eFinancialCareers Q&A: A Russian investment banker explains why he returned to work in Moscow, and then left again for New York

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Mystery man

In one sense, Russia may seem like the promised land for financial services professionals: there’s a 13% tax rate and high pay. And yet, there are plenty of downsides to working in Moscow.

We spoke to one Russian-born banker now working in NYC about his experiences. He asked us to keep his name anonymous.

Q: When did you first leave Russia?

I traveled extensively as a child outside of Russia thanks to my dad’s job, and left Russia for good at the age of 18. I lived in several countries before moving to the U.S.

Since then, I’ve worked in sales and consulting and later in capital markets finance, trading and risk management positions at various Wall Street banks and hedge funds. Overall, I’ve spent over 17 years outside the country.

Q: When and why did you decide to go back to Russia? 

I was feeling homesick and wanted to see if I could reintegrate into Russian business culture, as well as spend time with my parents and the rest of family. So I accepted an offer from one of the major Russian banks in 2011 to work in capital markets.

Q: How was it? Did you have any ‘cultural shocks’?

I was rather surprised to find out that - contrary to popular belief - in everyday life the majority of my Russian countrymen were still rather unfriendly. They were less polite than Westerners. Worse, some of them were jealous of my coming back toRussiawhich sometimes caused issues at work. This was mostly related to the fact that banks inMoscowtend to pay much more to expats compared to local staff. Because of this, many local employees resent overseas Russians who come back toMoscowin search of a bigger paycheck.

Beyond office politics, my cultural shock was mostly related to the fact that ‘Soviet’ manners prevailed in the Russian culture, even though life has gotten much better on the surface.

Q: So, what did you like and dislike about Russia?

Bad business practices are commonplace in Russia. You need to pay people off to get anything done. Bribery is ubiquitous: it’s how business gets done. Russian business culture, as well as politics, is defined by nepotism. Many people are hired in Russia because their high ranked parents or family can provide "favors". Given these hiring patterns, the average quality of Russian ‘investment bankers’ is still low, and their educational and cultural level is far from Wall Street standards.

Q: Why do you think banks tolerate this kind of nepotism?

It seems to me that although banks know the quality of their people suffers because of it, they’re dependent on a network of personal favours for their survival. Because of this, very little gets done to improve staff quality and hiring standards are very low.

One of the sales guys that I knew in Moscow had very little knowledge of the product he was supposed to sell to corporate clients even though his CV specified that he had either 6 or 7 years’ experience in that field. That led me to believe that he was either lying in his profile or was just not the right fit for the job. Later on he told me that he got that job thanks to his well connected dad, chairman of another bank.

Q: Can you give any other examples of Russian banks’ poor hiring standards?

Sure. It seems to me that many of them recruit from low quality business schools, that they don’t do thorough background checks, or even bother checking references. It’s also common practice for HR staff to email your references without even bothering to call and speak to them.

Q: You said that Russian banks’ tendency to hire expensive expats is an issue. Does this make life difficult if you’re returning to Russia?

There’s a definite culture of hiring ‘big shot’ foreign bankers. This places responsibility for a company's success on the foreign ‘guns for hire,’ and those people can be easily fired if they can't deliver - which is usually the case.

I met very few non-Russian Western transplants who could successfully navigate Russian business culture.

Q: So what should you prepare yourself for if you’re a Russian who’s spent time working in the West and you’re relocating to Moscow?

Firstly, the small inconveniences. Taxi cabs inMoscoware small, expensive and sometimes dangerous.  Unless your aspiration is to live like a bum, quality housing is expensive by American standards. There are very few affordable buildings with doormen and there’s no cheap dry cleaning. While on a trip back to NYC, I would bring twenty of my shirts and three suits to NYC to get them dry cleaned. That operation saved me almost $240 each time.

Secondly, be prepared to invest in your appearance. Similar to other developing countries, dressing well is important in Moscow.  Russians tend to judge people's social status by what they look like. Russian office workers, single women especially, tend to overdress. Exterior signs of wealth are an important element of social life in Russia, driving an expensive Mercedes, wearing a Rolex watch and walking in $1000 shoes. It is all kind of ridiculous, colonial and cheap byNew York standards, but feels totally normal in Moscow. Many expats like it because they can show off and feel important.

Q: What can you recommend about living in Moscow?

The thing that I liked about Moscow was the 5 star night life and a great variety of high quality Azeri, Georgian and Uzbek restaurants. On the love front, even though I am engaged and monogamous, most of my expat male friends had a great time dating Russian women in Moscow. My colleagues at work commented that easy dating was the best thing in Moscow. Good luck.

Q: So why did you decide to come back to the US?

Over time, I came to conclusion that I did not belong in Moscow, mostly for the reasons I’ve given above. Unless I could radically change my life and fall in love with my job, it seemed silly to stay.

Q: What tips would you give to people who are thinking of going back to work in Russia?

1. I can see the only reason of going there to make a lot of money, fall in love with a beautiful Russian woman and then head back west.

2. The reason why they pay you well in Russia, is to compensate for all the unpleasantness.

3. Make sure you hire a lawyer to go over your employment agreement. Russian companies tend to promise a lot in order to bring people from UK and the US and unless their HR promises are written down in your contract, you can assume that whatever they promise you is not going to happen.

4. I’d recommend including a performance penalty clause in your contract in case the Russian company fails to deliver what they’ve promised. For example, it wouldn’t be unheard of for you to be told on the first day of your new job that your expat healthcare insurance won’t be paid after all following a change in company policy.

5. Bring American toothpaste and shampoo. Buy all your clothes and shoes in the US: High quality imports are expensive inRussia, and many local goods are still of poor quality.