“A random expat in Moscow” – an interview with the Moscow Expat, Ilya Polyakov

Ilya Polyakov came to Moscow in the fall of 2019 to start a new chapter in life as an expat in Moscow. He was born in the Ukraine and moved to Denmark in his early childhood.

by Jonas Prien, Ausserer&Consultants

Ilya Polyakov came to Moscow in the fall of 2019 to start a new chapter in life as an expat in Moscow. He was born in the Ukraine and moved to Denmark in his early childhood. Throughout his academic and professional career, he lived in all continents in the world. After stations in Indonesia, USA, Qatar, Singapore, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, he decided to come to Moscow and to start working as a Business Development Manager for the recruitment company Antal Russia.

How was your life before you came to Moscow? What did you do at your previous positions?

When I was 16, I decided to move away from home to go to high school in Denmark. Before this, I lived together with my stepfather in Singapore and in Qatar. While at university, I did internships in Indonesia and in Miami. After graduation I worked in Copenhagen for Groupon and then was headhunted to Amsterdam to work for TravelBird, afterwards I came back to Copenhagen and worked for 5 years at SweetDeal. Then, I decided to move somewhere else because I have this saying, “when I know all the bus lines, it is time to move on”. At the same time, I came to Russia for the World Cup and met my girlfriend, who now is my fiancée, so I decided to move to Russia last year in August. I had a strong motivation to come here because of my girlfriend, my father and my interest in the Russian culture. Even though, I cannot write or properly read Russian, it was not a challenge that would stop me.

Seeing all those different places in the world, what were the first differences you saw in Moscow?

I have to say, Moscow is the most chaotic city that I decided to move to, but not in a bad way. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are smaller, cousy, and sort of ‘easier to understand’ cities. Singapore is very clean, non-criminal, and less stressful. When I came to Moscow, I had this expectation of a very, Russian style, scary, do-not-walk-at-night-home city, but I was positively surprised about it. The people are friendly, even though they do not smile that much. My goal always is to make at least one Russian person smile a day. It also is very clean here compared to for example Copenhagen. The Moscow Metro is a challenge for me, because I am afraid of heights. Now, it is getting better, but I try to avoid the deep stations. A fun fact, when I go to business meetings, I firstly look up how deep the metro stations are and sometimes just walk more than necessary, just to avoid the deep stations. There are many people who dislike the stress in the rush hour, but I enjoy it! I like to buy a coffee and be cramped in the metro, trying to drink and not spill the coffee. I somehow like this kind of big city stress. You get used to it.

How about the language – is there a language barrier for you?

Not, it is not. I speak Russian, Danish and English, and this combination is enough for me to manage living in Moscow. I cannot write in Russian, but for now it has not been an issue. I like learning languages and know a little German for example. In March, I will travel to Mexico and Cuba for my honeymoon, so I like to use the time in metro for learning Spanish, so I downloaded an app to practice it for at least 20 minutes a day.

Some people are shocked on their first days in Moscow due to the very cold weather, too many people, the loud and fast metro and so on. Was it the same for you? How can you get used to it?

I have heard from many Expats in Moscow that they like their work here, the salary, the people but they cannot manage the daily stress or spending two or three hours commuting each day to and from work. I really hope not to experience the same. The biggest hurdle for European expats in Moscow is the culture, language barrier, and the winter weather. Even though, it is an international city, it differs a lot from for example London or New York.

I am a very social person and I see that many Russians are not having this European or Scandinavian pleasure of randomly chatting. As an expat, if you are not open and social, it can be a challenge to find friends.

An important note is the family. I have my fiancée here, who is awaiting me at home when I come home from work. This makes it much easier to settle in. If you move alone to Moscow and not very sociable, loneliness might be a big issue. When I moved to Miami, Bali and Amsterdam, I was on my own without my family and friends. My social skills helped me gain friends and I settled into the new environment rather fast. 

Did you have fears to come here?

To some extent. I had a safe job in Denmark and my friends and family live there. When I joined Antal Russia, a large international recruitment company in Moscow, I was a bit worried. I did not know much about recruitment and I was stepping outside of my comfort zone, selling a service I had little knowledge of. With time I learned the services Antal Russia provides and it made me comfortable. It is a great service and I am proud of selling it to clients. My business-Russian language was poor and I was worried if I could communicate with colleagues and clients, if my Danish jokes would be understood correctly and if I in general would fit in. I had nothing to worry about. Due to Antal being an international company, much of the communication is in English and colleagues are helpful when there are some Russian words I do not understand.

Was it a fix plan for you to come to Moscow?

In the past year, I was looking for a job in Moscow via networking and LinkedIn. It was uphill, with many ups and downs. At some point I was not sure if my dream of working in Moscow would ever come true. One of my contacts was Michael Germershausen, the Managing Director of Antal Russia. He gave me important advices on how to find a job in Moscow. After a while, I met him in person in April for a cup of coffee. A coffee that would change my life. At the meeting, a bit randomly, we started discussing possible vacancies at Antal and it all lead to me having an interview, that same day. From there on, we had a couple more interviews and the whole process started. By June, I was given the opportunity to work for Antal Russia. If Michael or I did not attend that meeting back in April, I would not be here.

You are sharing your experiences in Russia on a blog on LinkedIn about your life and give tips to expats on how to settle in in Moscow. What was your intention to start with it?

