New Delhi, Moscow

new-delhi-moscowThere are about 5,000 Indians living in Russia, according to the Indian embassy, which makes the Indian community one of the largest English-speaking communities in Russia. Diwali and Holi celebrations in Moscow can easily fill a hall with three thousand people. Being an Indian here means that one is part of a close-knit community with tight cultural and religious norms. But the Indian community does not shout from the roof tops: ‘here we are, look at us!’ In this issue, MeL goes Indian.

Aby Jacob IT professional who works at Infosys in Moscow

Aby Jacob
IT professional who works at Infosys in Moscow

 

Indians are positive about Russia. As Aby Jacob, an IT professional who works at Infosys in Moscow mentioned: “Moscow presents infinite opportunities and challenges at the same time. When compared to the Indian socio-economic situation, the differences are enormous. Moscow epitomizes a free and open society, a booming economy, heritage, vogue and panache; all these factors attract me. On the flipside, the weather, language and the traffic spoils the fun, and of course when it comes to corruption, Moscow makes me feel at home.” A strong strategic partnership with India during the Soviet Union laid the foundation of the close diplomatic, trade and cultural ties which the two countries enjoy today. More significant is the fact that Russia offers Indians the chance to succeed.

So what do Indians do here? Sammy Kotwani, the president of the Indian Business Alliance and owner of Imperial Tailoring said: “The most popular business for Indians here is in importing and trading pharmaceuticals. There is also quite a lot of Indian activity in metals; we have two factories here. Then there are the people involved in textiles, who now import mostly from China rather than India. 40%-50% of the textiles provided to Russian manufacturers is supplied by Indian companies. Many of us are involved in tea and coffee importing which account for 32% of India’s total imports into Russia. Indian business people are able to adapt to the Russian market in terms of product size and pricing, but that does not mean that it is an easy market.”

Sammy-Kotwani

Sammy Kotwani
President of the Indian Business
Alliance and owner of Imperial Tailoring

The question of whether or not Indians keep their religion wherever they go is not relevant. As Sammy Kotwani commented: “Some people [Indians] are very religious; some people are not quite as religious as they are, but everyone believes because he or she is an Indian.” The whole spectrum of Indian religious practices is present in Russia. “Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism are all here, and we also have Christians, even Russian Orthodox Christians. So we are pretty liberal. We all celebrate Eid al-Adha; it is a national holiday back home, we celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, and we all celebrate Diwali. We really do believe that God is one.”

Indians in Russia demonstrate the advantages of being members of a tolerant, multi-religious society which India is at the present time is an example. Acceptance of another religion is only part of the story. Young Indians living here take it further and are integrating into society more thoroughly than many realise. Aby Jacob, who is typical of his generation: “I am part of a catholic community here in Russia, so on Sundays I meet people from multiple ethnic groups at my Church. I frequently visit the Opus-Dei Centre here in Moscow; we have a truly spiritual community.” At the same time, Aby drinks. “Though I have heard criticisms about Russian drinking habits, I feel this is certainly fine, and I have nothing to condemn. Liquor sales make up to 40% of the government’s revenue in the Indian state where I come from, and our revelries are even louder and more dangerous. Hard to believe? I would prefer to attribute Russian drinking habits more to the cold weather than to anything else.” Aby and young Indian professionals like him go clubbing, and engage in activities that might be looked down upon by Indians of a previous generation. “On weekends I go out with my colleagues and friends to museums, parks or visit places in the city or nearby Moscow. When the adrenaline is high, I go for ‘go carting,’ snowboarding or play some cricket or basketball. We have created an NGO here named ‘Basmanny Forum’ along with my friend Darius who heads the team. Once a week I play basketball with Russians and Lithuanians. Sometimes when I feel like hiding from the huff and puff of Moscow, I travel to my friend’s dacha and have a soothing weekend over Russian music, shashlik and some pivo . I also go to pubs and clubs at the weekends sometimes.” But that does not mean that Aby cuts out participation in Indian community activities. The Indian community in Moscow is changing in line with Indian society back home.

Raj Maxwell Partner in the  IndiMor Catering company

Raj Maxwell
Partner in the
IndiMor Catering company

A very few Indians, such as 45 year old Raj Maxwell, a partner in the wildly successful IndiMor Catering company says that he does not have anything to do with the Indian community, and mixes only with expats from other countries and Russians. “I am not putting down Indian culture, but there are many things I do not like, like the bargaining and the lack of punctuality. Of course, the conservatism is good for most people, but you have to do what you feel is right for you. Only when I got married could I become accepted by the married Indian community, and I did not feel that to be right. I was alone morally and felt a hard shoulder for many years. As it happens, I got married last year, to a Russian lady and now we have a child, but now I do not mix with Indians. I am going all the way here, I love it, I intend to get Russian citizenship and buy property here.”

However the majority of Indians now living in Moscow agree that the Indian business and cultural community is doing pretty well. Arti Soni, who has lived here for 23 years expressed that the community has never been so strong, and one reason for that is the pro-community attitude shown by India’s present Ambassador. “Ambassador Ajai Malhotra is a Russian speaker and is actively engaged in the community, and this makes a big difference. If Indians in Russia have a problem, we can make direct contact with him. This is the first time that we have had such close links with the embassy,” Arti Soni said.

