The words “expat privilege” conjure up images of well-to-do white men living abroad in impoverished developing countries. The host society caters to them by virtue of their financial means and the host country’s demand for foreign specialists. However accurate that image may be, few associate it with Russia. Russia, for one, does not typically cater to foreigners, even tourists. Only a few years ago did Moscow’s metro get English-language signs, for example. The notorious post office will cut you no slack for being a foreigner. And contrary to the fantasies of many Western men, beautiful twenty-year-old women won’t be falling at your feet just because you wield an American or British passport.
In spite of these realities expats in Russia, and in particular Westerners, do still enjoy many privileges simply because they are foreigners. Why do I bother bringing this up? As they say, privilege is often hard to notice when you have it, and often times expats in Russia tend to be oblivious to their privilege when they interact with and judge Russians. This is no moral lecture from a high horse. I’ve been guilty of ignoring that privilege for years, and I still enjoy the benefits today — it’s impossible not to. But by acknowledging that privilege, we long-term expats can better communicate with Russians in a way that actually creates understanding and isn’t so patronizing and condescending. We can also better understand ourselves and how we fit in here.
What is expat privilege in Russia?
In my early years in Russia, an American friend and I would joke about Westerners who just couldn’t handle life in Russia. A perfect example was this pair of globetrotting teachers who taught at the first school I worked at, in a small town in the Moscow region. This married couple from America had come to us from East Asia. They had worked in China and spent some time in Southeast Asia as well. No doubt they were well acquainted with living in conditions far below those of the United States, if not most industrialized nations. And yet somehow, they couldn’t last more than maybe two months in Russia. And keep in mind this was Russia in 2006, the good old days.
We don’t associate Russia with those previously-mentioned stereotypical images of developing countries where foreigners live as an overtly privileged class, but you certainly do see some foreigners who expect to be waited on hand and foot, and who expect the exact same level of comfort they had at home in their Western countries. They’re the type who will live here for years without making so much as an attempt to learn practical Russian. Or if they do, they make no attempt to approximate anything close to proper Russian pronunciation, so that their speech sounds incredibly lazy and grates on the ears. I remember reading the blog of one such individual maybe five or six years ago, and the attitude could be summed up by her own words which were to the effect of: “I’m the foreigner! You have to take care of me!”
We laugh at or condemn that kind of arrogance and inability to adapt, but the truth is that more often than not, those who are oblivious to their expat privilege aren’t the ones who complain about every little thing and refuse to make any attempt at fitting in. In fact it’s usually those long-term expats who are totally in love with Russia, and their privilege gives them rose-colored glasses. This causes them to patronize Russians even when they think they are actually being positive about Russia. Worse still, it often causes some to associate Russia with the Russian government, and thus they become slavish cheerleaders for the regime simply because they think it is responsible for the better life they enjoy here, not realizing that this life isn’t really accessible to most Russian citizens.
Privilege? What privilege?!
Yeah I get it, maybe you think this doesn’t apply to you personally. You’re not some well-paid financial specialist in a multinational company whose rent reimbursement alone is several thousand dollars or euros. I’ve had my share of hard times. I arrived here with about $50-60 to my name and basically nothing to go back to. My starting salary was $700 a month, or more accurately its rough ruble equivalent. It’s not easy to pay the rent on $700 a month, but I wouldn’t know seeing as how I had a free apartment provided by my employer. What is more, during that contract I took on a larger than usual workload, but even then it couldn’t be compared to a 40-hour-a-week, 9-to-5 job. It certainly beat the back-breaking labor that characterized most of my working life.
On later contracts I worked even fewer hours and made even more money. Why was that? The simple explanation is globalization. I came to Russia at the right time, when it was attracting investment and integrating into the global economy. All that international business and travel required English, and native speakers were and still are a premium. It is a harsh but entirely logical fact that in English-teaching alone, native speakers generally make far more than local teachers even though in some cases the latter are far more qualified. Since you can’t really artificially create native speakers of a language, they’re a limited resource. Not only that, but even in the good old days of the mid-2000’s, native speakers were still rare enough to justify ridiculous amounts of money for private lessons.
Being a native speaker opens up all kinds of side benefits as well. You’ll get tapped to do odd jobs like voice-over or dubbing work — in fact you might even land a role in front of the camera. This is by no means exclusive to Russia. I remember being in Beijing and seeing an expat on Chinese TV explaining how his acting portfolio probably outweighs some starting professional actors. Doors to the media which would be shut to outsiders in the West are often wide open to foreigners in countries like Russia.
