Johan Verbeeck


Johan Verbeeck


How long have you lived in Russia and what brought you here?

I have lived here for 13 years now. I first arrived in the USSR in 1986 as a student, and I have been visiting the country on a regular basis ever since. I am glad that I experienced life in the Soviet Union, which was a very different world. When the Berlin Wall fell for example, I was living in Poland, studying Polish at Warsaw University. After my studies, I hardly used my Slavic languages at all for over a decade. I worked 8 years for FedEx in their European headquarters in Brussels, and then for a couple of years in HR consultancy for the Swedish Mercuri Urval. In 2001 an American friend who has a courier company in St. Petersburg asked me to come over to Russia and help him out in Moscow. It was one of these ‘now or never’ moments in life. I remember I had just bought an apartment in Brussels and having lived in it for only 3 months, I booked a one way ticket to Russia. And I am still here.

Why so long?

A Belgian friend of mine compared Russia with some kind of a vacuum that sucks you in, once you have been here for too long. You start working, you acquire business partners and associates, friends, you marry, you have kids and oops… at least 10 years have passed. Sometimes you get fed up with the place, but once you leave it for a couple of weeks, you start missing it. Without coming over here I would probably have stayed in a relatively safe Belgian corporate environment for the rest of my life. Here I became immediately involved with very dynamic start-ups; with entrepreneurs and pioneers of new businesses. After working with my American friend I joined some expat friends selling, marketing and producing promotional items for a couple of years, which was lots of fun. I remember, for example, we produced many of the materials, which were for sale in the first Hard Rock Café shop here in Moscow.

Selection_003What do you do here now?

In 2008 I opened the Russian branch of ElaN Languages, a Belgian translation and training company. We provide translations for various major banks, business associations and oil companies. We also specialize in language training; so far only on the B-to-B market, but we are now going forward with tutoring individual customers as well. We are pioneering teaching expats Russian online. We are actively expanding our translation business to the B-to-C market, as soon we will open a translation desk for visa related paperwork for some embassies.

What are the most difficult and best things of living here?

There is a certain ‘straightforwardness’ in everyday life in Russia that always attracted me. Winters are white and summers are hot, so to speak. I am very positive about the openness and dedication of Russian friendships, although that is not necessarily an exclusive Russian trait. Russians are certainly fun, down-to-earth, extremely generous and loyal once you know them.

Although we live in a heavily polluted city, nature is never far away in Russia. It just takes you an hour from Moscow to be in the middle of nowhere. Banyas and dachas are not very common in a densely populated country like Belgium. Before I came to Russia, I never picked mushrooms as they do here. Last year I saw some people picking them during a walk in a forest not far from my hometown in Belgium. When I came a little bit closer, I heard them speaking Russian.

There is always another side of the coin. This is a country of great culture, highly educated and well-read people. There is a lot of warmth, but also a lot of stubborn conservatism, misplaced nostalgia and arrogance. I like the fact that there is less superficial hypocrisy here, less political correctness, however, on the other hand you hear some creepy ‘us and them’ opinions that we in the West have forgotten a long time ago.

What is it like in Russia at the moment?

We have been working with this country for the last 25 years, and now I sometimes have to explain to some ‘mister-know-it-all’ why we live and work here as if we are part of a big conspiracy against Russia, and that’s sad. I remember the Cold War in the eighties very well. Now, almost 30 years later we are at the receiving end of the same or an even higher level of manipulation, clichés, deliberate bigotry and childishness by politicians and the press. I am talking here about all sides of the confrontation. And it is we who pay the price, not them. I don’t have a clue what the future will bring. Nobody would have convinced me two years ago that we would witness another intra-slavic war, only 20 years after the previous one in Yugoslavia. This IS a massive, ugly historical fact, I am afraid. May common sense prevail!

What would you like to do next?

Last fall I decided to move my family to Belgium, primarily for my son’s education. He is nine now, which is the ideal age to make the switch. Belgium has a good track record in education. He will speak four languages by the age of 18. My personal ambition is now to use the local knowledge and contacts I have built up over the last decade. While still managing the language business, I am building a portfolio of foreign companies I help to look for business on the Russian market. Especially in the SME sector there are ‘hidden champions’ which have a great product, but don’t have enough resources to explore all markets. So far I have construction technology, IT products for oil and gas and event management in the portfolio. These are not under sanctions yet!:)