On the friendship front, most westerners have expressed how ‘real’ Russian friendships are. Some Indians like Arti Soni agree: “I have made many lasting friendships here. Most of my friends are the same people whom I made friends with when I was a student here. Russian people are acutely sensitive, so are Indian people. If there are problems, they will always help, that is why I never feel I am alone here.” Aby is not so sure: “friendship means a different thing here. Outwardly it might look the same, but Indian friendship has more to it than Russian bonhomie. It is not just a ship floating on the surface but an iceberg whose intensity is tested and tried, and whose depths are more than what you can just see.”

Arti Soni

Arti Soni

If there is one thing that unites Indians, it has to be food. “During the week, after long working hours, the evenings seem to be pretty much mundane and the only question in mind is: ‘what about dinner?’ I sometimes go to an Indian restaurant, like Darbar, Devi café or Aromas, or I head to my kitchen. Russian food has been quite a challenge, to be honest,” commented Aby Jacob. A visit to Sammy Kotwani’s Imperial Tailoring means being treated to delicious samosas. Tastes change, as Arti Soni commented: “ I cook quite a lot of Indian food at home, but it is rather spicy for me now. So I cook a kind of mixture of Russian and Indian because my husband is from Azerbaijan, so our main dishes are made in the Parsi tradition, and these are quite similar to Indian dishes.”

What do Indians think of marrying locally? The answer is positive; however views differ. Sammy Kotwani, whose own father refused to allow him to marry a Russian “for family and other reasons”, said: “This was very popular amongst people who came here during the Soviet Union. Many of these people are now in their 60’s and beyond. For Russian women, there is only one real gentleman, and that man is an Indian. Indians are loyal, they don’t run away, they don’t marry twice. Indian men respect Russian women, who are truly the best in the world. We foreigners really understand that.”

Sammy Kotwani mentioned that the Indian business community faces many problems, in particular a lack of reliable information. “Lists of suppliers are difficult to come by, even if such lists exist, they may not be updated, and things change frequently. Not everybody here even has a proper business address. Work permit regulations are getting more and more complicated for all foreigners in Russia. It used to take one month to get a visa and work permit, now it takes three. Another problem is letters of credit. Russians have a different understanding of what they are. Tax is another problem in that the law changes quickly, and the same thing goes with customs. Russia is only 25 years old. The laws are there, but there are still a lot of strings attached to them. One small thing that troubles us greatly is work permits. If you have a work permit, you are allowed to bring your wife and children. What about your mother and father? The family is a massive part of Indian culture. In general, things are improving, but one has to keep on top of the ever changing situation.”

Interview with Andrew Quayle, Heineken Russia’s new Chief Financial Officer

Andrew Quayle, Heineken Russia’s new Chief Financial Officer tells Moscow expat Life what life is like here after eight months in Russia.

Interview by: Peter Hainsworth

 

Andrew Quayle, Chief Financial Officer Heineken Russia

Andrew Quayle, Chief Financial Officer Heineken Russia

How long have you been in Russia?

For almost eight months.

What is the overriding impression you have about living in this city?

It’s big, it’s busy, it’s noisy, and it’s congested, as it should be because it is a huge megacity. But actually I quite like it. It lives up to the expectations of what everybody says it is going to. Ok, maybe after eight months there are some surprises, which we haven’t yet come across, but so far it has been a remarkably straightforward transition.

Did you have a choice of whether to come here or not?

In theory you have a choice. In my case I was presented with two options of where I might go next. Once I knew what the other choice was, there was only one place I wanted to go – here; although the other option would have probably been a more pleasant quality of life, but not as good a job. Some people turn down Moscow because they hear all sorts of stories about it, but that never entered our heads really. It was: let’s give it a go and see what happens.

What did you hear about Russian that might have put you off?

Because it’s Russia, and an important country on a global scale, you can’t avoid being exposed to other people’s impressions. You read about Russia in the newspapers every day, you see it on the television news, you see it on the internet. Then you hear the stories of people who have been here and did not like it. Many of the people who like it are still here, quietly getting on with their jobs and lives. I have to say that after eight months, we think it’s a great place. You very rarely hear positive stories about Russia outside of the country, which is wrong.
To a certain extent we are used to this. Before we lived here, we lived in Romania, which has a very negative image in Western Europe particularly. But we thought Romania was a fantastic place and we enjoyed it a lot. I think Romanians are great people, and you won’t hear many people in Western Europe saying that. Perhaps that is because they don’t know any. You don’t hear too many people saying that Russia is a great place, unless they are Russian, which I think half the people in London are now.

What’s been the worst thing so far?

Well, somebody once told me that there is no such thing as bad weather; there are only bad clothes. Before we came we bought big heavy hats and coats, and, so far, we have survived the winter. I must admit that I find the darkness in the mornings goes on a long time (editor. This interview was conducted in the winter). Perhaps it has got something to do with the fact that the clocks don’t change for wintertime like they do in most other countries.

It took a while to find somewhere to live, and that’s very expensive obviously. Now we have a very nice apartment right in the heart of the city. We can walk just about everywhere, as although Moscow is huge the centre is actually fairly small. We are lucky because I have an assistant in the next office who handles all the bureaucracy, she just asks me to sign things. But I can image that if you don’t have a big company behind you, then handling the bureaucracy can be tough; especially if you’ve just arrived.

What about the best things?

