From Russia with love: Northern Ireland's Soviet ex-pats on the culture shocks that awaited when east met west
Russia has one of the richest and most distinctive national heritages and is famous for its huge range of cultural icons – from the brilliant writers Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoevsky, to its elegant tea-rooms and handmade wooden dolls.
There's a growing Russian-speaking community in Northern Ireland and this Saturday it is coming together to transform St Jude's Hall on Belfast's Ravenhill Road into a traditional atmospheric Russian fair – think of the colourful St Petersburg emporiums of Anna Karenina or the quaint street markets of Dr Zhivago. All very exotic and romantic!
From 2.30pm visitors can enjoy free performances, workshops and traditional foods, and for those who like a bit of lingo, there will be Russian language taste sessions.
Among those hoping to raise the cross-community spirit through the fair are Anna Phillips, a Moscow-born travel guide for Russian speaking tourists here, Belfast-born translator and interpreter Robin Breen, and Elena Geddis, founder of the first Russian language school here.
Anna Phillips (36) a former travel agency manager, met her future husband Barry, a businessman from Antrim, through a match-making friend in Moscow. She says:
Barry and I have a common friend in Moscow who decided that we could be a good couple – and she was right!" says the glamourous Anna in her charming broken English.
"We got married this year and had two weddings: one in Moscow and one in Devon, where he was actually born.
"My husband has his own business in Antrim, Legal Island, a company which gives information and training in employment law complaints.He is a wonderful man! We don't have children now, but we hope to have in nearest future."
After moving here, Anna did the NITGA travel guide course and now works as tour guide for Russian speaking people.
"I like this job. I'm always happy to meet Russians here and introduce them to all the beauty I've discovered here – sometimes we discover new places together!
Russian people are very curious and hungry for beautiful places and interesting information, and they are making me learn about Northern Ireland more and more.
"I wouldn't say that I notice a big difference between Russians and people here. At first the smile is not frequent on Russian faces unfortunately! Probably it's because Russia has suffered so much. In recent post-Soviet times we even had to struggle to get basic products like sugar.
"Also Russians are not so tolerant like people here in Northern Ireland or other European countries. There is serious homophobia – Russian men with normal sexual orientation hate homosexuals. Some Russian women do too but in general Russian women are more tolerant and look at them like they are part of the population who probably didn't meet a proper Russian lady to share their life with! We are a frank-speaking nation and can't say we enjoy something if we don't."
As for the vodka-swilling stereotype, Anna believes that Russians and vodka go together only as much as an Irish man and his pint of Guinness.
"I wouldn't say Russians drink much more than people here but the problem is that in Russia people drink vodka everywhere – parks, railway stations, bus stops. If we would have the proper law and people would follow it, I'm sure the situation in Russia would be much better. Nowadays you can meet people who suffer from alcoholism everywhere in towns and in many old Russian villages, where the situation is very depressing. They have no money, no job.
"But I think corruption is an even more serious problem in Russia. People made a huge capital by taking money illegally. The government tries to work with it, but still not enough. Because, as we say, 'The fish starts to rot from the head'.
Despite white-collar crime and the economic situation, Anna admires the controversial macho Russian president Vladimir Putin.
"I can see he is the first president of Russia who is respected in the world and who has moved Russia up on the world stage. Of course he has a lot of things to fix still, for example Russian teachers in state schools earn miserable money. The situation is the same in hospitals. The pensioners live even worse, but slowly, slowly the situation in Russia is getting better and I believe in a good future for Russia. If it was my choice I would return Russia back to monarchy. It's a huge country and it needs a Czar – a very strong leader who would care about his own country and people."
On arriving here as a new bride, Anna was particularly taken with the "astonishing" long empty beaches of Northern Ireland and our endless green fields and hills, which she now loves to show off to visiting Russians.
"I try to do my best. My reality is that I live in Northern Ireland, the country where I've started my happy family life and I hope to continue my job in the travel industry, to improve my English and to enjoy a lot of the activities this country can offer to everybody, like jogging, cycling, climbing, swimming, scuba diving and even ballooning!
"The nature in this country is always green and breath-taking. My mission as a travel guide here is to attract Russian people to Northern Ireland and introduce them to the beauty and all the treasures we have here. I put it all on my website www.russiantourguideni.com.
"It's not enough for me just to do my job – for me the result is very important. My goal is to leave them at the end of their tour with big smiles on their faces and plenty of positive emotions about what we have seen together."
Elena Geddis (left) is a teacher of geography, biology and the Russian language. She met her Belfast-born husband, John, a fellow academic, while living in Sweden. They lived there for 15 years and then settled in Belfast in August 2012. She says:
It is my greatest motivation to put my talents and energy to work in creating a foundation for my Russian language school, which is the first of its kind in Belfast.
