A detailed view of Russia: Through the eyes of a French expat

  • Vivre en Russie
    © Diane
Published last year

Diane's never-ending passion for new cultures brought her abroad years ago. Originally from Paris, Diane spent a few years in England before moving to Russia in 2013. For her, Russia is a land of opportunities – both at personal and professional levels. She shares her loving feelings for Russia with Expat.com.

Hi, Diane. Can you tell us a few things about yourself?

I'm from Paris. I have a degree in applied foreign languages from La Sorbonne and a Russian-British Master's Degree in International Relations and Fossil Fuel. While improving my language skills, I got passionate for new cultures, and this is how I decided to move abroad. I stayed in England for some time, and four years ago I decided to move to Russia.

What is the process to move to Russia?

The first time, I came with a professional package which was my employer's responsibility. The package included the job and the visa invitation, reception at the airport, as well as support in filling all formalities and finding furnished housing.

Upon receiving the visa invitation, I had to apply for a visa at the Russian Consulate in Paris. I obtained the visa and moved to Russia within ten days. On my arrival, I had to register with local authorities, and this was also taken care of by my employer.

What do you like the most and the least about Russia?

Freedom! People usually have misconceptions about Russia. However, Russians are very free and open people. Everything seems possible here. The only limits can be your level of imagination and motivation.

What I don't like is when temperatures fall below -20 °C for weeks and even months sometimes. When it's above -20 °C, you can still go out ice skating or take a stroll in the park. But when it goes below that, the only thing you can do as soon as you get out is to rush to the nearest subway station, taxi, or coffee shop to get a little bit warmer.

How would you describe Russia in a few words?

Russia is a fascinating multifaceted country with extreme geoclimatic variation, architecture, political, and economic changes, not to mention its rich cultural heritage, ethnic diversity, geological wonders, and the bridging between Europe and Russia.

Living in Russia
© Diane

What has surprised you the most about Russia?

Russians are open, warm, and welcoming, which is the complete opposite of European stereotypes I had heard of before moving. In general, people are caring, respectful, and always keen on interacting with others. They enjoy sharing their thoughts and ideas on any topic, and telling funny stories and anecdotes. Obviously, you could come across suspicious people like anywhere else in the world, but it takes very little effort to overcome the first impression and bond with new people.

How easy or difficult it is to find accommodation in Russia?

I believe it's much easier to find accommodation in Russia than in France as you don't need a guarantee, housing insurance, payslips or any other kind of proof. If you happen to like a house or a flat, you just have to produce your passport and pay the amount on the lease document. In general, they will ask for one month's rent and a deposit which can be equal to half or a month's rent. You can then move in on the same day it's as simple as that.

Expats are likely to be asked about their country of origin and their ethnic group in some cases. There seems to be two types of real estate markets in Russia: one for Russians and European expats and one for expats coming from former Central Asian Soviet Republics. From what I've seen, European expats have access to the best quality housing with bigger space. People with a small budget usually rent poorly or not renovated Soviet flats in city outskirts. These are called dormitory districts and are usually far from public transport. The flats are equipped with basic furniture and old appliances along with poor insulation and finish in terms of flooring, joints, electricity, paint or wallpaper, locks, handles, etc..

Families with an average budget can get flats that were built in the 60s or 70s and recently renovated and refurbished. Owners having property in the city centre (close to public transport, parks, and shopping areas) are usually more caring about maintenance due to the demand. Finally, if you have a fat salary, you can choose among a range of luxury apartments with high-tech equipment, security system, brand new appliances such as an American-style kitchen, ceramic electric stove, silent dishwasher not to mention a concierge and a high-security parking lot.

What are the local labour market's features? Is it easy to find a job in Russia?

Russia has a very open and flexible labour market which values foreign professionals. Opportunities are available in many fields such as catering, teaching, construction, import and export, media, and tourism. Word of mouth is a good option within expat communities, but you also have to be bold. Motivation and your ability to go beyond what is just possible are the keys to success.

Expatriates in Russia have nothing to worry about in this regard. You will always find a job and a way to pay your bills and afford some extras. As a European expat I've found it easy to find a job in Russia, from teaching to jobs in the media, tourism, and translation sectors. Expats are very likely to get higher wages than Russians, so you may see them work continuously for a year and then take long holidays.

Also, you can earn a decent income by working part-time. Babysitting jobs offered by wealthy families, for instance, are paid € 2 500 per month. The French labour market is definitely different with more strict frameworks.

What are the year’s biggest holidays or events in Russia?

There are so many important dates on the Russian calendar. Maslenitsa, which is observed at the end of winter, is celebrated by Russians eating pancakes for a whole week. You also have folk concerts, workshops for children, competitions bringing together people of all age groups, as well as dance and food events in most Russian cities.

The Russian folk music and dance festival takes places every year in Tsaritsino Park in Moscow, bringing together dozens of groups from all around Russia to perform in a competition. Once again, you have workshops, food stands, etc.. On this occasion, a wooden chapel is built in remembrance of Russia's Orthodox origins, which are still very significant.

The yearly Red Square festival brings together military musicians from different countries. It's a traditional music show that goes on for hours and ends with spectacular fireworks on the main square. A big sounds and lights festival is also held every year in Moscow where teams representing several countries compete with each other.

© Diane

How do you find the lifestyle in Russia?

It's different from the French lifestyle, especially when it comes to women who are always well dressed, wear high heels and make up, and have a nice hairstyle. I must admit that it feels nice to show off sometimes and receive compliments. For some time, I had forgotten that shoes and lipstick could change the way people look at us but also the way we look at each other. It's always positive in both ways.