We have genuinely been pleased with the hospitality of the people. Everywhere we go we find people who are happy to help in one way or the other. Despite what I have heard, if you can offer one or two words of Russian, and a smile, generally they smile back. There is none of this rough, gruff, dour Russian thing that we heard about. No doubt it is there, but we haven’t experienced it. And the same goes for the situation at work. The Russians could have made it very difficult for somebody like me coming in but in fact, they have made it very easy, even when there is a recognition in business terms that we still have a lot of work to do.

What sort of things do you do at the weekends?

We have been walking around the city quite a lot. Liz is slowly expanding our walking routes, to try different parts of the city. When you arrive somewhere you work out a way to meet people, usually in bars and restaurants. Sure, maybe the people you meet, in expat life are sometimes transient; just when you make friends with somebody they leave! But we have met a few people, and had a few good nights out, and are able to make the best of things. All of our social connections are with expats, which I recognize is a limitation in that it would be nice to meet more local people and get a feel for Russian culture.

What about work, is it the same as in Romania?

It is very similar, because it is the same business, but everything here is about double the size. The fact that you are doing a job like I am doing in a culture and language that you don’t know, make it a challenge, but this also makes the job very interesting. I realised that there are three parts to the continent we call Europe. There is Western Europe, Eastern Europe and there is Russia. I did make the initial mistake of lumping Russia together with Eastern Europe, but of course Russia is different, and half of it is in Asia anyway.

So Russian business culture is a long way from European culture?

Yes, and a long way from eastern European culture also. I fully understand this; it is a very big country and perfectly capable of standing on its own. So why should it be referred to as part of Eastern Europe? There is a cultural and historical background that makes us all a bit different. Romanians have a very “can do” attitude; they are not so interested in debating “why?” Here, the situation is a little bit more challenging. The attitude is let’s talk about this a bit more, and fully understand why we are doing something. So I find the approach here to be different, but also very healthy.

work-service-ad-600x427

Interview with Anton Greiler, General Director of Julius MeinlRussland OOO

anton-greilerHow did you get to be in Russia?

Before I came here almost three years ago, I worked for ten years in the export business. The first time I came to Russia was in the beginning of 2000. The wild times were over by then, but Moscow was still very different. Right from the beginning I always felt very comfortable here. In 2005 I started to work for Julius Meinl; at that time Russia was simply a country we exported to. It soon became clear that Russia is going to be one of the strategically most important markets for our company, and in 2007 we took over the Russian import and distribution company, and founded Julius Meinl Russland OOO.

So you’re the man who came here and set it all up?

The earliest work was done by the Russian importing and distributing company, but after 2005 I was involved in managing and boosting development. In the beginning I used to come here a couple of times a year as most of the work was done locally. In business terms, we made the classical mistake of taking over the complete management team. The ways of doing things locally differed with our Western European, transparent systems. In theory, we were doing the same thing, but the practical side of things was a different story.

In 2008 we finally realised that themanagement which we had inherited was not going to work out in the way that we thought it would. There was the belief that all development should come out of the regions. We started 12 regional offices. This turned out to be far too ambitious for the time, as we were still quite small in terms of revenues. At one time we were employing 150 people, which was really a lot. So the train was travelling fast in the wrong direction. Then came the crisis. We pulled the brake at the end of 2008, and appointed a new Russian general director who started to reorganise the company and make it more feasible. She had perhaps thought that the job was going to be easier than it actually was, and decided to leave the company after one year. As I was the only one in the company who was truly familiar with the whole story in Russia, my boss asked me if I might be interested in going to Russia as general director. I spent all of one night thinking it over; as I loved Russia and Moscow. I arrived in March 2010, and have been working here since.

My first job was to continue with the restructuring of the company that my predecessor started. We shrank down to 70 people, then last year we started growing again. Now we are up to 90 people again. But in the meantime we have tripled our revenues, and we are the fastest growing unit in the group. In Russia we are one of the biggest suppliers of premium grade coffee.

What are the problems and advantages of doing business in Russia?

I was able to travel a lot during my ten-year stint in the export business. I was in touch with a lot of different countries and cultures from Japan to the Middle East, the US, South America, Africa and Russia. I am inclined to repeat an Italian saying: ”tutto il mondo è un paese”. At the end of the day, you have the same kind of problems everywhere, the same kind of desires, the same kind of good or bad people, education and business etiquette. If you are open-minded and simply try to accept the people you are working with and respect their historical, cultural and religious tradition, you begin to see that insurmountable problems do not really exist; there are only huge opportunities. I personally think that mixing cultures and ideas is a good thing. The synergy that comes out of the area behind San Francisco known as Silicon Valley is perhaps a good example of this. Creative companies have thrived there because the population is multi-cultural and full of energy and ideas.

Russia is a special case, because Russians mostly look like Europeans. But they are not Europeans. One of the biggest surprises for me when I first came here, was to find out that Russians talked about Europeans as those people in the West, because they don’t consider themselves to be a geographical part of Europe. Russia is a huge bridge between the East and the West. Russia is full of different nations, philosophies and races, which makes the country very interesting and fascinating for me. Certainly I am amazed at the depth and richness of Russian culture. For me, I have never experienced – to such a degree – the ‘live for today’ attitude to life. This sometimes creates problems with implementing the plans of western companies like ours, which is 150 years old and employs long-term planning. I am not sure how much importance Russians place on savings. Most Russians say that they actually don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, so it is better to enjoy today. But on the other hand, when you take into consideration the history of this place, you can understand this philosophy.

