Outgoing Polish ambassador to Russia, Wojciech Zajączkowski

Ambassador, you’re just about to leave Russia, what’s it like leaving a country where you have lived for four years?

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I’m happy that I can go back home. I have been abroad now for six years, four years here and two years in another country and this is a long time. I feel the need to go back home and recharge my batteries. On the other hand, when diplomats leave a country where they have been working, they leave a part of their lives behind them. In professional terns, it is a piece of their professional career, but it is also something emotional. Emotions may be negative or positive, it doesn’t matter, but they all make up a chapter in one’s life, and this concerns any country.

What are the main cultural differences between Poland and Russia?

I think that two basic cultural differences should be mentioned. The first dates from the 10th century when Poland joined the western church. This led to a profound cultural difference between Russia and Poland. The other big cultural difference that I have noticed whilst living in Russia, is Russians’ perception of communism. In Poland. communism lasted 45 years and had a relatively mild effect. In Russia communism lasted for over 70 years and Russian society was devastated. The 1930s and the 1940s were the worst. These two elements are pretty decisive when we talk about cultural perceptions.

The fact that I come from Poland has worked in my favour. When I say that I am a Pole, most people reacted in a positive way. If I had told them that I am from a western country a long way away, they would simply have been indifferent.

Do you think that these cultural differences have come out onto the surface now?

They have always been there. Of course there have been moments when Russia made an attempt to impose its political will on Poland; in the second half of the 19th century, and to some extent in the 20th century as well. Poles made a similar attempt in the 17th century. All these attempts failed.

Selection_028How many Poles live in Russia at the moment?

It’s hard to say. Officially I think about 50,000. There are a lot of people of Polish descent living here. They are Russians, but at the same time they recognise openly that they have Polish roots. The biggest centre is in St Petersburg, because at the beginning of the 20th century, the Polish community in Russia’s capital exceeded 100,000. There is also a sizeable community in Moscow, not as big and active as in St Petersburg, and in the eastern and southern part of Russia such centres as Tumen, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Irkurtsk, Stavropol, Pyatigorsk, Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don. In all these cities there are Polish organisations, which are quite active.

Historically, you can see that there are quite a few Poles who played a major part in Russian history. One only has to mention Malevich, Tchaikovsky, Nizhinsky, Dmitry Shostakovich, there are a lot of such examples.

How many Polish expats live here; that is Poles who come here for a short period of time to work, like you?

This is an even harder question, because in the case of Polish citizens, there is no requirement to register with the embassy. But on the basis of the number of people who attend different events, the number of children who attend the Polish school and so on, we can say that in Moscow there are around 600 Polish expats, if you don’t take into account the embassy. There are also other expats in St Petersburg, in the Volga region, and in Siberia. Some of them represent Polish companies, but I think the majority represent international companies.

I suppose it works the other way around; there are a number of Russian business people in Poland?

There are not so many Russians in Poland as there are Poles in Russia.

Being a Polish expat in Russia is probably an advantage, because you are close to Russian culture and can understand Russians?

In cultural terms it is easier because it is not too difficult for Poles to learn the language, and this is an advantage. If you start to speak and understand Russian, you start to function in a different way, it becomes easier to do business here. Russians know something about Poland, and Poles know something about Russia, so people who come here are not surprised by the way life is organised, it makes is easier to do things here, at least in the beginning.

Are the activities that Poles are involved in here in Russia different from what they were involved in, say 20 years ago?

There has been a significant change in the roles that Polish expats play. 20 years ago, the Polish expat community was dominated by people who worked for state-owned companies. Today we have no state-owned companies represented in Russia. There are also a lot of Polish specialists working for international companies and Russian organisations.

So Poles are now more entrepreneurial than they used to be?

We have always been entrepreneurial, but conditions were different.

Good point. What advice would you give any Pole coming here to work?

In Russia or in Moscow?

Let’s take Moscow.

First of all I would recommend taking a close look at the practical side of the contract that you sign. Moscow is huge and as a matter of fact rather unfriendly for people in general, and I’m not just talking about expats. So if you are coming with children, you have to take into account the problem of schooling. You have to calculate how much you, or your company is ready to pay for schooling; you have to think about transportation to school and back. Are you ready to let your children travel alone? If you don’t take this into account, your life, at least at the beginning, can be very difficult, especially as the English language schools are all located a long way out of the centre.

Has your family enjoyed living in Russia?

I think yes, firstly because my wife found her place in the International Women’s Club, where she presided for two years, and I think she has done a great job. One of my sons has attended the Anglo American school, and studying in Moscow has given him some important experience. My younger son went to a Russian kindergarten, and I think he actually learned something.