The idea originally came from Michael Germershausen, who gave me the advice that I should try to build a big network fast. I should spread the word “Ilya has landed in Moscow” to widen my network by creating a blog. I like to share my experiences, and hopefully it will help people understand what it takes to work here. My blogs are written in a fun and interesting way, to make them more memorable. The first one was about ‘How to find a job in Moscow as an expat’. In the following week, I wrote about ‘Moving to Russia’ then about ‘Networking and Sales in Russia’. In the future, I would like to compare the work culture, when I have more experiences.

I chose LinkedIn for my blog because it is business related media and offers a great opportunity to build up a network. Via the blog, I hope to get more followers for my personal network and to find the right audience. At some point, when I have enough articles, I dream of making a book and calling it “A random expat in Moscow”.

What was the article the most people cared about and read?

It was definitely the article on how to find a job as an expat in Moscow because I have my opinions, how to do it and it differs from others. Besides my tactics, I work for Antal Russia, where we have hundreds of clients and thereby we can use our network to help expats getting a job in Russia.

From the different ways of finding a job here, I would recommend physical networking, not only on internet platforms or social media. Taking a week off or spending your summer break in Russia to arrange as many meetings as possible would be the best approach. Skype calls or LinkedIn chatting do not work that well. When I came to Moscow and told potential employers, that I flew all the way for the meetings, they are more in favor meeting you for a coffee. You show them your seriousness about finding a job here. Another tip is to go to the embassy of your country and ask about a company list. The Danish embassy gave me a list of companies and I became a member of the Danish Business Club. This helped my network grow faster. In addition, I became realistic about what I actually could offer to a company. Just knowing English does not make you a superstar.

The company that interviews you, they must feel that you really want it. You have to show them your motivation and that you also are willing to take a risk and move to Moscow. The company must make you a HQS-Visa (High-Qualified Specialist), and in reality it is not that complicated, but still takes time and resources for the company. For them to hire an expat is a big decision.

How would you rate the market for Expats?

There is lower amount of European expats here compared to some years back. The market for western expats is always going up and down, and currently it is low. For example, if I remember correctly, there are around 410 Danish people living in Russia right now -a couple years ago, there were a few thousands.

On the other side, there is a boom of expats from BRICS countries. We can see that very well at Antal Russia, as many of our clients are in search of expats from BRICS.

Also, Russians are very highly educated, and education means more companies here than in Denmark. When Antal Russia was creating the work permit here, I had to provide my university diploma. It was the first time in my life I actually had to show my diploma to an employer.

As mentioned before, to get a job as an expat in Russia, you have to bring something special to the company. The English level in Moscow is high and therefore you need more than that. For me, I was very lucky to find the right company, the right contacts and the right time. My advice is to build up the biggest network possible and just be lucky.

Antal is a recruitment company in Russia, what exactly are you doing for them?

Antal Russia is providing several services, such as recruitment in the senior and middle management segments, mass recruitment, outstaffing and outsourcing. I work for the FMCG, Retail and Agro department as a Business Development Manager. I have to attend events, meet new clients and expand the portfolio of companies we work with. I attend AEB and AHK events, where I regularly meet interesting people and create a bond with them.

Is the Networking different in Russia from in the Netherlands or Denmark?

Yes, in Denmark or Amsterdam those events are much more business orientated, and the results are good, but not as good as in Russia. What I mean is that at the events in Denmark, more business is discussed, but less contracts are signed in the end. Here it is a bit opposite. At least from my experience.

To be honest, at events in Moscow, I spend around 80% of my time small talking. We discuss life, news that are happening in the world and so on. We exchange business cards and the day after reconnect for serious business discussions. First, we create a friendship and after that we start cooperating. For me it worked opposite at events in Denmark.

Here I feel that the personal touch is what makes or breaks it. In the recruitment industry, there are a lot of competitors. Antal Russia is not that hard to sell, as the service we provide is good, but it is often the personal touch that makes or breaks it, when the client choose their recruitment agency to use.

To get in talk with people at events is quite easy and simple. I briefly analyze the people in front of me and start of either with a brief joke or more a serious approach.  

Beside the professional life, how hard is it connecting with Russian people? How do you meet new people?

If they remember you, it will be easy. When you go to events, you speak to twenty or thirty people and you only remember those, who left an impact on you, right? My advice to you and my task is to make people remember me. Sometimes, when I sit at events or conferences, I have little experience with the topic being discussed, but then I comment on something or start a discussion about some less relevant stuff. Mostly, after those meetings, they remember me. They remember me as the person who was not afraid of saying something. Everybody has an interesting story to tell – you should not be shy to say it.

I joined the Danish Business Club, where we meet once a month for discussions and a couple beers. It feels very good to speak Danish again and a good way to create a circle of friends.

In these first months after my arrival, there are many things to organize besides work, so I was busy finding an apartment, opening a bank account and those sorts of things. On Fridays, my fiancée and I like to go out to international bars to mingle in the expatriate network.

InterNations is a nice place to connect and to look for events. It is a good way to find friends and to meet with new people. Another tip, especially for business people, is to go to Moscow City on a Friday afternoon or evening. Grab a beer and start talking with the people next to you, exchange business cards and go to the next bar. Next morning, you might have a hangover, but then you have 20 business cards and people to talk to in Moscow. Useful for social and business purposes.

Finally, I need to say that life in Moscow is great. Antal Russia is even more international and fun than I expected. I have already adapted into the private daily life and enjoy it.

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