What’s the best and the worst thing that has happened to you here?

I have met a lot of wonderful people here, amongst them my current girlfriend. Russian women are very beautiful and emotional. They understand themselves to be women, whereas in a lot of western countries, they try to be more like men.

As far as the worst thing that happened; on the 17th of November last year, I was driving my car and stopped by the traffic police who accused me of being drunk. They confiscated my driving license. A battle against the police started which I finally won. Last week a Russian court decided that the Russian police had not been proceeding in a proper way, because they did not provide me with a translator, and made a lot of procedural errors. So I have to say that the Russian legal system is working better and better, things are in general improving.

Festival of short animated Scandinavian Films

As part of the 2013 Short Film Marathon at the 35mm cinema in Moscow, a mostly Russian audience was treated to a selection of some of the best short animated films from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. For the uninitiated into Scandinavian films like yours truly, the originality of these films came as a bit of a shock. In terms of a certain humanness and ingenuity, they are closer to what is going on here in central and eastern Europe than much of the animation coming out of the western European countries and the US. Here is an attempt of one author to describe in words four of the films he saw:

3Min Bestemor Beijing

Norway 2008, 10 min. Directed by Mats Grorud. As somebody who has witnessed the destruction of old Beijing in the name of progress, this animated film was particularly interesting for me. The whole story is told through the wrinkles on a granny’s face. Superb.

1Benigni
Finland 2009, 8 min. A lonesome xylophone player finds a viciously growing tumour under his arm, in his attempts to get rid of it he discovers that it has some unusual qualities, and becomes his friend. When the man inhales a cigarette, the tumour, which now has an expressive face and personality, exhales. The story is about loneliness, friendship, the emptiness of the city and ends with an unexpected twist. The film was created as a simple class exercise at Finland’s Turku Arts Academy—it’s not even a graduation film, but the charm of its bizarre story got it a spot in Annecy 2010.

Alien Repair Guy
Norway 2012, 12 min. Directed by Øystein Moe, Alexander Somma. This film tells the age-old alien origination of the human race through quite astonishing 2D and 3D animation. Earth’s control box gets broken. For the alien caretaker, what seems like just another day at work, ends up something completely different.

2Love Birds

Denmark 2000, 10 min. Directed by Trylle Vilstrup. A bird looking for love tries blind-dating. Drawn in a satirical, highly amusing way, the film demonstrates how powerful animation is as a tool for parody. It reminded me of the tough Teddy Boy’ 1960-70s in Northern England, when a bird could be a luv bird.

 

Digging an Educated Hole to China

diggingchinaOnce upon a time, my brother and I used to play ‘digging a hole to China’ in the sandpit at the bottom of the garden. Many years later, with a TEFL certificate and 9 ½ years teaching experience in the bucket, I have arrived. I am a seasoned expat in China. Since August 2012 I have lived in Jiangsu province, not far from Shanghai, teaching EAP, that is English for Academic Purposes.

Five months into my Chinese affair, I am at a loss for words. Is anything I heard or read about China before last August, since the days in the sandpit, true?

P1060529-copyMy students are 1st year undergraduate degree students, 18 year olds. I work at an International University, a 2+2 Sino-Foreign cooperative where students who pass their 2nd year courses have guaranteed entrance to a UK university. All of this is for a very high fee: three times the annual income for the average person in Jiangsu province. My students are bright, creative, and very courageous, and for the most part lack the attitude of the super-rich or the much discussed ‘little emperors’. My students deserve high praise. They have worked from dawn to midnight for 8 (of their 12 years education) years slogging away at their desks trying to pass the Gaokao (The National College Entrance Examination), the infamous exam which decides the fate of all Chinese students, to get here. They all believe that the higher the score the better the university and the better the job upon graduation, though this isn’t necessarily true anymore. The market economy has become entrepreneur-friendly resulting in certain unexpected ramifications for the educated, such as factory jobs paying more than the highly desirable but increasingly more difficult to find office jobs. Like my Omani students, the thought of doing manual labor – peasant work – horrifies my Chinese students, male and female alike. It doesn’t matter how often I tell them about the highly regarded western farmers, or that my nephew with a grade 12 education and a certificate in plumbing is earning more than I am as a university tutor. The stigma attached with peasant work is profound and deepening with the times. It seems there are many twists and turns in Cultural Revolutions.

P1060549-copyMy living conditions are the stuff of dreams. I live in an 80 km² industrial park which is the result of a joint venture between Singapore and China initiated in 1992. Deng Xiaoping was said to have remarked around that time: “Singapore enjoys good social order and is well managed. We should tap on their experience, and learn how to manage better than them.” Since then, the venture has caused heavy losses and scandal for the Singaporeans. As author Ben Dolven noted, “Conceived in the early 1990s as a model in which Singapore would show China how to take care of international investors, instead [the industrial park] became a lesson in how not to get things done in the mainland.” My apartment is in the higher educational town (HET) part of the industrial part. It is on the 9th floor of one of the four identical 15-storey blocks painted grey with a few yellow stripes between alternating floors. Beyond these four blocks, apparent only when the pollution lifts enough to see clearly, which is not often, are literally hundreds of other blocks, all concrete, all grey. There is no heating in the winter as the location is south of the public heating latitude, being considered ‘South China.’ I have reverted to the weatherproofing techniques of my London 1950’s childhood: hot water bottle, four pairs of socks, and newspaper in the windows to block the draughts where cling-on fails. Maybe this building marks the day Singapore withdrew from the project, as the construction is appalling. It is rumored that none of these buildings were built to last more than 20 years upon which time the government buys the owners out and pulls the structures down and starts again, and it shows. Looking out, it would seem that the goal is to house the entire populace in high-rises. Up and up, more and more. The idea of conservation is hard to find. It would seem that people are moved whenever and wherever if a high-rise or freeway is determined to be planted – like concrete locusts. “But teacher, you don’t understand,” said one of my wise students, “the people have nowhere to live.” Right, right, I stand corrected as I do with most of my semi-political-environmentally-friendly class rants.

