Notes on living and working in Russia | Russia Simplified Russia Simplified
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Notes on living and working in Russia

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It is October 22nd, and Moscow gets first snow today. It’s going to melt, but this truly is a first sign of winter coming.

Moscow gets first snow

Moscow gets first snow

Enjoy last sunny days before winter darkness sets in.

Moscow gets first snow

Do Russian people miss USSR?

Do Russian people miss USSR? Do people like or dislike USSR? Do people believe life was better in USSR or it is better now?

These questions I am often asked by people coming to Russia.

I attempt to answer this question dividing whole population into four categories. Each category defines certain attitudes towards life in USSR. In real life it’s often not that straight forward as people tend to have mixed opinions. These four groups are just to give you an idea of general streams of opinions circulating nowadays in the society.

Imagine a large country like USSR was, falling apart. And it is not just falling apart, but every aspect of life goes through a radical change. Political system, government, laws, economy, lifestyle— all changes happen really fast and everything becomes new. Because of the massive changes, there are chaos and uncertainty. Life, as people knew it, breaks apart, turning into what people called a "new reality." This new reality pushed people into finding new ways of building their lives. It takes personal transformation to adopt to living in a country that looks familiar, but in many ways have become new. One's ability to adopt to a new reality defines their success in life after USSR. Largely it also defines their attitude towards it.

Younger generation people, born after (roughly) 1980-1985. They do not remember USSR, and they have no idea what life in USSR was like. If they express any opinion, this is coming from memories and opinions of their parents, stories told by other people. Simply speaking whatever opinion they have about USSR, it does not count.

As a side note, those born after 1990 have notably different cultural programming that has less of “soviet” in it. Although not completely free from behaviors and mindsets of soviet times (as it transfers through education and parenting and society), they think and act quite differently.

”Unsuccessful” Those who did not manage to establish life in the “new reality”. There is a big population of Russian people pushed to the curbside as a result of USSR destroyed. At that time many were about to retire, some lost their jobs, some high-paid jobs turned into lowest wage employment, some went bankrupt… You can hear millions of stories of people who’s life went downhill and never returned to normal after USSR fell apart. People who belonged to older generation back then were already in that stage of life when it would be extremely difficult (if at all possible) to radically change their life and adapt to new ways of living. They, for the most part, miss USSR and would do anything to get back to soviet times. As these people pass away, USSR becomes like a myth.

”Successful” Those who managed to establish successful life in the post-soviet “new reality”. Successful means having job, or other sustainable source of income and place in the society. Their ability to adapt to new ways of living lies in their personality, connections and many other aspects that made them move forward. Nowadays people representing this group are in their mid-40s and older. They are happy about their lives now and not thinking about USSR times as they established lifestyle much better than they would have in USSR.

”Nostalgic” This sort of sub-group of people mostly belongs to “successful”. They do make a good (much better compared to USSR) living, but some of them still believe it was better back in USSR times. There is also a notable trend in social networks and blogs discussing how great life was in USSR. The ice cream was better, sausage was better, the grass was greener. People get nostalgic about artifacts existed in their lives back in USSR. They bring up memories, about daily life, food, toys, lifestyle. In their memories, life was better, easier, brighter back then (naivety multiplied by Alzheimer).

Personal opinion of the author.

I went to school in USSR times (graduated in 1991), so I vividly remember how life was back then. By all means, life in USSR was miserable — no question and no doubt about this. Yet, people managed to live their lives having joy and fun, despite outer circumstances. Those genuine joys came from basic things like family, relationships, friendships, other simple things in life. Yes, life in USSR was simpler and maybe this is what many people are longing for? When someone gets nostalgic about life in USSR — it's just their illusory memories about those feelings of joy and happiness they had long time ago, when they were younger.

A typical working day in Russian company

“What a typical working day in Russia looks like?”

This question expats coming to work in Russia ask very often. It’s difficult to define a “standard” day, since each company, and each job position has its own business specifics. In this article, I will try to outline some patterns common for employees of most Russian companies in Russia.

(Russian company means owned by Russians and operated by Russian management with no international influence on their internal operations)

Let’s consider working day of an ordinary employee, not in a high managerial position.

Russia has 5-day/40-hour working week Monday to Friday. This defines a full-time job type of employment. Each standard working day is nine hours, including one hour lunch break, not paid for. Working day is reduced by one hour if following day is a public holiday. In a very few companies, Friday workday is reduced one hour for female employees. (This practice is of gender roles in Russia, which in many cultures considered as sexism)

Most Russian companies do not have flexible hours. Nor do they have “work from home” type of job arrangement. If you are employed, you have to come to the office and sit at your desk every day during fixed working hours. On contrary, international companies based in Russia use flexible hours and remote work quite often.

Working day for a normal office job starts either at 9am or 10am. Sometimes you spot an employee coming at 8am or even earlier. This does not mean they are hard workers or have different working schedule. In many cases, it means they have got some practical reason to be earlier in the office. This can be something like avoiding morning traffic or family situation or anything else. It is very unusual for Russian company to start business earlier than nine in the morning.

