means you are likely to act like that. The side effect of this is that sometimes people here don’t understand me when I speak Russian. My daughter is experiencing the same thing at school. She is getting a hard time at times.

Many Russians who have returned here, and some of them return and then go back, say that the streets are dirty, people are rude, people’s word in business doesn’t mean anything, but all of these things didn’t bother me at all. I was in New York, and that city is ten times more competitive than Moscow. I remember catching myself walking to the traffic lights and realising that I was racing to reach them with other people walking down the street. Here there is competition, but there it is cut throat.

What about corruption?

It is what it is. You either accept this or you don’t accept this. Of course it is worse than in New York, and it’s everywhere here. This is Russia, the land of unlimited opportunities. If you live here, you have to accept this, otherwise you are going to be in continuous spiritual conflict with yourself. But things are changing. For example; the cops. I think that over the last few years, their working conditions are getting better and so on. There is less corruption.

I found that money, as a motivating force, greed – one of the seven sins – is much less developed here than in the States. I have a tremendous respect for America, for an open society, for entrepreneurship, but at the same time, American society gives its citizens a blank check to greed. There are no moral, legal or social barriers to check this somehow. It’s promoted under different banners, like ‘success’ and so on. I find this a big difference.

For me, you can see this in the existence or absence of certain words in both languages. For example the Russian word достойный, does not mean the same thing as decency in English, neither does порядочный. You can describe these concepts but not quite in the same way. The absence or presence of certain words is a reflection of what a society stands for, in a way.

On the other hand, there is one quality, which I wish people here had, and that is a ‘can do’ attitude. And there are many reasons for this, which can be traced back to a Slavic historical background and serfdom. I remember when I came back, and I had an analyst working for me in Moscow, I said to him that we have to get hold of Potanin to ask him about something. The analysts asked me how on earth this was going to be possible, I said: “just watch.” I got on the phone and called him up.

Russia today, in many ways, is still a non-monetary, non-fiscal society. I think that needs to be nurtured and sustained, but at the same time, knowing the very direct line between business and everything else, you have to face reality.

As far as my daughter and other children who come back here are concerned; they have a dual identity, they see that the East Coast films, TV, music is incomparably good there, and the Russian equivalents are bad. At the same time, socially at school, they are seen as outsiders, so it’s a challenge, but we will manage.