There are social benefits as well. Westerners are still seen as exotic in this country, and thus people are naturally curious and will often hang on your every word. It’s very easy to be the center of attention in any group or social situation. It can be very flattering, and for that reason dangerous as one might believe this attention is due to natural charisma rather than cultural differences. And while I hate to discuss this topic due to the preponderance of negative stereotypes, the Western expat, typically male over here, is almost guaranteed to do considerably better with the opposite sex in Russia, as they would in many other countries. Note how I used the term “do better,” not “get sexually assaulted by hordes of young model-like women.” Restrain yourselves, gentlemen.
Both women and men are naturally more forgiving of someone who they know is an outsider when it comes to social behavior. Also as you might expect, that curiosity toward the exotic applies to women just as much as it does to men. This means that date conversations rarely run out of fresh material. So while the idea that any loser can come to Russia and sleep around like rockstar is largely bullshit, it’s generally accurate to say that most males will notice a marked increase in their relations with the opposite sex, and there again is the danger that they will attribute this to their own inherent qualities or some such quality that is exclusive to Russian women in spite of the fact that this improvement via exoticness could reasonably be found in dozens of countries, including those that are better off than Russia.
Beyond these there are a myriad of other privileges you get in the form of social cues you’re not expected to know or follow, rules you’re allowed to ignore, things your company handles for you, and something I call the ability to live inside your own bubble. You often remain aloof from politics, arguments, irritating pop culture trends — all things you’d be forced to confront or encounter in your home country. You know the problems you dealt with at home all too well. In Russia it’s very easy to ignore all kinds of problems, many of which you’ll never have to worry about. The problems Russians deal with and complain about seem distant or abstract, whereas whatever problems you dealt with in your home country felt inescapable.
Again, these things might not be exclusive to Russia, but one thing I have noticed is that you aren’t really expected to assimilate here. Most people you meet, particularly in Moscow, will assume you haven’t been here for a long time and don’t plan to stay for long. They’ll also assume you know nothing of Russia and probably can’t speak Russian well. Obviously those last two can get annoying when that’s not the case, but it’s still a benefit because people will treat you differently.
Obviously there are many reasons why being a foreign expat can be a disadvantage compared to citizens, but these are typically outweighed by the perks. If living in Russia were a video game, being a Western expat, especially a native speaker of English, is easy mode. In the worst case scenario, you have the ultimate cheat code — a passport back to a leading industrialized country.
Taken as a whole, these privileges often start to become a problem when people make a fundamental mistake of attribution. It goes something like this: “In America, life was hard. I wasn’t the most charismatic person, I had bad relationships or virtually no relationships with women, and I was working 40-50 hours a week in a dead end job getting nowhere. But here in Russia everyone listens to me. Beautiful women seem to hang on my every word. I work maybe 18 real hours a week, and in the evening at that. It’s almost impossible to get fired here, and just last week I got paid a ton of cash just to talk to some executive about his hobbies. American society rejected me! It didn’t understand me! This place gets me. This is where I belong. This society is better.”
That oversimplified version might be amusing, but that’s basically how it goes and it’s entirely understandable. Humans are often bad at perceiving the effects of things we don’t readily encounter. In this case we have abstract concepts like globalization as well as concrete factors like oil prices and historical features which combine to create a society which places a high value on certain foreigners and rewards them accordingly. It’s entirely natural to ignore or even be totally oblivious to these factors in favor of attributing them to some kind of inherent qualities of one’s personality, and deciding that since this society recognizes those qualities, it must necessarily be objectively better.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with a person admitting that they live qualitatively better in Russia. I know I do. But this has to be tempered with the realization of one’s privilege, i.e. understanding that the life of an expat is fundamentally different from that of a Russian citizen. Furthermore, expats who ignore this privilege tend to have a rather annoying habit of attributing their situation to the Russian government as opposed to a confluence of external market forces, foreign investment, and globalization in general. In other words: “I didn’t fit in in America, but I seem to fit in here. Putin sure has built a great society!”
The problems with this concept are manifold. First of all, some expat privileges are actually by-products of the negative aspects of Russian society. Corruption greases the wheels at many companies who employ foreigners. And at the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, many women lower their standards when it comes to Westerners due to a variety of societal problems in Russia which make marriage to a foreigner seem like a viable option. This ranges from lack of opportunities and stability to fear of domestic violence. So again, while Russia isn’t a place where any neckbearded loser can step off the plane and land some model for a wife, let’s not have any illusions- if Russian standards of living and rule of law were more akin to a nation like Finland, Sweden, or Norway, many male expats here wouldn’t even be able to get a date. The point I’m making here is that some expat privilege comes at Russia’s expense, from the rot that began in the 90’s and continued to entrench itself under Putin when he came to power.