When it comes to food, I've noticed that Russians give a vital importance to a healthy diet, natural vitamins, fruits, and nuts. However, eco-friendly concepts such as recycling, are poorly developed in Russia. I believe that once they start getting involved, they will find many ways to recycle and reuse everyday objects.

How is the transportation system in Russia? How do you move around?

Major cities have a subway, bus, trolleybus, tramway, dozens of taxi companies, minibuses, and bike sharing. I've tried all of them! In big cities such as Moscow, the subway remains the fastest and safest means of transport since it brings no congestion. Also, the subway is available every minute during peak hours and till 1 am. Suburban cities also have trains and subway. I must say that Russian or Soviet trains are worth experiencing. Those running from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, in particular, are up to European standards, modern, clean, and comfortable.

Have you been able to adapt to the society?

Not really, since I live in the capital city. Capitals are more or less alike, especially when you have set up your routine. On the other hand, I was quite shocked by the Russian healthcare system. The mentality and functioning are the complete opposite of what we have in France. But you get used to it in the long run. In case of severe health issues or if I have to go to the dentist, I prefer the European hospital in Moscow.

The more you get to know the Russian society  (if you want to know it, of course) the easier you will adapt. For Russians, everything is logical — there's no first impression or stereotype. Once you get into the Russian mindset, taking into account their history, geography, climate, etc. everything makes sense.

What do you do in your free time?

I spend it with my Russian friends. Since I've got settled here, I've some good friend with whom I go out and explore the country. I attend festivals, exhibitions, and local events such as concerts and fairs in Moscow. I also volunteer in a shelter for dogs. I've even adopted one!

Winter in Russia
© Diane

Are there good options for people who enjoy nightlife?

Of course! Russian usually like to party with their friends or family on every occasion. They also like fireworks. As I mentioned earlier, many festivals are held all year round. Moscow also has many bars, pubs, and nightclubs. There's something for every taste. In the summer, you have rooftop dance sessions with an amazing view over the city.

What new habits have you developed in Russia and what old habits have you quit?

I now find myself talking to my neighbours more often, exchanging grocery and helping each other. Also, I never go out without gloves in winter and I avoid answering the phone when I'm walking in the street. You could lose your fingers!

What is your opinion on the cost of living in Russia?

For expats, the cost of living in Russia is affordable. In any case, expatriates are likely to earn more than locals. If you want a modern flat, you should be ready to spend most of your salary on rent. But you can still find a nice and cosy apartment in a quiet neighbourhood, eat out a couple of times, go and see a movie, plan a weekend getaway, do some shopping, and still put on the side some savings.

For a bus, subway, trolleybus or tramway trip, you will need around 55 rubles, which amounts to less than one euro. A loaf costs less than two euros. For a two-bedroom furnished apartment with a concierge and parking close to public transportation in the city centre, you will pay around €720.

What is something that you would like to do in Russia but haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?

There's so much to do here! Maybe one day I'll dare to jump into the icy bath organised by Russians in early January for Epiphany.

Festivals in Russia
© Diane

Share your most memorable experience in Russia.

I have many but the most beautiful and memorable one was my Trans-Siberian journey from Moscow to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, that lasted a whole month.

If you could move to Russia all over again, what would you do differently?

Nothing. It has been an exceptional experience. I've made a few mistakes but I still made it. Russia has really captivated me.

What do you think of the local cuisine? What are your favourite dishes?

Honestly, Russia doesn't have such a reputable cuisine, unlike France. You're likely to find more Central Asian, Japanese, and Italian restaurants than Russian cuisine. Borsch, sirniki and salad (without a real dressing) are my favourites. You see, there isn't much.

What do you miss the most about your home country?

The French unparalleled gastronomy, of course! There are many restrictions on the import of French products. It's really hard for me to live without French cheese, pastries, savouries, potted meat, and chocolate. The choice of lactose-free and gluten-free products is also limited. Even though I make a stock of my favourite products when I'm back to France, it never lasts for long.

Have you had a moment that you almost felt like leaving from Russia?

I've never really felt like leaving Russia even though I need vacations like everyone else working. As soon as I'm back to France, I start talking about Russia and I miss it. It's a world apart that is evolving constantly with so many opportunities for everyone.

Moscow, Russia
© Diane

Give us some useful tips that soon-to-be expatriates in Russia will benefit from.

If you're looking to move to Russia, leave all your misconceptions and stereotypes behind. Speak to people around you and show your interest in discovering their culture and history. It's the best way to get to know more about the real Russia.

If you had to advise an expat on five items to bring with them to Russia, what would they be?

Think about all the things that you use in your everyday life and that you're not likely to find here – maybe you will but it won't be of the same quality. If you like tea, for example, bring your favourite brand. Even though Russians have a lot of tea, you won't necessarily share the same taste. Also, bring some chocolate, your favourite ingredients if you like to cook or if you're allergic to some products. You will have a limited choice here with all the restrictions applied. You can also bring some cosmetic products which are more costly here, medication due to the poor quality of those available locally, and electronics such as a mobile phone, laptop, camera, charger, etc., which again are more expensive here. Regarding medication, you're not likely to get any refund even if you have subcribed to an expat health insurance.

What are your plans for the future?

Currently, I'm hoping for better career prospects in the field I've chosen. There are definitely a lot of opportunities here.

What is one thing that you will take with you from Russia?

My dog, for sure! In fact, it has already travelled with me to France a couple of times, so I know a lot about the formalities. If you're willing to move to Russia with your pets, I would be happy to provide you with some useful tips.