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Interview with Rob – an American expat living in Russia

Updated 29 Nov 2010

Rob MacDonald is from New Jersey, where he taught school for many years, then sold insurance, and finally owned an agency until leaving for Russia in 2000. After graduating from Duke University in 1964, he served as a sailor in the US Navy. He lives in St Petersburg but spends May to September at a small village. 

Read more about expat life in Russia in the Expat Arrivals Russia country guide or read more expat experiences in Russia.

About Rob

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: New Jersey, USA

Q: Where are you living now?

A: St Petersburg Russia

Q: How long you have you lived in Russia?

A: 10 years

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?

A: My wife and I returned to her native city from the USA.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A: We were married in June 1999, my wife wanted to be at her daughter's wedding in Russia, so we left America in June 2000. I am retired, it's time to rest, read and travel.

About St Petersburg

Q: What do you enjoy most about St Petersburg, how’s the quality of life?

A: The food is better than France or Italy! The quality of life is low based on many indicators and the climate is terrible. Still, we have a happy life as much as we can.

Q: Any negatives about St Petersburg? What do you miss most about home?

A: Russia has negatives... lawlessness, crime, corruption, bureaucracy, cars parked on the sidewalks with no enforcement, people unsocial in public.

I miss the rolling topography and mountains, my grown daughter, and the friendly and charitable American people. Russians don't kid each other and strangers as we did in New Jersey. I miss the churches, their bells, the church casserole suppers.

Q: Is St Petersburg safe?

A: You get used to living with a degree of danger. Need to watch carefully where you are going as holes are often unguarded, and be extremely careful crossing streets as cars seem to come from many directions at once. Just avoid disputes with angry people and try not to have dealings with the police.

About living in St Petersburg

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in St Petersburg as an expat?

A: We live on the 10th floor of a hi-rise on the outskirts. The best place to live is in the center, as there you can easily enjoy the culture and social life, as well as be in touch with other expats.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in St Petersburg?

A: We have a very comfortable apartment.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: When I arrived in 2000, I devised my Rule of 5. Most things here would cost five times more in the States. Now it's more like a Rule of 3. Bread is cheaper, so are cigarettes (don't smoke), gasoline (don't have a car), many items. Electronics are more expensive than in the USA.

Q: What are the locals like in St Petersburg; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A: I have an expat friend from England and one from Texas who spends part of his time every year in Russia. Otherwise I only see and talk with Russians. Most are quite friendly and helpful, even sometimes speaking English or helping me make a purchase.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in St Petersburg?

A: Yes, my wife made a real effort to help me get to know her friends. I don't hear any English on the street here.

About Russia

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Russia?

A: When our pIane took off in June 2000 I retired. I am particularly fortunate as my wife is a genius at working through Russian bureaucracy. I have a special passport that gives me all the rights of a Russian except voting, including healthcare. I am still a US citizen.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in St Petersburg, is there plenty of work?

A: There's work for most Russians who learn a foreign language and show some initiative. There is a lot of unemployment too, and some bad working conditions. Unless you come here with a position with a large company, the best bet is to teach English.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A: Extremely different. Most good jobs go to people who know people, not to the highly qualified. Your main task at work is to protect your position, not to help the customer.

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to St Petersburg?

A: I was pretty shocked at conditions here in 2000, so I asked my wife, 'How do you feel being back in Russia? She said quickly, 'Like a fish in water!' She was happy to be back.

Q: Did your children settle in easily?

A: No kids, but my 23-year-old daughter was distraught that I left her and America. My sister's reaction was, 'Well, if you don't value your American citizenship, I know plenty of people who would love to have it.'

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?

A: I see schools from a Russian point of view. I was a teacher for years in New Jersey, USA. Just like there, the parents here have a lot to say about things and teachers they don't like.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in St Petersburg?

A: Free hospitalization, doctors who care more about you than billable patient hours, little waste or frills... relatively cheap prescriptions (actually, usually no prescription required... just a note on a slip of paper from a doctor. I've had a major heart surgery, as well as two pacemakers implanted, and around 10 hospitalizations. I think the Russian health system is better in results than the American (broken) system.

And finally...

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: Realize that a casual decision now can morph into a decision you can't undo later. Accept the culture as you find it. Have fun, look for the best, and consider blogging as it's made me much happier here since I started writing.

~ Interviewed December 2010

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