Working hours are fixed in a job contract and company regulations. Ones set, they are hard to change.

Russian management believes strongly in discipline. However, Russians by culture are very unpunctual. The two combined make lateness one of the most critical HR issue. Actual starting time is clocked very meticulously. Each employee uses an electronic keycard to access office and their in/out time is recorded. In some (rare nowadays) cases employees have to keep record of their in/out time in a special handwritten journal.

For Moscow and St.Petersburg, it’s worth mentioning that commute time can be one-two hours, especially if an employee lives outside the city. Employees come to work “refreshed” in endless traffic jams and overcrowded public transportation. Squeezed between millions of other people trying to get to office by nine or ten they sweat and get pushed. Those driving for work sweat in fear of being late because traffic can be very unpredictable.

Lateness is one of very few legitimate reasons for firing an employee. So employees try not to give their management a chance to pick on their lateness. If an employee is late for work, it might be required to write an official explanatory note (“obyasnitelnaya zapiska”).

Ones in the office, employees go to their work places. Majorities of companies have arranged seating in small offices (“kabinet”) for 2-10 people. Open space has become popular just recently and available only at newly developed office buildings.

For male employees, each working day starts with greeting ritual, which I will explain in a separate article. For woman, working day starts fixing haircut and finishing makeup, changing shoes from street ones to office ones. A spare pair (or two) of shoes is always kept somewhere under the table or in the table drawer.

Many people get some coffee or tea starting their workday. In Russian companies amenities like kitchen for employees, free drinks are almost never available. What’s available is water from cooler, electric kettle to boil water. Thus, the only option is to have instant coffee or tea made with teabag.

Depending on relationships between employees there can be some chit-chat first of the day. Chatting subjects are weekends, family affairs, public news, company news, and rumors, whatever has importance for a specific group.

This is an extremely important part of socializing in business. As an expat manager or employee, you have to be mindful of this. If you are coming from a business culture that does not tolerate “wasting time” in personal talks, be aware that Russian business culture is relationship based.

If you, being an expat, notice that people around you, locals, try to engage you in their conversations, asking questions, it’s a good sign. This means they are not afraid of you, have genuine interest in you as a person, and try to build personal connections with you. In the best case scenario, they might be considering you as part of their circle or circle of trust. Those small talks beginning of the day will possibly grow into relationships. Good relationship is what propels business in Russia. Advice here is not to ignore those relationships building attempts even if it’s something you would not normally do. This is a bigger subject that will be addressed in another publication.

Smoking is banned from all offices and office buildings. Smokers go outside to have a smoke. (In Russia most people do smoke) In some companies every minute outside work place is clocked. Even bathroom trips can be counted and later presented to an employee as “absence from work.” This is to put pressure on employees, control them and keep on alert about possibility of being fired. Russian management also believes this way they can raise productivity. What an illusion.

Lunch time is normally between noon and three in the afternoon. It can be fixed or flexible. If affordable canteen or place serving business lunch is available nearby, people go there for lunch. Affordable means 200-400 Rubles (US$3-7). Very often there is nowhere to go or employees can’t afford paying for the lunch. Many people bring their own food. Very few (like almost none) Russian companies have special places to eat in the office. In absence of specially designated eating place most people eat at the office desk. Microwaves usually available in the office, fridges can be available as well, but limited and not everywhere.

Just recently I have read a heated debate on one of internet business forums. HR person of some Russian company asked advice on what to do with employee complaints on smell of food in the office. They had a group of employees on a really small salary, so they could not afford eating at canteen. Those employees had to bring their own food, heat it up and eat at their desks. People complained about the smell of food. HR asked public advice on how to handle this. (Raising salaries or paying their $3 lunches, or organizing designated space for eating were not considered as options)

Sometimes people celebrate their birthdays or other significant events during lunch. It becomes less common, but in a typical Russian company it is expected from a person who has birthday to bring some food (and sometimes even alcohol). Very often you see all office equipment, and papers removed from office desks and replaced with salads, snacks, some sandwiches, and drinks. People would gather around desks to have some food, chat and say congratulations for whoever is having birthday. In Russia people socialize over food and business environment is not an exception. Russian employees of international companies generally do the same. They usually bring cakes or something else to share in the office kitchen.

Workday finishes at 6pm or 7pm. For office jobs it is not unusual to stay overtime. Overtime is not paid in most Russian companies. Overtime happens for many reasons, which again can be a whole separate post. To name just a few: poor organization of working time, lengthy business meeting, practical reasons like avoiding traffic or having to pick up spouse from their job.

On Friday night, a group of employees of one department or business unit might to go out for drinks, dinner and some entertainment. You may also notice that people change their outfits before leaving if they are going to a night club or some event.

Moscow subway

Please make sure to read Good things about Moscow subway. Moscow subway is an essential transportation for getting around the city. In the past years many renovations happened to make subway even more convenient and comfortable to use. However there are still few things to know and be cautious about.

