MOSCOW BLOG: British expats still fare well in Russia

MOSCOW BLOG: British expats still fare well in Russia
Long-time British residents of Moscow are finding it hard to leave and those that stayed after the start of the Ukrainian war say life has changed little. / bne IntelliNews
By James C Pearce in Moscow January 3, 2024

Jonny and I both moved to Russia right after university (albeit at different times). He left following the invasion, but recently came back. ‘I just didn’t want to go’, says Jonny, “It’s home.” Liz, a teacher in Russia for almost two decades, also returned late last year. “I have a life here. Being away didn’t make sense.”

Thousands of British expats left Russia after February 2022. It’s unclear exactly how many remain. And it’s not clear how safe it is after the Kremlin started arresting foreign journalists with the obvious strategy of having a few bargaining chips for potential prisoner swaps. But the expats that remain have shrugged off these fears. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office is unable to provide figures of exactly how many expats remain in country, and estimates have varied wildly since the mid 2000s. People stay on different visa types, making it hard to count, and a loophole allows Britons to stay registered as ‘resident in the UK’ if they have an address and visit ‘regularly’.

Anglo-Russian relations are at their worst since late Stalin era. The UK has been labelled an “unfriendly country” by the Russian state. Media in both countries paint the other as a hellscape. Pro-Kremlin media depict Britain as ‘Russophobic’ and decadent. One TV pundit Olga Skabayeva suggested – falsely – that squirrels have replaced other meats in British restaurants during its ongoing cost of living crisis.

As a group, though, Britons in Russia get along just fine. As do Russian citizens in the UK. Neither find each other's country a hostile place.

Whilst the majority spoken to for this piece refused to give their names, few feel their lives have changed significantly since February 2022. Those living in Russia for over a decade dismiss the current situation as “‘just another crisis” that will pass.

The vast majority of Britons live in Russia’s European third, predominantly Moscow. Meeting one east of the Urals is exceedingly rare. Most have deep connections to Russia, established families and homes – not to mention well paid jobs. After an exodus of British companies, many work in education, for Russian companies, and often as freelancers in the arts and media.

British teachers and au pairs are in more demand now, particularly for the language. Au pairs can make up to £5,000 a month working for Russia’s richest families. Tutors still collect decent money from private lessons. One Briton in west Moscow is having to turn students down. Those working at schools are being treated better. ‘We’re not easily replaceable anymore,’ one tells me. ‘If they piss me off, the other schools are all looking.’

Entrepreneurs and businesspeople are adapting to their new environment and supply line diversions. British products are still readily available. The Yekaterinburg based cosmetic’s brand Golden Apple has its own line of British cosmetics – as do many smaller vendors in big cities. Bentley still operates and Tyrrells Crisps can be found in every Perekrestok, a mid-range supermarket, as can Scottish whiskeys.

Some clients are wary of associating with the remaining British companies. However, a big part of conducting business in Russia has always involved nurturing the individual relationships. Time spent at lunches and in each other’s company at the dacha counts for a lot more. According to one Moscow based consultant, those with long standing business connections continue work “pretty much as normal. The English and German guys all tell me they’re doing pretty well’, he says.

The biggest challenge for Britons remains money. Financial sanctions mean employers are often forced to pay salaries in cash, or into a trusted person’s bank account if they aren’t residents or dual citizens. Sending money to the UK is exceptionally tricky – but manageable. Some use crypto, although withdrawing funds can be problematic. Monetary exchange companies based in Central Asia, China, India and the Middle East help with transfers via Telegram. Fees vary and it's not a quick process. Most have cut out the middleman and do person to person exchanges.

Discrimination is diminishingly rare. That may, in part, be due to Russia’s infatuation with British cultural exports. But some are more cautious in public. As one business owner just outside Moscow tells me, “I never discuss the war with friends and colleagues. I just keep quiet if I see the police.”

Back in the UK, Russian citizens are also a welcomed group. Approximately 81,000 in number, Russian citizens were the second highest group to receive visas for business, investment and talent in 2022 – an increase of more than 200% y/y. Many of them are software developers and techies, who helped to meet a shortfall in Britain’s domestic talent.

Russians are also among the least discriminated against in the UK. Even though 80% of the UK’s population supports Ukraine, in the first two months of the war the Metropolitan Police recorded just five racially or religiously aggravated public-order offences against Russians. This was down 50% from the year before. A teaching assistant in Cambridge said, “First I got some dirty looks [at the start of the war] when people heard I’m from Russia. Now that’s stopped.” A Russian restaurant in Norfolk, meanwhile, is a community staple: “We’ve been here 15 years, people know us. We’re never empty.”

Speaking from personal experience, many friends and relatives find it rather weird that Britons live very normal lives in Russia – or prefer certain things. The knowledge most Russians and Britons have of each other’s countries still leaves much to be desired. Unlike Russians leaving for Britain, though, you’ll be hard pushed to find any British expats who came for political reasons. The war has been emotionally painful for most.

Like Jonny and Liz, more Britons have started returning to their old jobs. As one of Britain’s long-standing Moscow correspondents put it, “Russia is a hard habit to quit.”


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