Expatriates Changing Societies: The Case of Russia

“We need Europe for a few decades, and then we must turn our back on it”1 – this phrase attributed to the famous Russian tzar Peter the Great perfectly characterises Russia’s approach to modernisation in the past. Ironically though, the history has proven that Russia’s crush with Western culture, Western institutions and technologies (in state administration, military affairs, industry and science) was not simply a temporary devotion, but a persistent feature of its many attempts in modernisation ever since Peter the Great.

Russia’s impressive economic growth in the beginning of the 20th century (in fact, the fastest at that time) was highly dependent on foreign capital and highly skilled foreign specialists. Many foreign companies, including Siemens & Halske, Siemens-Schuckertwerke, Rosenkrantz, Lessner, Parviainen, Langensiepen, set up their factories and offices in Russia. Many Russian military factories, such as Obukhovsky, Baltiysky, Izhorsky, Petrogradsky and others, also actively employed foreign engineers.

However, the revolution of the 1917 has forced many foreign companies and specialists to leave Russia. Between 1897 and 1926 the number of specialists from English speaking countries has decreased by almost 10 times, from France and Sweden – by 6-7 times, Germany and Italy – by 1.5-2 times.2 But the Soviet leadership has soon recognised that it needed Western technologies and expertise to conduct its massive industrialisation, and pragmatically benefitted from the Great Depression by “sheltering” many companies and specialists who were seeking opportunities outside of the Western world. Furthermore, after the end of the Second World War as part of post-war reparations USSR willingly adopted Western equipment and technologies that was necessary for advancing its industry.

Obviously, foreign influence on Russian society depended to a large extent on the state of relationships between the USSR, Europe and the USA. Surprisingly though, even during the mutual political isolation of the Cold War and Iron Curtain period, Russia and the Western world did not remain that far from each other. The Soviets strived to assimilate with the West not only in the technological domain: ordinary Soviet people endorsed Western and particularly American culture through movies, music and books. Ironically, the superficial taboos imposed by political elites could not withhold an idealised romantic perception of the Western civilisation among Soviet Russians.

As these taboos waned in the 1990s following Russia’s transition to market economy, the country was flooded with foreign mass culture, as well as foreign companies and expatriates. Later with the economic upswing in the beginning of 2000s and booming GDP growth (from 6% in 2001-2005 to 7% in 2006-2008) Russia became particularly attractive to foreigners. The number of expatriates continuously increased since 2000. Between 2000 and 2008 the number of expatriates from the US increased by 2.7 times, from UK, Germany, France and Italy by 3.4-3.7 times, and EU countries in general by 1.6 times.3

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