Living and teaching in Moscow


I’ve been living in Moscow since August 2003 and I thought I’d write about my experience in case you’re thinking of coming here to teach at some time in the future.

To begin with, I’m pleased to say that my overall experience has been a positive one. My job is interesting, the school is supportive, and I have yet to fall victim to the infamous Russian mafia that everyone warned me about before I came. Needless to say, it’s not all sweetness and light here, and in the rest of this letter I’ll try to describe both the good and the bad points.

Firstly, let’s look at Moscow itself. There’s an energy to this city that is quite unlike anywhere else I’ve ever seen. The hustle and bustle of Moscow’s metro during rush hour, for example, cannot fail to get your heart racing. It is vibrant, intense and also beautiful. On the other hand, its raw energy and power can crush you underfoot if you don’t treat it with the respect it deserves and commands. The Moscow metro, like so much of Moscow, manages to be appealing and repellent at the same time. But either way, it cannot fail to make an impression. You either love or hate Moscow, and sometimes feel both emotions at the same time, but you cannot ignore it. It is never dull.

In terms of architecture, you don’t need me to tell you what this city has to offer. The Kremlin is one of these few sights that look as imposing in reality as they do on TV. To give an idea of it’s size, I sometimes walk around it on my way home from work and it takes about an hour. Red Square is impressive even without the red army tanks, GUM must be the world’s most opulent department store and its location on Red Square cannot be rivalled. Other sights you’re sure to recognise are the Bolshoi, the White House, Stalin’s magnificent Seven Sisters skyscrapers, the Moscow River, Gorky Park and so on and so forth. There are also more museums than I can count and a string of beautiful historic towns around Moscow in the Golden Ring. So, in terms of tourist attractions, Moscow may not rival Paris or Rome, but it will take far longer than the eight months I’ve spent here to see everything. And, of course, that’s only the beginning. Beyond Moscow, there’s St. Petersburg, Siberia and all the rest of this enormous continent of a country.

But let’s return to Moscow. As I have already mentioned, it is a truly enormous city, and that always lends a certain life to a place. The population is heading towards 12 million, and if the Russian government made it easier to obtain residence permits to live here, there would be a lot more. Abroad, Russians have a reputation for sloth and indolence, but when you see ‘Mighty Moscow’ in action, you can recognise that for the falsehood it is. Moscow’s wide boulevards, its teeming streets, its 6-lane highways are all in a desperate rush to get somewhere. Where everyone is heading to and why they are in such a hurry, I have no idea. It’s amazing that Russians always seem to be rushing to be late.

As to the Muscovites themselves, they are a race of survivors. Even a cursory look at this country’s history shows us that life here is seldom easy. In late Soviet times, you had to fight in a queue for a simple loaf of bread. Now the stakes are much higher, but you still need to fight. If you’re lucky, cunning or well connected you might become very rich very quickly, but it’s more likely you’ll have to fight to get by. This is not a country for the faint hearted.

Perhaps I am going too far. I don’t want to give you the impression that Moscow is a land of hardened cutthroat criminals ready to sell their own mother for a bottle of vodka. There is already far too much of this mafia hype in the western press. What I am trying to explain is why the average Russian acts so differently to the average American. The Russian man (or woman) in the street does not smile unless he is happy, he does not engage complete strangers in meaningless conversation, he does not suffer fools gladly. Indeed, there is a Russian proverb that perhaps sums it up-“Only a fool smiles all the time.”

However, while Russians can appear unfriendly and rude, when you get to know them, you will find that they are considerate, helpful and well…friendly. I suppose the Russian concept of friendship is much deeper and less superficial than friendship elsewhere. However, if you are reading this, you’re probably a teacher thinking about coming to work here, so I should start to concentrate on that. I’m a DoS for a company called BKC-IH. It’s the largest language school in Russia and an affiliate of the International House network. Indeed, it may be the largest language school in all of Eastern Europe. To give you some idea of the size of the school, we have about 180 teachers – 100 or more work exclusively for the company on full time contracts and about another 80 do some hours for BKC on a freelance basis. BKC has many locations-there are 6 large central schools and many more smaller satellite schools.

During my telephone interview, I was encouraged to apply for a senior position because of my qualifications (DELTA) and length of experience (6 years full-time EFL teaching). To be honest, I had never considered the possibility of a senior position before. I had always imagined senior staff to be almost ‘a race apart’ and possessing magical organisational powers that mere mortal teachers could not hope to imitate. However, when the position of ADOS was offered to me, I found it hard to say no. Opportunities like that, I reasoned, do not come along every day. Approximately five months afterwards, BKC promoted me to DOS, the position I currently hold. The company has also paid for me to attend an International House Young learner course, and sent me to DoS training course at International House London. I think it is fair to say that for me at least, BKC-IH has been quite a career rocket.

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