P1050778-copyOn a Saturday or Sunday, weather and pollution permitting, I ride my bicycle in search of the ‘real’ China. This turns out to be about a 10 km bike ride from B1 of the HET concrete towers. The village of Cherfang has survived the last bulldozer and sits there amid a field of water taro (a kind of potato), chestnut trees and a 10-lane highway. All around the encroaching development has an almost suffocating effect. I desperately take photos of the disappearing ‘real’. Now and again, my students have the honour of seeing the fruits of my weekend labours. Photographs are a good TEFL conversation starter, which can be turned into citing exercises for EAP. As I start my environmentally sustainability speech, one of my horrified and very wise students remarks, “But teacher, that isn’t the real China, this is China.’ Ah so, so much for expat nostalgia. And really, what did I think I was doing? What right do westerners from developed worlds have to ask people in undeveloped worlds to live in shanty towns full of rotting shacks not just without heating but also without water or toilets, because they are looking for some misguided sense of the real? “Why shouldn’t I have a car? You do. Why shouldn’t I have running water and a toilet, you do,” says another wise student. Actually, I have had six cars, though never all at the same time which seems to be the thing these days.

letterLuckily, one does get wiser in this TEFL/EAP business. After nine years of teaching English in disparate and sometimes desperate places through desperate times, post 9/11 and into homeland security, post Iraq, post Martha Stewart, post financial disaster, post The Queen Mother and Alexander Queen, I have found finally found it wise to practice what I preach. Speak no religion, sex, or politics especially when delivering English classes. And how does one finally get so wise? It went like this:
Upon booting up and opening the first of a barrage of emails one morning I opened this email and knew that I had found my own personal Waterloo:

Moscow Opera in the Spring

moscowoperaThere is no doubt that the upcoming spring season is a real gift for opera lovers in Moscow. First of all, the Bolshoi Theatre is offering a renewed programme after a magnificent renovation. On February 15th, for example, there is a unique chance to enjoy Claude Debussy’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande,’ in a production that has come all the way from the northern capital’s Mariinsky Theatre. Debussy reveals the drama through the internal experiences of the heroes, not through dynamic action on the stage. This is something the director gives credit to, by assuming that ideally the opera should not give any hint about time and particular place. He has let the music play a predominant role.

A few days later, the Bolshoi will host another guest performance, again in French — “Les contes d`Hoffmann”. Following in close succession is ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ that proved to be the most epic and massively popular show last autumn and ‘Turandot’ – famous for its unforgettable costumes. All of these operas will run on the main stage.

Parsifal

Parsifal

The trick with the Bolshoi is never to do what everybody else does and buy tickets from agents. The best way is to go personally to the cashier in the theater at least two weeks in advance with a passport and get the best seats for no more than EUROS 80. The passport is necessary because it gives the theatre a guarantee that you are not going to resell the tickets and need them for personal use only.

For those who would prefer to stick to classical forms of opera but hardly have time to buy tickets in advance there is always the Stanislavskiy theater in Bolshaya Dmitrovka street. This theatre has a smaller stage, and puts on different but no less spectacular versions of your favourite operas. Splashy premieres aside, it is enough to arrive just 2 hours in advance to get good seats for a ridiculous EUROS 10.

cesare-daniels-dessay-1

Giulius Ceasare

Together with English National Opera, in February, the Stanislavskiy theatre proudly presents ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to the music of Benjamin Britten. There is another reason to visit this relatively small theater – its main star, or Diva. It doesn’t really matter what opera is running – ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’, ‘La Traviata’ or ‘Tosca’, if you see the name Hibla Gerzmava in the cast, you may well be pleasantly pleased by the strong yet velvety voice of a truly remarkable soloist.

Francesca da Rimini

Francesca da Rimini

She has performed on the stages of Paris, Florence, Vienna, Sofia, Tokyo, New York, London and Munich and earned the highest Russian awards: the Golden Mask, as well as the Casta Diva Award and the Moscow Government Award for achievement and contribution to the world of Arts and culture. Her charisma, charm, incredible talent and a breathtaking career are reminiscent of another Diva – Anna Netrebko. Hopefully Gerzmava will stay part of the Russia cultural heritage in spite of numerous offers from abroad. The loss of her after Anna Netrebko left in 2006 would be simply unbearable.

