Russia’s Allure for Foreigners Shows No Sign of Paling

Russia’s Allure for Foreigners Shows No Sign of Paling

Published: June 22, 2012 (Issue # 1714)

“Why Russia?” is a question often asked to, and more often feared by, foreigners intending to move to Russia, and countless more already here. A country famed for riches in oil, vodka, spies and red tape, it’s a wonder to some — including many Russians — why anybody would ever move here, whatever their love for Dostoevsky or Russian women. Yet the number of foreign professionals adding their CVs to Russia’s HeadHunter site increased last year by 11 percent on the year before, Kommersant newspaper reported at the end of May, citing the recruitment website.

According to the Federal Migration Service for St. Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad Oblast, 225 work permits for “highly qualified employees” — as foreigners earning over 2 million rubles annually ($62,000) are classified — were issued in the first three months of this year.

The main areas in which expats work are construction, wholesale and retail trade, and real estate, according to Olga Kapralova, leading marketing and PR manager for Intercomp Global Services CIS.

Yury Mikhailov, a managing partner at Consort Petersburg recruitment company, has seen an increase in foreigners seeking jobs in Russia during the last six to eight months. He cites different reasons for this, including the recession in Europe, the rebranding of Russia in the media as a land of opportunity, and the desire of foreign businessmen to either change their career path or to simply keep things interesting.

However, while the number of foreign projects in the rest of Russia is on the rise, Mikhailov says that it is difficult to assess the situation in St. Petersburg. One thing that is abundantly clear is that there is a lot to be gained from working in Russia, but that it requires more than just good intentions and a strong track record.

“A broad outlook and very often worldwide exposure to running a profitable, efficient business in different environments and business cultures combined with an open mindset and functional expertise is often a key to success in being offered a promising career opportunity in Russia,” he said.

Luc Jones, a senior partner at recruitment company Antal Russia, told The St. Petersburg Times that the main asset of any Westerner coming to Russia is that they grew up in a capitalist society.

“Russians are intelligent and they are well-read, but where a lot of them tend to fall down is sales,” said Jones, a British and Canadian citizen currently based in Moscow. “A generation ago, buying something at one price and selling it at a profit would have landed you in jail.”

“They [expats] have the same mentality and business style as their colleagues, which is very important for effective cooperation,” said Kapralova.

Expats eager to set up their own businesses in Russia inevitably encounter numerous difficulties. The bureaucracy entailed in opening a business here is tricky, as Jones puts it, but once overcome, opens the way to a thousand gains — one of which is the lack of competition in Russia.

“I think that doing business in Russia is nowhere near as difficult as some people would have you believe,” he said.

“I think that Russia could do with a good PR lesson. One of my friends told me, ‘I think that Russia is a great place to make money, but it’s a lousy place to do business.’ A lot of people say that, and the reason is that back home, whatever it is you’re doing, there’ll be 10 or 100,000 people doing the same thing, whereas in Russia there are not.”

As to the differences between expat experiences in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Jones warns that: “Moscow, by nature, is a much brasher city… I would say that a lot of the expats in Petersburg are there for the lifestyle rather than just for making money. If you want to make money, come to Moscow.”

Wherever it is that expats are based, there is help at hand to make them feel at home in the shape of, a social network that aims to help expats to acclimatize with more ease. In the St. Petersburg community, there are members of more than 25 different nationalities, covering five continents.

“Being an expat means learning everything from zero: It involves a new workplace, new house, new friends, new food, new climate and new rules,” said Emilio Alegre, one of two InterNations St. Petersburg ambassadors.

Mikhailov said expats contine to have a crucial role in Russian business.

“Foreigners have always played a part in the Russian economy — ever since Peter the Great — and they will continue to be required in certain circumstances,” he said.

“They will go on being viewed as people with integral roles in running business structures in Russia to safeguard their Western companies’ best interests.”

expat profiles

Christian Courbois

from the U.S. is general director and owner of Westpost mail and courier company and has lived in Russia for 18 years.

“Happy accidents do happen. I started the business without much thought — just to do something and make some money, but it caught on and grew quite quickly in the heady days of the mid-nineties. I was never a Russophile or particularly interested in Russia. Many of the expats in the nineties came here with some kind of passion that came from reading Dostoevsky for the first time or something like that; I did not. What attracted me to Russia was the sense of history of the 90s. Really fantastic energy comes from that kind of thing.

The difference in the understanding of a service mentality is one of the hardest [to get used to] here. A good service mentality is almost impossible to introduce into a Russian ‘collective.’ I get tired of repeating myself, instructing how to do simple things like answer a phone ‘correctly.’ There are always great advantages in being able to see things differently than everyone else.”

Jennifer Gaspar

from the U.S. is a registered entrepreneur in Russia and consultant for the Oak Foundation, and has lived in Russia for almost nine years.

