. . . the capacity to wish and to do – to throw oneself headlong into a bottomless abyss without knowing why or wherefore.
– Leo Tolstoy
I’m home now. It’s been six years. I think I did just what the quote from Leo Tolstoy said above. People ask me why I did it, but I don’t truly know. I found something I wanted to do and I acted upon it. I was too excited to notice the abyss. Now that I look back on it, I’m thankful I was naïve. After all, I got away with it in the end.
I moved to Russia on August 23, 2004. Intel Corporation sent me there to set up a Marketing Center in a regional city called Nizhny Novgorod. I lived there for nearly five years, quit my job, and then moved to Odessa, Ukraine for just over a year. I want to tell you about those six years.
I’m really writing this for myself. That’s the target audience. I want to record this chapter in my life since it has just ended and I’ve had time to reflect. If you can tolerate self-indulgence, keep reading. If not, that’s okay, it’s not for sale anyway.I don’t claim to have done something unique. In fact, living in another country is really simply historically ordinary, but personally extraordinary. I look back on it now and I can’t believe I did it.
I want to tell you about my experiences living in Russia and Ukraine.
Some basic information about my past six years.
I worked at Intel Corporation in Nizhny Novgorod for nearly five years. I held three jobs while there. I came first to start up and manage the Russia Marketing Center. In this assignment, I executed a plan to hire a team of talented marketing people in a city whose history hardly prepared me for such a task. To my surprise and pleasure, the talent really did exist and the founding of the team became a reality within 18 months. Not everything turned out the way I hoped, but through persistence, faith in the people of Nizhny, and the luxury of hiring people who shared my vision and determination, we managed to create something incredibly special. The people I brought in to Intel were some of the finest people I’ve ever met.
My second job started in parallel with my first. I was asked to become the co-site manager of both the Nizhny Novgorod and Sarov sites. Close to 500 people resided in four different buildings in two different cities. The job seemed daunting, but it became my most satisfying role while in Russia. I was responsible for growing the capability of the sites, raising awareness globally to their capabilities, engaging with the government and the local community as an act of goodwill for Intel, and I also worked heavily on instilling Intel processes and values to this young, wide-eyed group of employees. In physical terms, we achieved a lot. We leased and renovated additional floors in our largest building, closed two satellite offices as a result, and then ultimately justified the purchase of the building for several million dollars. Once owned, we tore down an ungodly awful, decrepit factory on our property, expanded the parking lot, and built out the data center and electrical infrastructure of the facility. The building likely pales in comparison to any other Intel facility in the world, but nonetheless, it was ours, it was permanent, and we could be proud that Nizhny Novgorod was a serious player at the company. I didn’t do it all, by any means, but I did play a part in driving these achievements for the benefit of so many hard-working Russians who dearly wanted to make a difference at Intel.
My third job was to lead the EMEA Development Center. This IT group, consisting of about 40 people at the start, wrote software applications for the Sales and Marketing Group within Intel. My responsibility was to train the team on how to grow into a more mature, effective organization. I needed to spin up on how a software development team functioned very quickly to provide myself with some semblance of credibility. Bit by bit, I did it, but then some new forces came in to play that changed everything.
Upper management decided to convert our team from a C#/.Net development team to an SAP development and systems analyst team. What looked good on paper turned out to be a disaster in reality. Twenty disenfranchised employees, many of our best, left in one fell swoop and laid our team to waste. I had to rebuild it from nearly nothing and reclaim the credibility that we had cruelly lost. In time, we put together a fledgling but capable team and once again earned a solid reputation. Ultimately, we completed some large and visible projects that saved our skin. We reached a point where we solidified our gains, built a routine, and turned it into maintenance mode. It was a success, but also a sign that it was time for me to go. I completed everything I could, found a successor, and decided to set out on my own apart from Intel. I moved from one adventure to the next.
Upon my departure from Intel, I decided to move to Odessa, Ukraine to study Russian and write about my experiences in Russia. Intel graciously paid for my move and soon, I was planted in a new city and a new country. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking. I no longer had an international company protecting me, I had no friends there, and my future was a fog. Piece by piece, I assembled a life in Odessa. I enrolled in an international language school and began to meet a number of people that would fill my life with meaning and joy. I studied Russian diligently for several hours a day, read voluminously, and only occasionally put words on paper. My brain was too exhausted to learn Russian and write effectively. The reality of tradeoffs in life hit me hard. It was my biggest disappointment, but then choosing one instead of two was better than choosing nothing. I made the most of every moment in Odessa. I survived through an extraordinary level of ambiguity and came out of the experience reasonably successful. Like Russia, not everything went my way, but the overall result was a net gain. At some point in my mind, once again, a sense of ending filled my mind, and it was finally time to go home. I packed up, got on the train to Kiev, and flew back to Portland. I started all over again. The six year adventure was over. It all went so fast.