And last but not the least; this season presents somewhat of an unusual opera-viewing opportunity. You can enjoy famous productions without traveling to the Metropolitan NY; by watching splendid shows LIVE in HD in several local movie theaters (they all belong to the chain ‘Formula Kino’ which makes the process of buying electronic ticket easier). Four masterpieces are waiting audiences in the spring – ‘Rigoletto’ (its director Michael Mayer has placed Verdi’s towering tragedy in Las Vegas in 1960), the immortal ‘Parsifal’, ‘Francesca da Rimini’ (inspired by an episode from Dante’s Inferno) and ‘Giulio Cesare’.

HiblaGerzmava_14

Despite of the fact that you will be watching the shows on the big screen with Dolby Digital Surround, the operatic atmosphere will remain the same. There will be gallant opera lovers sharing their artistic impressions during the intermission. During the intermission, viewers virtually go backstage and listen to interviews with the cast. The longest show takes almost five and a half hours (no surprise as this is Wagner), but if you choose the cozy hall of Strela cinema, you can press special buttons to call waiters whilst you recline in most comfortable horizontal chairs.

Back to the Past: 1989

19891989 saw the beginning of the end. The election of a parliament made the dismantling of the Soviet apparatus possible. The mighty ship with the red star was scuppered by Gorbachev, Yeltsin and other reformers, who did more to wreck the cause of Soviet Communism in the space of a few years than decades of anti-Soviet propaganda and the Cold War put together.

By the winter of 1989-90, milk, tea, coffee, soap and meat had vanished from many state shops, particularly in Moscow. Sugar was scarce. “You promised us improvements; then why do we have to queue for basic things to eat?” was written in the sky in vast thought bubbles whenever Russians went to the shops in search of something edible, let alone tasty. Millions of Russians puzzled it out in their own way, coming to the conclusion that they wanted more radical change. Gorbachev did too but always with a delay, “clinging to the dying embers of the Communist faith,” as Timothy Colton put it.

6Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin used the shortages to press for the further decentralisation of industry. But the transfer to private retail and semi-private production caused problems which neither was able to handle well because power had also been decentralised. When Gorbachev saw that the co-ops he’d encouraged weren’t bringing about the desired results, he started talking about the need to create a “socialist market economy”, an oxymoron.

Oil prices had plunged from a high of around US$49 a barrel in spring 1980 to less than US$9 in 1988, falling by 50 per cent in 1986 alone). Oil and gas constituted only 18 per cent of exports in 1972 but a whopping 54 per cent by 1984. Only in armaments was the country keeping up. Paradoxically, industrial production had actually risen by 11 per cent between 1983 and 1985 thanks to Yuri Andropov’s disciplinarian methods. But from an economic point of view, there was no turning back.

In February 1989, the last remaining Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan.

April turned out to be a cruel month in Soviet Georgia. Sensing that the situation in the Baltics was spinning out of control, hardliners in the Interior Ministry turned nasty and ordered troops to open fire on a mostly female crowd in Tbilisi. That day, 19 were killed and several hundred injured. Twenty-one people were struck by soldiers wielding sharpened shovels. Many linked the violence directly to Gorbachev and the issue was brought up at the first session of the newly-elected parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, which ran from 25 May to 9 June. Almost daily, high-ranking state officials, including even Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, were harangued as they spoke. Gorbachev watched silently and coldly. Dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, recently allowed home from internal exile, called for the scrapping of Article 6 of the Constitution, the one that enshrined the ‘leading and guiding role’ of the Communist party. But his proposal was rudely rejected by Gorbachev. Sakharov died shortly after, in December.

By April 1989, resolutions passed at the 19th Communist Party Congress in June 1988 came into force. The number of Central Committee economic departments went down from 20 to nine. The remaining ministries had to report to the new Congress of People’s Deputies. From now on, the economy was to become more and more self-regulatory.

On the 25th of April, 74 full Central Committee members and 24 candidate members were bullied by Gorbachev into resigning. Stalin, of course, would have had them all shot. These included household names such as Andrei Gromyko, the Foreign Minister who had been known in the West as Mr. Nyet, and, at the United Nations where he was constantly vetoing Security Council resolutions, the Abominable No Man. Premier Nikolai Tikhonov also passed into history.

In July 1989, coal-miners in a pit in western Siberia went on strike, following a string of miners’ strikes in the Don basin. Their strike spread like wildfire to other mines in the Siberian Kuzbass and Vorkuta in the north. The miners demanded improved living and working conditions, better supplies, greater control over their work place and, interestingly, curbs on the co-operative movement. Fearing unrest, Gorbachev met most of their demands. However, overall conditions remained appalling. Brezhnev or Khrushchev would have used force against anybody daring to strike.

On the 9th of October, the Supreme Soviet finally recognised the right to strike, thus breaking with the Soviet sophistry that no such right was necessary or possible because workers in a workers’ state could not go on strike against themselves.

On the 14th of December, Andrei Sakharov died at the age of 68. This was an occasion for a nation-wide display of genuine grief, mingled with fear lest the precarious liberties so recently won might equally speedily be withdrawn.

