There are about 900 Canadians currently living in Russia, watching—and often assisting—as the country attempts to make the painful transition from communism to capitalism. Maclean’s Moscow Bureau Chief Malcolm Gray recently spoke to four Canadian expatriates who have found themselves drawn to the quickly changing, frequently frustrating nation:
At 28, Sudbury native Michael Cullen has an advanced case of wanderlust. Late last month, he left the resort in Whistler, B.C., where he had been working as a chef, and caught a plane from Vancouver on the first leg of a 13,000-km journey. After switching to an Aeroflot jet in London, Cullen flew on
to his ultimate destination: Novgorod, a picturesque community of 200,000 people, 190 km southeast of St. Petersburg. There, in one of Russia’s oldest cities, he is one of four foreigners—and the only Canadian—working at the Beresta Palace, a luxury hotel on the banks of the Volkhov River. And as the hotel’s glavny povar, or head chef, Cullen, who speaks no Russian but plans to take lessons, is currently limited to expressive gestures when he wants a local helper to add more pepper to the borscht.
Russia is a new experience for a footloose, single guy who once spent a year seeing the Caribbean from the galley of a 100-foot yacht. But it was an earlier stay in Poland between 1989 and 1991 that made Cullen eager to return to Eastern Europe. “It’s fascinating being in an area that is undergoing such dramatic change,” he said. “Every day promises a new adventure.” Added Cullen: “Compared with North Americans— who are a bit spoiled—the people here have very little. But they are tough, they are survivors, and I love meeting them and getting to know them.”
Cullen got his latest position through a culinary headhunting firm—a specialized agency that matches chefs with jobs around the world. And his goal now is to perfect a version of New Russian Cuisine— food that he defines as a leaner version of traditional local dishes, presented with Western flair. To that end, he is willing to dodge the highway potholes to and from St. Petersburg on a weekly hunting expedition for choice vegetables and imported foodstuffs. The Canadian chef has only one quibble about his new life in Russia. He will have to wait for another time, with access to better food
markets, to indulge his interest in another cuisine that he has picked up on his travels: Thai cooking.
A slump in commercial construction in Winnipeg sent David Evans almost halfway around the world to lay the foundations of a new life in Moscow. In 1990, Evans, now 37, was an executive with the family-owned construction firm F. W. Sawatzky Ltd. As building starts declined in Manitoba, two business associates, both former Russians, told him that they were returning to Moscow to investigate construction opportunities there. Evans and his father, Lome, the firm’s president, soon followed. Said the younger Evans: “We came out for a look, caught the bug about doing business here, and then stuck it out until we could get set up.”
Essentially, sticking it out meant forming a joint venture with a Russian partner, a giant, Soviet-style building conglomerate. They call their company Swatstroi (a marriage of “Sawatzky” and the Russian verb meaning “to build”). As part of their investment stake, the Russians contributed a near-derelict building that was little more than standing walls and a roof. But that handyman’s special was in a great location—just outside the Garden Ring Road that circles central Moscow. And after an 18-month renovation, Swatstroi last year had 215,000 square feet of international-quality office space ready for a
market where rates of more than $32 per square foot and up are common. (That compares with quoted rates of between $20 and $27 per square foot for prime Toronto office space.) Since then, the company has fixed up three other run-down buildings—and has built a solid reputation as one of Moscow’s top renovation firms. Said David Evans, who now has 150 local employees on his company’s payroll: “Russians are great workers if they have the tools, time and materials they need to do a job.”
In another twist, Evans is now planning to live in Moscow for the foreseeable future— he married a Russian woman three months ago. “There is now more for me here than in Winnipeg,” he said, adding, “I love being part of the changes that are going on.”
It is a Saturday morning and Russia’s only baseball stadium echoes with the hollow ping of aluminum bats driving balls across the artificial turf. Under the shadow of Moscow State University, the 3,600-seat park—built with Japanese aid money—is where 60 boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 13 play in a four-team softball league that owes its existence in part to Robert Hurst, a volunteer umpire when he is free from his duties as CTV’s Moscow correspondent. Hurst laid down the $650 deposit to se-
cure the Saturday-morning slot for the youngsters' league. And Canadian connections also solved the problem of finding baseball gear in Moscow: Hurst’s former cameraman sent a shipment of balls and bats, paid for by the players’ parents, on the plane that flew Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to Russia in early May.
The 44-year-old Hurst had a personal interest in helping set up the league: he and his wife, Cathy, have two sons, Scott, 10, and Todd, 12. Adjusting to life in a Moscow highrise can be difficult for children whose school friends may live on the other side of the sprawling city of 10 million people. “Our boys like going to the Anglo-American School here, but there are no playmates up the street,” said Hurst. “It’s a tradeoff: they are missing growing up in Canada but this is a chance for them to go out and see the world.”
In expatriate jargon, Moscow is a HOW posting—short for “hell on wives.” But while Cathy Hurst, 39, has had local job offers that would allow her to put her business background and MBA degree to use, she has decided instead to concentrate on learning the Russian language and culture. “Some people come here expecting life to be exotic and wonderful—which it isn’t when you have to go to six different stores to get what you
could find in one place back home,” she said. “It helps if you look upon living in Moscow as going on a camping trip for a couple of years.”
When she arrived in Moscow three years ago, Natasha Rajewski of Toronto quickly noticed one annoying aspect of doing business in Russia—women are treated as if they are invisible. At meeting after meeting, dark-suited male officials would rush to shake hands with the distinguished-looking former army officer accompanying her, presuming the petite blond woman at his side to be his secretary. To their embarrassment, the bureaucrats learned that the man was simply an interpreter hired by the Canadian businesswoman. Recalls Rajewski: “Russians are not used to women making deals and they did not take me seriously at first.”
Rajewski, 36, is president of Toronto-based SoapBerry Shops, a thriving cosmetics business she founded 12 years ago. She expects SoapBerry to sell $20 million worth of nitrate-free soap and other ecologically friendly skin and beauty products this year from her 50 outlets in Canada and the United States. But setting up just one shop in Moscow took more time and energy than opening 10 stores in North America. "The simplest thing, such as getting store shelves, is an immensely complicated game here,” says Rajewski. "There are no set rules in Russian business— people make them up as they go along.”
The interpreter is now long gone. Rajewski needed his services only until she polished her own language skills, learned from her parents, themselves Russian immigrants to Canada. And after 2'/ years of flying between Toronto and Moscow to attend meetings and then, for the past six months, living in the Russian capital, Rajewski has finally achieved her goal. With a signed contract for a 10-year lease on a retail outlet, a SoapBerry store opened on May 27 in GUM, the famed, glassroofed series of shopping arcades that faces Red Square. The store’s 40 Russian staff members—all trained to offer service with a smile—will sell Canadian-made products for rubles or hard currency.
In an attempt to blend commerce and ecology, Rajewski plans to do more than offer non-polluting cosmetics in locally made— and biodegradable—wrappers. She recently invited Moscow children to submit designs for a T-shirt promoting environmental awareness. The competition drew 6,000 entries and the two winning designs will be printed on shirts that will be sold in the SoapBerry store—with the proceeds used to support local environmental causes. Cleaning up in Moscow for Rajewski means a lot more than simply selling soap. □
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