Looking back, I can review with awe all that I achieved. I may not be a millionaire, but I have definitely lived an interesting life. Below is a summary of some of the things I did:
During my six year adventure, I traveled all over the northern hemisphere. While in Russia, I traveled to the following cities and countries:
- Moscow – As Intel had a large site there and many of my colleagues and two managers worked from there, I visited Moscow frequently. I’d take the overnight train there and back over and over. I know Moscow like the back of my hand and can take the Metro with my eyes closed. Every chance I got, I’d go to Red Square and soak up the atmoshphere. I wouldn’t want to live there, but its modernity was a relief for me compared to Nizhny Novgorod.
- St. Petersburg – I traveled there four times, twice for business, twice for pleasure. St. Petersburg is magnificent in both winter and summer. I could easily live there.
- Kazan – Located in Tatarstan about an 8-hour train trip east from Nizhny, this city is 1000 years old and primarily Muslim. I went on a basic business trip, stayed in a 5-star hotel (a novelty outside of Moscow), and had a great time with my colleagues.
- Rostov-On-Don – A city in southern Russia near the Black Sea, I arrived at night, went to the hotel, attended an Intel event during the day, and then left that evening. I never saw the city and never gained any impression of it.
- Novosibirsk – I traveled there twice for business, once in winter and once in summer. Situated in the heart of Siberia, I got to experience both the beauty of summer and the fury of winter. It’s a decent city, but very Soviet. Up till then, the hotels were rather poor.
- Vladimir/Suzdal – Two cities on the Golden Ring, a historical string of cities a couple hours away from Nizhny. These two cities are renowned for their plethora of Orthodox churches built by the Tsars. This weekend trip with friends was extremely fun, we found a wonderful hotel, and drank a lot of mead. Though the collection of cathedrals is impressive, it will take some time for Russia to invest enough to fix all of them to an agreeable standard.
- Southwestern Russia – I drove back and forth between Nizhny and Odessa with my car. I drove with my friend Boris to Odessa which took over 20 hours. There is almost nothing of any interest, beauty, or redeemable value in this stretch of land. Despite that poor review, it is actually an extremely accurate view of the majority of the country of Russia.
- Alushta – I attended an Intel event at the coastal town of Alushta on the Crimea. I stayed in a spectacular hotel overlooking the Black Sea high on a cliff. The setting was absolutely stunning. The heartbreak was that the town was quite poor and very Soviet. It had a charming amusement park on the shore that included games, restaurants, music, and other aspects of a typical carnival. Though a meager spot, the visitors were especially spirited and joyful. The potential of this city is unlimited. If only Ukraine could develop these coastal Crimean towns. They are potential goldmines.
- Odessa – In my quest to visit various cities in the former Soviet Union, I traveled to Odessa for fun one time, enough for me to enjoy it, and place a very strong note in my mind for its attraction. I had no idea that I would live there one day. I’ll spare the reader a finer description of the city as it is due for an entire write up on its own.
- Kiev – I traveled to Kiev once for business and used it as a travel hub for my trips to and from Odessa. It is regarded as a good city but I’ve never fallen in love with it. My Ukrainian colleagues from Intel treated me like a king while there and I found a Mexican restaurant that served the best strawberry margarita in Europe. All was not lost.
- Riga – I traveled there in the winter of 2005 with two other American expats from Intel Moscow. We rented a car and drove all over the tiny country. Riga was a complex mix of Western Europe and the Soviet Union. It escaped from Communism with fewer scars than most and thus has tremendous opportunity. As a highlight, we visited an Olympic bobsled track. I took two runs down the women’s track, once on a rubber raft for the more tender hearts, and once on an actual bobsled with a former Olympian. The first was fun, the second was more fun but even more terrifying. My neck was sore from the g-forces I endured on the ferocious curves of the track. Once was definitely worth it, once was enough.
- Lithuanian border – For grins the three of us decided to cross the Lithuanian border to get the passport stamp and to look around a bit. We were caught in the middle of a severe snowstorm and decided to turn around after a short drive into the country.
- Bulgaria – Once again, two fellow expats from Intel joined me to tour Romania and Bulgaria. We flew to Sofia and stayed in the capitol for a couple days and then set out in a rental car to take a circular tour of the country. It was absolutely beautiful.. and absolutely poor, too. Regardless, we saw some beautiful Mediterranean countryside and some charming cities. Overall, I loved Bulgaria and could imagine living in Sofia. I just hope they can cure their corruption.