1989 – Those were the days my friend

july1989First day at my Moscow office, the new boy at school. The building, not far from Paveletsky Vokzal was once grand, probably the residence of a wealthy merchant with below-stairs accommodation for the staff. Now it is bright yellow, decaying and showing the benefits of 70 years of socialism. I climb the steps and enter for the first time and am ushered into a massive room that must comprise half of the main floor. This I soon realize is the office of the General Director, a professor of engineering no less and, as he immediately informs me, a wrestler of note in his youth. He is certainly large, fit and powerful and I soon detect that the staff fear him. I am told that my office will be next door to his, but the proximity is less to do with status and more to do with observation. As a mark of respect I will be intourist-hotel permitted to meet him any day of the week provided I notify his secretary in advance. Other staff are only permitted to request meetings on Wednesdays between 14:00-16:00 as posted on his door, unless otherwise sent for. I soon learn that ‘sent for’ is his preferred mode of communication. I politely remind him of the agreement between the partners of our JV: a UK engineering company, a Moscow engineering institute and a state bank. This stipulates that although I am his deputy I will have equal signature rights in all matters and co-signatory rights for any hard currency transactions. I receive the first of the long silent stares that are to become a familiar feature of our conversations. Behind the grey eyes I am wondering whether he is preparing an explanation of the intricacies of doing business in the USSR or deciding which wrestling hold he should apply. After some time he confirms the arrangement adding that we will soon find ways to work around this inconvenience. I retire to my own office, a cheap plywood desk below the inevitable glare of comrade Lenin, and proceed to write the seventy sample signatures demanded by our banks, lawyers and notaries.

1257610306025The office toilet block is just as disgusting as every other lavatory I have encounter so far in Moscow. A robust old lady sits outside occasionally making forays into the cubicles with a bucket and mop in order to rearrange the dirt on the floors and empty the baskets of toilet paper. I learn that toilet paper is not provided but that it can be bought from the Babushka for a few kopeks a sheet, each having the appearance and texture of wallpaper. I later ask a group of my new Russian colleagues how can a company be so distrustful of its employees that it does not provide toilet paper in case it is stolen, yet still employ them? The ensuing silence and my realization that they are actually trying to produce a reason causes me to gasp in frustration. Fixing the loos will be high on the to-do list.

1257609111161Leaving the toilet and subconsciously informing myself I can stop holding my breath I see Sveta for the first time. She is rushing down the corridor towards me, flushed and flustered blowing and wiping her blonde hair from her face. At over 1.8 meters with a considerable bust she is quite simply one of the most stunning women I have ever seen and is clearly in no mood for conversation as she knocks and waits outside the professor’s office clutching papers for signing. I am clearly staring as Sasha, my Head of Trading and erstwhile minder smiles at me and mutters something under his breath.

1257610943503In the coming weeks I make considerable progress both in the job, getting to know the fifty or so Moscow staff. After patient complaining I have moved suite to one of the institute’s hotels for students and staff. A lounge, bedroom and bathroom duly supplied with a hand carried micro/convector oven, electric frying pan and toaster from the UK equips me to both cater for myself and even entertain. Dishwashing must take place on bended knee in the bath, but is the only real inconvenience apart from the resident mouse that appeared one day. Entertainment is provided in the form of a dated Russian made TV showing equally dated and dour programs that I cannot understand anyway, and my beloved shortwave radio which provides me with the BBC and daily news of events abroad. 1257609253599The Polish regime has crumbled in the face of public protests stirred on by ‘Solidarnosc’ and now the unthinkable is happening with growing protests in the communist stronghold of the GDR. In the office there is concern among my senior colleagues, each of whom professes, even boasts of being a member of the Communist Party. Because of my position in the company and the uncertainty of how to treat such issues in an international JV I am invited to attend the weekly in-house party meetings as an observer. It seems they feel that this show of openness – glasnost in action – will somehow hold back the inevitable but the insecurity is there for all to see. After the latest meeting, Sasha propose we visit the ‘snake pit’, the night club in the basement of the Intourist hotel. This is particularly welcoming because we learn they have just started selling imported German beer there. More importantly he tells me that Sveta will be coming.

Where Do They Take The Snow?

snowAll forgotten now, as the sun shines sweetly over us, the Russian winter brings challenges on a scale that would paralyse just about every major city in the world for weeks. Despite the moans and groans about poor municipal services, the city somehow copes and clears away hundreds of tons of snow A DAY. How?

Armies of temporary workers are hired by the Moscow city government each year to handle the thousands of snow clearing machines and good old shovels. More highly paid members of the local housing administration clamber onto roofs and clear chunks of ice and snow off roofs. Drivers who leave their cars too close to buildings get the roofs of the car destroyed free (like your truly; see photo trying to kick the roof back into shape in truly Russian way). Roads are totally clogged when there is a heavy snowfall, but the concept of snow warnings doesn’t really mean an awful lot here, as most drivers still insist on driving to work, even though taking the metro would be much faster, and safer. If you buy a nice vehicle, especially a big one, what’s the point of having to leave it at home?, the logic goes. Each winter the same mad, circus-like situation develops on Moscow streets, saved only by studded tires, which destroy asphalt even faster than salt.

DSC00611How on earth is the snow disposed of? Moscow streets are served by an army of trucks and bulldozers which clear the snow, that’s how. Snow clearing machines – the ones that used to look like escalators tipped into the snow – with mechanical arms which fed snow onto a conveyor belt used to be called ‘capitalisti’ in times gone by, because they grabbed the snow supposedly like capitalists grab money. Now, modern looking bulldozers come out at night and load lorries up with the snow. The snow is taken to one of 35 ‘Snego Splavnyi Punkty’or snow melting stations. DSC00601Boris, the head of the Snego Splavnyi Punkt, Chrkizovsko No. 1 at Sokolniki explained how his station works: “Snow is tipped into underground water canals where the snow melts, and then it is pumped to one of the 5 sewage works around Moscow. The water is running and is at a constant temperature of 14 degrees centigrade, so that the snow doesn’t cool it down too much; which would lead to the canals freezing up. Rubbish such as plastic bottles and glass is separated and filtered before the snow descends down into the water. The underground chambers where the snow falls down to are regularly cleaned to get rid of sand used to clean the roads and other sediments.” The stations work 24 hours a day. Each lorry contains between 15-20 cubic metres of snow, each station processes between 12,000 and 15,000 cubic metres of snow per 24 hours.