Moscow subway is extremely loud. Most lines still run old soviet-buit trains. Cellphone on most stations and inside running trains is pretty much useless because of horrible noise. You can not have conversation even with someone standing right next to you. You must shout to be heard. Noise-cancelling headphones are also useless, and if you want to listen to something during the ride, the only way is having tight plug-in headphones. On some lines old trains are replaced with newer ones and those new trains are much quieter on the inside. This replacement process is ongoing, but it takes time to renew all the trains in a system.

Driving style tends to be aggressive. The driver might accelerate to a full speed and hit brakes suddenly in the middle of a ride, causing passengers to fall. This may happen several times during the ride between two stations. Thus, you absolutely must hold onto something when doors are closed. In addition subway cars are shaky, tunnels have lots of turns. On a high speed it’s easy to fall when train enters the curve.

Train cars do not have enough hand rails. This applies to both new and old trains. Hand rails for passengers to hold during the ride are available only above seats and at the doors. In peak hours when the train is full you just can’t reach those hand rails. Try getting closer to the door, which does not operate, and lean on it or squeeze between passengers closer to the hand rails and grasp it. As a special precaution - do not stand in between doors. In this area between doors there is nothing to hold onto. If train abruptly slows down or speeds up, you will fall. This does not apply to people great at skateboarding, the experience is very much the same.

Moscow subway runs at a peak capacity. This means most of the time subway is packed with people. Especially in rush hours trains are so full that you might need to skip several trains. If you manage to get into the train, you will be jammed between sweaty people like a pickle in a jar. On transfer stations there are multiple passenger traffic bottom necks causing huge crowds and slow moving. Plan extra time (up to 20 minutes) for transfers in rush hours. Rush hours roughly are: 7am to 10am and 5pm to 8pm.

Moscow subway is extremely hot in summer. Temperature inside trains comes up to +40..+50, especially if train is full of passengers. Older trains are not air-conditioned. Air flow comes through vents on the roof and open windows. Newer trains have air conditioning - in theory. In practice air conditioning simply does not work most of the time. Unlike older trains, in new cars windows can not be opened. Sweating and suffocating is almost inevitable part of riding subway in summer.

All above does not apply to Moscow central circle (MCC). MCC is a brand new rail road connected with subway, but technically it is totally different from it. MCC riding experience is also different from subway.

Have a safe ride!

Moscow winter clothing

It is October 31st and Moscow is hit by the first snowfall, although this weather is not usual for October - November. Normally we have such snow somewhere end of November or most likely in December. If we consider this snow as winter beginning, this means winter in Moscow is five months long (March is a full scale winter). This snow is going to melt anyway, because weather in November and December is quite unstable. Temperature fluctuates from slightly freezing at night to above zero during the day.

It's time to talk about practicalities of surviving Moscow winter.

If you are coming from northern hemisphere you are probably very familiar with how to cope with cold and snow. Canada, northern US states (Montana, North Dakota, New England, Wisconsin and neighboring states); Scandinavia have winter weather conditions close to those in Moscow. I would say for Moscow you chose same clothing style as you would in one of those areas. For those coming from places with milder climate , below are suggestions on clothing in late fall and beginning of Moscow winter.

Hat. It can be something simple, yet practical. "Classic" fur hats, so popular in soviet times no one wears anymore. Beanies are popular here. Russian men prefer conservative style and colors that is black and gray. Women on contrary normally pick fancy hat styles.

Waterproof, warm garment preferably with hood. You can use umbrella instead of hood, which however can be inconvenient. I emphasize waterproof because many locals wear wool coats and fur coats and they just look cool, but not very practical in the beginning of winter. In November in December it is very usual to have rain, sleet or snow, and type of precipitation can change during the day. In the past years we had a number of occasions of freezing rain.

Extra sweater or fleece jacket or warm piece of clothing beneath upper garment. This is optional, to add extra layer of insulation. Usually all offices, apartments and public places have really good heating inside, but some place may have draughts and better to have something warm on, even inside.

Gloves. Whatever you like. Most people wear leather gloves, but wool gloves would do just fine.

Shoes or boots on thick sole, waterproof and preferably with thick socks or some extra layer of insulation to keep your feet warm. This is especially important because in Moscow it snows all the time in winter. I mean it, there will be piles of snow by the end of January. Because of temperatures going up and down, and because of special chemicals used to melt snow, the snow turns into sludge. Thick layer of sludge on sidewalks, roads, everywhere. You are out of your place or office, put your feet onto the street and it fails into a mixture of snow and water up to your ankle. It is also very slippery, so choosing proper shoes is a safety measure. Speaking of those special chemicals to melt snow and ice on streets, generously applied by street workers on roads and sidewalks and everywhere. Those chemicals will ruin your shoes easily, if they are made of natural materials. Advice is not to wear expensive shoes (unless you are in a car and don't walk much). What many Russians do, they just have spare pair lighter shoes for the office and something heavier and more practical for the street.

Style. You will find variety of clothing styles on Moscow streets. Many people tend to dress conservatively in what they believe stylish in their own understanding. Younger generation is much more relaxed about outfits. Colors of choice are normally gray and black. Unless you have some specific reasons to dress in a certain way (like office policy), choose outfit that suits you best. I would say most common European and American outfits would look just fine in Moscow crowds.

Moscow winter clothing