- Romania – We flew from Sofia to Bucharest, rented a car and toured the city for a day or so. The highlight was Ceaucesceau’s Palace, one of the grossest spectacles of corruption and tyranny on earth. We drove through Trannsylvania and did the Dracula stuff, stopped in the lovely town of Brasov, and then made our way to the Black Sea coast at Constanta.
- The highlight of all highlights in my travels on earth. I traveled there three times, staying with my friends, the Bordonaros, in the U.S. Embassy estate. Beautiful, luxurious, restful, and magnificent.
- Munich – I spent two weeks here on business. Munich reminds me of Portland in its size and feel. On the weekend, I drove on the Autobahn in southern Germany and made a quick trip to Salzburg, Austria. I love Germany. It was such a wonderful respite from the hallows of Russia.
- Frankfurt – When traveling throughout Europe, you can scarcely avoid Frankfurt since it is one of the most vital air hubs on the Continent. I had enough long layovers to get the chance to tour the city. It is typical Germany, modern, clean, and convenient.
- Hamburg – I visited an old friend of mine from Nizhny. I stayed for close to ten days there while waiting for a Russian visa. It’s a bit rougher around the edges, but impressive nonetheless. My grandfather came to America through Hamburg, as thousands of others did. It holds a significant link to the New World and my own future.
- Berlin – I stayed with another friend from Nizhny in his apartment in the heart of the city in the old East Berlin sector. Berlin is a spectacular city. I also visited a Russian friend, Marina, who was studying there. She took me to Potsdam, home of the famous meeting between Stalin, Truman, and Churchill. Since it was located in East Germany, there were many Russian tourists there. Overall, Berlin is one of the finest cities in the world.
- Swindon/London – Intel’s European headquarters is located in Swindon, a small city about an hour west of London. I made numerous trips to Swindon for work and had some opportunities to tour around the region. I visited Bath, Stonehenge, and Salisbury. England is yet another wonderful respite from Russia. It felt like home. I drove on the left side of the road for the first time in my life while there. Very strange indeed.
- Copenhagen/Malmo – I stayed with a former Intel colleague for a short time. We really only walked in downtown Copenhagen and then took a train to Malmo, Sweden. I made the trip by train from Hamburg. Along the way, the train boarded a ferry and crossed a large body of water to make our way to Denmark. Maybe some people think that this is uninteresting, but I was completely fascinated by it. The high-speed trains were a thrill, too.
- Bangalore – I visited here for business. Intel has their finest site there. It was quite impressive. The rest of Bangalore, not so much. With apologies to my many Indian friends, I do not like India. The poverty and filth is overwhelming.
- Beijing/Harbin – I stayed with an Intel colleague in January, 2006. Though Beijing has a huge population, it never felt suffocating. I visited all the usual sites like Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City. It was very accommodating to foreigners. Russia could learn a lot from the Chinese. I also went to the Great Wall and flew to Harbin to see their famous ice sculpture festival. Absolutely amazing despite very nearly freezing to death.
- Hong Kong – I came to HK for a friend’s wedding. Hong Kong is yet another spectacular city. The drawback is that it is hot as a furnace there. I walked around the steep hills of Soho, took the Peak Tram at night to see the amazing view, and went to the wedding outside the city at a swank Country Club. Great trip and great city.
- Miri – I was in dire need of a physical and mental break from life. I stayed in a Marriott resort on the South China Sea for 10 days and did almost nothing but sleep, watch the World Series, and think about life. I didn’t do any sightseeing, so I have few impressions of Malaysia, unfortunately.
- Los Cabos – I needed a solid rest here, too, and stayed almost exclusively in the hotel. Charming place, but again, I didn’t look around and thus gained little perspective on Mexico during my stay.
- Prague/Cjekowice – All the planets lined up and I got to go to Prague for business plus meet my Uncle, two cousins, and my mom while there. We drove to the village where my grandfather was born and found the house he lived in. Prague is one of the best cities in the world and the Czech Republic is clean, peaceful, and beautiful. Life must have been bad in 1914 to flee such a wonderful country.
Highlights in Russia:
As a foreigner in Nizhny Novgorod, I was unique. There were only five Americans living in the city. Along with us, there were many Germans, Swiss, and Swedish living there. I made many great friends and did more interesting things in five years than I did in much of my entire previous life. Here are the highlights:
- I met with the regional governor and the mayor of Nizhny Novgorod twice each.