Whether the melted snow then flows into the river Moskva doesn’t really matter too much to me personally. The fact is that mostly, within a day or two, no matter how much snow falls, most of it IS cleared. And that is no mean achievement, anywhere.

 

It Doesn’t Look so Bad from Over There

2001-2007A month or so ago, I suggested to the editor of this magazine that he might print a piece about what former Moscow expats miss about Moscow. He replied that yes, it would be interesting and with barely any hesitation, provoked me to pick up my pen and quill and start writing. My admittedly not very scientific survey of former expat friends and acquaintances revealed quite an array of reminiscences, from Russian banyas to sushi and the Starlite Diner, the Moscow Metro to unlicensed gypsy cabs. From wild all-nighters to hangovers on deserted railway platforms outside dacha villages in the dead of winter.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the cold climate, food plays a big part in people’s memory of Moscow, though not many expats are talking about selyodka pod shuby (if you haven’t yet tried it, this is pickled herring under a chilly ‘fur coat’ of beetroot, potatoes, carrots, onions, eggs and mayonnaise – delicious!). For the most part, it is the variety of international comfort foods that seems to stick in the memory, though I have to say, I am a bit partial to a Russian mushroom julienne (ok, so maybe it is French in origin, but no one makes them like the Russians!).

As Bob and Maria Holliday, back home in sunny Costa Rica after living in Moscow from 1995-1998 and again from 2005-2008, put it: “we miss the cosmopolitan lifestyle that Moscow offers. You can get anything, and eat nearly any type of exotic food there is. There are times when we crave the cheeses you could get in the shops, or those fabulous almond croissants. We even miss the blinis from the portable blini stands. Miss that khachapuri too.”

It is a little ironic, given the ongoing crackdown on anything Georgian, that many expats’ abiding food memory is of Georgian restaurants, where the joie de vivre, devilishly bad-for-your-heart khachapuri and plastic grapevines are so at odds with the frequently icy streets. Indeed, this fondness for all things Georgian is not unique to expats – a Russian friend visiting me in London enthusiastically helped me polish off my treasured bottle of Georgian brandy in preference to the ubiquitous Armenian variety (we drank that next…).

Possibly not comfort food, but Hannah Kozlova (2001-2007) fondly remembers being able to order sushi pretty much whichever restaurant she went to, in spite of Moscow being some 1,000km from the nearest sea. Mention that to anyone who has never been to Moscow, and they might not believe you. Then again, take a Japanese client for Russian sushi, as I once did, and they might not pass their compliments to the chef…

For me, and many others, getting around Moscow was often a liberating experience. Does that sound strange, as you contemplate the gridlock for which Moscow has become world-famous, the sharp elbows of the babooshki in the Metro, the ill-conceived, flimsy and inevitably crumpled barcode tickets that you have to scan to get off the suburban railway platforms, and the miles you sometimes have to walk just to cross a road safely? Maybe, but some aspects of Moscow travel are really quite convenient, when you think about them. Jules Evans, freelance journalist in Moscow from 2004-2007, misses the ‘crazy cab drivers.’ Maybe I was not as keen as Jules on the crazy ones, but at least they made the journey interesting/exhilarating, depending on your point of view. And meeting up for a bite to eat at 10pm in Moscow was never an issue, whereas in London, I find myself wondering how I am going to get home if I stay out late, whether I am going to pay a small fortune for a black cab, or wait half the night for a bus.

Of course, in London, you would struggle to find anywhere to eat beyond 10pm. Nicolas Ollivant recalls bars and restaurants that were open all night long, and the rolling social life that revolved around them, as parties swelled and shrank – perhaps that goes some way to explaining why so many Moscow office desks were/are largely deserted at 9am.

Something else that Nicolas mentioned, which I am ashamed to say I paid only scant attention to, were Russia’s old churches and monasteries. Given my time in Moscow again, I think I would make more effort to absorb that more ancient side of Russian culture, before they all get ‘evroremonts.’

As for the Moscow Metro – and you cannot write an article like this without mentioning it – setting aside the elbows of one’s fellow passengers and the occasional lolling drunken head, I can’t say fairer than Bob Holliday: “Oh BTW, I hope you’re making mention of the best damn metro system in the world. It was what gave Maria the freedom to take her classes and go to the expat meetings… just a thought.”

Perhaps most significant for all of us former expats, Jules Evans “misses the daily surprise and amusement at life in a very different country.” That is certainly true. Very different, and yet still European, still familiar, and once you get past the frosty exteriors, it is warm and welcoming on the inside. So remember, next time you are cursing the exorbitant price of a half-decent bottle of claret, you will miss the place when you are gone.

The author lived in Moscow in 1998 and again from 2001-2007, and is director of www.MarketingCopy.org, a London-based copywriting, proofreading and translation cooperative.