It is not only for the education of children, but also to promote cross-community culture.
We will be running a cultural centre and workshops for the Russian and the local communities to come together."
Academic Svetlana Svyatko from St Petersburg, came to Belfast to conduct doctoral research in bio-archaeology at Queen's University, Belfast and in 2010 graduated with a PhD degree and now works as a research fellow in the radiocarbon laboratory of the Centre for Climate, the Environment and Chronology at the university. She says:
Northern Ireland was the first foreign country I saw – my first long trip, the first flight in my life, my first time meeting foreign people.
It was a cultural shock and I got stressed the first months here, mostly because I did not understand local speech and the Irish accent, and could not speak fluently myself.
I did not know any Russian-speaking people in Belfast, and I did not know how to operate Skype, and the food was very different from what I was used to.
At school I'd studied four foreign languages – English, Spanish, French and Latin. To me, English grammar was the easiest. The challenge starts when you move beyond basics and meet the complications of the local accent!
I think the biggest misconception about Russia is the supposedly terrible cold.
Quite often I have to travel to remote areas of Siberia, and every time before I go, even in summer, my friends are concerned about the temperature.
Actually, I came back from a research trip to the Altai Mountains just couple of weeks ago and it was 30-plus degrees there.
I would say the Northern Irish people and Russian people know very little about each other. In general, local people know only that Russia is a big cold country, led by Vladimir Putin.
On other side, Russians know of Northern Ireland only because of the Troubles of the 1970s which were extensively covered in Soviet newspapers. One of the Russian litterateurs (Vladislav Knodasevich), after spending several months in 1924 in Holywood, outside Belfast, wrote a rather discouraging review of his time in Belfast, that could have contributed to the fact that Northern Ireland has never been a tourist destination for Russians, so far ...
Nevertheless, he was really impressed by the ship-building industry at that time.
I work in the centre for frontier research in bioarchaeology, at Queen's University, Belfast. Our research team is conducting investigations into the reconstruction of diet, health, social status and adaptations of various people of the past around the world.
My personal contribution is in the development of new interdisciplinary approaches and laboratory techniques.
I also work on the updating of current chronology for human economical patterns and migrations in the Eurasian Steppe."
The culture shocks that awaited when west met east...
Robin Breen (43), a translator and interpreter from Whiteabbey, was married for 15 years to a girl from Kazan, the capital of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, and has a 23-year-old stepson who was born in Kazan and is currently at college studying music. He says:
I had always been curious about Russia, and was fascinated by the strange looking letters and the sound of the language.
Although Russian is regarded as a difficult language, I worked pretty hard at it and, if I was being honest, didn't find it too much of a chore; in fact I found learning Polish more difficult. It was during my second year in March 1992 that I went to Russia to study and live with a Russian family, the idea being that I'd improve my language skills immensely, which I did. I can still remember arriving in Moscow for the first time, standing on Red Square on a chilly evening, admiring the beauty of the architecture. I was like a child in a toy shop gazing in awe.
The following morning, after a 13-hour train journey, I arrived in Kazan, Russia's third city. I was met at the train station by the head of my host family and his two sons. Within a few hours I got my first taste of the difference in culture – I was advised strongly by my surrogate mother to take my earrings out, as people would think I was gay and I could get into difficulties.
Despite this shock to the system, I soon settled in to my new environment, got to know my family well and made new friends – both locals and fellow students. I spent four months going to college, picking up the language, doing a bit of travelling and generally having a lot of fun. I got used to drinking vodka straight, sometimes with disastrous consequences, including having to be stripped and put into bed after a lethal mix of champagne, vodka and lemon vodka – not good.
I really enjoyed my time there and met many nice people, including the girl who I ended up marrying, Tat'yana L'vovna Sokolova. I found and still regard Russians, in general, to be very kind, welcoming and fun-loving. They have a daft sense of humour like the Irish and can be very self deprecating – not quite in keeping with the image portrayed in sections of the media here.
I arrived back in the UK in June but went back to Kazan in September of that same year for a private trip and spent three weeks with my family and friends. A further trip before my finals in April of 1993 led to a job offer and promises of a good salary. By this time my girlfriend and I had decided to get married later in that year. After I graduated from Queen's I left for Russia to work initially for a year as an English teacher at an affiliate of the Academy of Sciences.
I got married in December of 1993 in a civil ceremony and over the course of the next six months I was introduced to various individuals from the business community who were keen to open businesses in the UK. In August 1994 I returned home with my wife and stepson and started to rebuild my life here. I took whatever work I could find, including a job as a car park attendant, just to earn a living . At that time my wife and I started to attend the Russian Circle at Queen's University and for short period I worked as treasurer. Sadly my marriage later ended but I still have fond memories of the people I met in Russia.