- I appeared on Russian TV approximately 3 times and conducted press conferences at times. One video is here.
- I was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal and was quoted in one issue here.
- I was the visit owner for Intel’s CEO, Paul Otellini. I led the planning of his entire visit, flew on his private jet, and even went bowling with him.
- I got in two car accidents, once as a passenger and once as a driver. Largely unscathed, I felt fortunate that I didn’t meet the fate of so many Russians who die savagely from car wrecks every year.
- I got stopped by the police while driving approximately eight times. I had committed a traffic violation in the majority of those occasions. Regardless, I never had to pay a bribe.
- I’ve driven a car in the UK, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Austria, Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia.
I lived in three apartments in Russia and one in Ukraine. All of them were great. Not coincidentally, my landlords treated me well when Intel was paying the bill. When they weren’t, it was a bit more troublesome.
So What Did I Do?
Many people, including local Russians, frequently asked me, “So, what did you do while living there?” Russians were just as fascinated with this question as my friends back home. They couldn’t picture how a foreigner, with no family and poor Russian skills, could manage to live there successfully. I appreciated the concern, but I managed to live in Russia and Ukraine quite comfortably. There were an enormous number of obstacles to overcome, of course, but it was never unbearable. I got a lot of help from wonderful, generous Russian friends, and I managed to stay very busy and engaged throughout my time in Nizhny.
Most of my time consisted of making a life in my unusual home. A large collection of my belongings was shipped to me from home, but I still spent a lot of time making my home comfortable. Though it is good to go native in a foreign country, I still made a great effort to create my own little America inside the walls of my apartment. In all cases, I managed to create an extremely comfortable living situation no matter where I was.
From a social perspective, I gradually put together a great network of friends, both foreign and local, to pass the time. We frequently went to restaurants and night clubs or took long walks or visited dachas outside the city. Nizhny was experiencing a renaissance while I lived there. New restaurants were opening continuously and new malls and supermarkets were sprouting up everywhere. It’s interesting to note that Nizhny got an Ikea before Portland did. That was big news at the time. As time went on, it became easier and easier to live there.
There was always something to do. The advantage was that even doing the most mundane thing was interesting simply because I was doing it in Russia. One time, I went to see a house that my Swiss friend built. It was a simple Western-style wood house, but because it was a complete novelty in Russia, the whole trip was eventful. If a new shop or mall opened up, I would simply visit it just to see it… because it was in Russia. Everything new and modern always seemed so out of context and unusual. It made life entertaining. Often times, going home was a bore since I expected everything to be nice, organized, and functional. When it happened in Russia, it became a pleasant diversion.
I certainly spent many relaxing evenings at home. I loved my apartments and especially loved to watch the winter snow fall quietly outside. Those were some of my best memories. Occasionally, I would throw parties and invite a panoply of friends from places near and far. My friends cooked incredible meals and the company and conversation were magnificent.
All in all, my life in Russia and Ukraine were always more interesting and entertaining than my life in the U.S. the few years before I moved there. I was never lonely and only became bored as my time in Russia was coming to an end. Life was harder at every step, but life was arguably better. I miss those times as I look forward.
So Now What?
My emotions at the moment are mixed. On one hand, I can’t believe it’s over. I’m near tears that it’s over. I have difficulty letting go. This was such a unique experience that enriched my life and now, bam! It’s over.
On the other hand, I thank God it’s over. I am emotionally exhausted and I can finally loosen the grip I’ve had on myself which protected me and helped me endure. My adrenaline was in full gear the entire time and now I feel empty inside as if all my energy has drained away. I can’t imagine trying to gear it back up again in such a degree. I feel like I can relax now and it feels good. Amidst all the glory, there was a long grind. I was in a constant state of disorientation in a way. I explain it this way. Wherever you are born and raised, you develop an imprint in your mind about what is “normal”. Whenever you put yourself into a different situation, something inside you is constantly telling you, “this is not normal, please normalize as soon as possible.” That feeling tugs at you and you have to keep it in control so that it doesn’t disrupt your life. That’s the way I interpret it, anyway. I’ve met many who live in Russia or Ukraine that surely have a quieter voice inside than I did. For me, I enjoyed practically every minute of my life in Russia and Ukraine, but as the saying goes, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”
I’m not speaking about any universal truths, just those that I see for myself.
I loved the experience of living in another country, especially one that fascinated me. I actually got to live and breath in a country that I only read about. I don’t think a day went by where I was not conscious of what I was doing. There was wonder in every moment. Every street I walked, every place I visited, every person I met, I could feel every drop of history, every agony, every struggle, and every triumph. I lived it, I really lived it.