“The work I do here is essentially that of a program officer for a philanthropic organization. I’ve almost always been in the non-profit or government sector, but I started working with the Oak Foundation two years ago after conducting a study that they commissioned essentially looking at the landscape of human rights in Russia.

If you want to do things right here, you have to do them by the book. Doing it by the book requires an extraordinary attention to detail, and also a certain amount of tolerance for bureaucracy that I think is really beyond the pale of bureaucracy in other places, at least as far as I’ve experienced. I guess I can speak for this personally in setting up my own business here: It’s mind-boggling the hoops that you have to jump through, the amount of information that you have to give up. I’ve registered a company in the U.S. as well, so I can actually compare the ease of the two processes and I can say that there’s really no comparison.

Thinking back to when I first started working here, one of the advantages and disadvantages was actually one and the same: I wasn’t taken very seriously: 1) because I was younger 2) also a woman and 3) a foreigner who smiled more often than maybe I should have. So I wasn’t taken very seriously… but I was able to work it to my advantage because I think that people decrease their expectations of you and in that way it’s almost easier to gain their respect when you demonstrate that you actually can be nice, you can be young, you can be female, and you can be effective and successful.”

Rick Macy

from the U.S. is vice president of sales and leasing for Jensen Group and has lived in Russia for 13 years.

“I think one advantage of being a foreigner who speaks Russian is that I always feel safe no matter what part of town I am in or the time of day. In some American cities there are areas I would not feel safe in day or night. Southeast Washington D.C. would be a good example. Also, for many foreigners, the Russian tax rate of 13 percent or 6 percent is a huge advantage over the higher Western tax rates.

I have lived in Kemerovo (Kuzbass) and Moscow. Living in Siberia was quieter but not unpleasant. Moscow, of course, is quite busy. If we compare St. Petersburg and Moscow to coffee, St. Petersburg is a cappucino while Moscow is a double espresso.  And sometimes you want a cappucino, and sometimes you want a double espresso. I am more of a cappucino kind of guy though mostly…”

Jasminka Bach

from Sweden is a division/buying manager in fashion retail and has lived in Russia for two-and-a-half years.

“Russia is a country that has — in my eyes — great opportunities to create something great if you are willing to work hard. It is a thriving, constantly growing country. But I also think the stakes are high, so as big a chance as you have to gain, the risk is also higher in Russia.

The disadvantage is that I always struggle with a lack of information — but I think mostly it depends on my lack of the Russian language, and that extends outside the office as well. You have to learn to fight for everything and learn that a “no” is not actually a no. If you ask five times or insist it usually turns into a “yes” and this can take a lot of energy.

I really love this city, winter and summer. Russia is always surprising me — you never get bored.”

Walter Denz

from Switzerland is the owner of Liden Denz language school and has lived in Russia for 10 years.

“Teaching Russian seemed to be the right thing, because the country had been isolated for so long and nobody spoke English at the time, and still only a few people today, so it’s absolutely essential for any company that is considering investing in Russia to find people on the ground who speak the language. 

St. Petersburg is really the gateway for everything that’s not connected to business, it’s an easier city. If you don’t know Russian, if you’ve never been to Russia, it has a better image than Moscow. The beauty of St. Petersburg affects the whole city as a site of UNESCO world heritage.

We’re expats here so we have to make a positive contribution to the development of the country. It’s very easy to complain (and there are lots of things to complain about, no doubt) but if you only complain this is definitely the wrong place to come to. I think Russia is a good management school: It toughens you up; it forces you to remain flexible, to take a different approach. You always have to be on your toes in order to achieve your goals.

Russia does have a very macho culture and it’s not very easy for female expats to make themselves heard and understood here. It’s a good point though because Russian women play a huge role in the economy here and, in theory, it shouldn’t actually be a problem for women, particularly if they’re well-educated, but obviously there is an issue.”

Kathleen Bull

from the U.K. is academic director of Carfax Private Tutors, St. Petersburg, and has lived in Russia for almost two years.

“I lived in Russia as a child in the late ’90s, and ever since have been fascinated by the country and the language. This led me to study Russian at university, which consequently brought me here.

I don’t know if there are necessarily ‘more’ opportunities for foreigners in Russia, but there are better opportunities, especially in the early stages of your career. The Russian market is constantly evolving, which opens up a wealth of opportunities to foreigners, which one might not experience back home. It gives you the opportunity to be creative and to come up with your own initiatives and to see them through, whether they succeed or not. It gives you the opportunity to make of your career what you will.

You need to be a very open person, open to different scenarios. You can make it work and, if you open yourself up to the huge wealth of opportunities and new experiences, it can be incredibly rewarding, but you do have to be open: The biggest thing in Russia is that you just don’t know what’s around the corner.”

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