The second problem with this misattribution is that it causes expats to talk to Russians in condescending ways, which usually go something like this: Russian voices complaint about something, typically corruption. Expat suddenly gets all defensive and says something like: “You think we don’t have problems in the West? Well let me tell you…” Oftentimes what follows will be an example of some high profile scandal that may not necessarily compare well, or at all, to the situation the Russian citizen is talking about.
I’ve seen this happen quite often and I totally admit that I have probably been guilty of this myself dozens of times, even if I wasn’t defending Putin’s regime in my argument. The problem is our privilege blinds us to the fact that the problems with our own country are naturally more real to us, while the problems of Russia are more real to them. One has to realize that however angry one might still be over some political scandal at home, it has absolutely no bearing on the life of people in Russia. Their concerns are everyday corruption, steadily rising prices, high interest rates, and increasing censorship and crackdowns on civil rights. Even if the situation in one’s home country were actually analogous, the point would be utterly moot — imagine telling a person with cancer that they really shouldn’t complain because other people have cancer too.
This kind of thing is also patronizing because when Russians spend their time complaining about their home country and comparing it to the West, the privilege expat assumes that the Russian speaker naively believes the West to be devoid of problems. Those types of Russians who seem to look up to the West have usually spent some time abroad, and might speak English or some other foreign language. They also tend to be internet savvy. The point I’m making is that these people are not unaware of the existence of problems in Western countries, it’s just that those problems are often distant to them and thinking about them doesn’t negate the problems they actually deal with on a daily basis.
How did I go from the privileged condescending expat who countered every negative Russian attitude with detailed histories of American political scandals to someone who accepts the statements of Russian citizens even while disagreeing with some of them? I think the first key event was partial assimilation. Russia became my default reality. While I of course keep track of the headlines, I haven’t been inundated with America’s political problems for nearly a decade now. I’m inundated with Russia’s problems instead. What is more, being married and experiencing more aspects of life beyond working in an English school helps as well. Often people come here to work in these schools where the administration handles almost everything for them. When you strike out on your own and have to see what it takes to accomplish things in Russian society, you’ll start noticing the same problems as Russian citizens. If you start thinking about starting a business or anything extremely long term, you’ll run up against these issues as well. I’m a skeptic when it comes to full assimilation, but I believe it’s possible to reach an understanding about the lives of ordinary working class citizens even if you can’t actually give up your foreign privileges and live like them.
Based on my experience, my advice for expats is to recognize your privilege when voicing your opinions or making judgments. Using myself as an example, back in 2011 and 2012 I was definitely guilty of making all kinds of judgments against Russian opposition groups, not because I didn’t agree with their position on the regime but because I was ideologically opposed to them or they seemed to have no coherent ideology at all. I wasn’t considering the fact that these people had lived under such an inept regime for so long that it was naturally hard to convince any of them of the need to consider some kind of politics beyond “anybody but Putin.” I had to remind myself that this was a country where the regime deliberately fostered mistrust and cynicism so as to depoliticize the population, unlike in my home country where political discourse is far more mainstream and actual grassroots movements more numerous.
This doesn’t just apply to opposition minded Russians, by the way. Since 2014 a lot of people have switched sides so to speak, superficially at least. Confronted with opinions that run so contrary to what it seems the rest of the world thinks, some people get frustrated and condemn those who express these opinions. It is admirable that there are still Russian citizens who freely express their opposition to the policies of their government; dissent is an example of commonality between Russians and expats from countries where dissent, sometimes for its own sake, is considered admirable and even more patriotic. But don’t assume that just because Russians didn’t take to the streets after the economy went belly up last year that it means they are actually blissfully unaware of the severity of their situation. How would you feel if you were faced with the realization that your probable leader for life is now actively driving your country off the rails, and voicing your concern about this is becoming increasingly dangerous? These people have jobs and families to care about. There’s the normalcy bias that we all have. “The president’s got a plan. He’s rational. He’ll do something. This will blow over. Don’t rock the boat.” Ideal? No. Stupid or utterly incomprehensible? Not so much. Publicly declaring one’s support for the regime, even while saying or doing the opposite on a daily basis, is a coping mechanism.
What it all boils down to is don’t assume that just because life in Russia happens to be good for you, it’s just as good for everyone else. You have advantages here that they don’t have. You can choose to play the game and interact with society as much as possible, or you can remain aloof and hang out with other foreigners. Your mistakes are met with far more patience because you’re not expected to know the rules. You didn’t ask for the privilege, and it doesn’t make you a bad person, but just remember that you have it and act accordingly.
Jim Kovpak is the founder of Russia Whithout BS