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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Is

The true cost of Russia
Luc Jones

oscow rarely makes the international headlines for any positive reasons; for every snippet of information about a Russian company successfully being listed on the LSE, you are likely to read a dozen about how undemocratic Russia is, that there’s no freedom of the press and it’s a de facto mafia state. Woe betide should you actually decide to visit Russia, then you’ll almost certainly be murdered, mugged and raped upon arrival at Sheremetyevo (probably all three at the same time if you’re really lucky). And that’s after having had to pay a huge bribe to secure a visa and then endure a six hour wait at the airport.

The Russian Federation could certainly do with a serious makeover, a task that even the most experienced PR agency would gasp at. However, when a few years ago Moscow was ranked the world’s most expensive city in a survey conducted by Mercer, it sparked debate amongst Russians, visiting businessmen and expatriates alike as to whether this really was the case.

Before diving in and analyzing how pricey and dangerous Moscow really is, let’s take a quick look at these studies on the world’s key cities and what they’re all about. Mercer are a global HR consultancy who focus on personnel issues to advise their clients’ HR functions when sending senior executives around the globe. Amongst their many products are surveys on the cost of living for ex-pats in some of the world’s key cities, based largely on a standard of living that the overwhelming majority of locals could only dream about, even in western countries. Taking things a step further is a recently published “most liveable cities” report by Monocle, a highbrow magazine for men either in, or approaching, their mid-life crisis, for whom money is no object, have ample time in which to spend it but need to refer to a magazine to ensure that they stay abreast of the latest trends after feeling that GQ had become beneath them.

Obviously the amount of information that Mercer will actually reveal in these reports is rather limited, and intentionally so. It’s done purely for PR purposes, rather than for the benefit if mankind (well, global HR departments at least) as the main aim is to bring attention to their firm and product in the hope that you will then order a bespoke survey at vast expense. Monocle’s goal might be slightly different, to write articles that will interest their readership and attract advertisers but bottom-line revenue is the name of the game here.

Unlike the Economist’s Big Mac index, which endeavours to measure the purchasing power of nations based on an identical product, the Mercer surveys weigh up a basket of goods and services that an expatriate might require when relocating to, or visiting, a new city, such as renting a decent apartment or staying in a hotel, travelling on local transport, buying food and eating in a nice restaurant. Obviously these categories are extremely hard to measure as accommodation and dining vary so wildly within each particular city, and are therefore extremely subjective. Sure, if you’re an HR Manager based in the west with an international remit, tasked with working out how much your corporate execs will blow on their next business trips (in places you’d struggle to find on a map) then naturally this information is a godsend, and in the worst case it’s better than relying on stereotypes. Angola’s capital Luanda tops the list this year. The fact that they’ve just come out of a generation-long civil war and subsequently found oil results in an influx of speculators with big budgets and loose belts, driving up prices since the demand of anything above-average heavily outweighs the supply. Chad’s N’Djamena is third for similar reasons, with Moscow coming in one place behind at number four.

Whilst we could spend the entire magazine discussing how expensive Moscow is when compared to other major world cities, my simple conclusion is that if you’re a first timer to the Big Kapusta then you’re likely to blow huge wads of cash on even the basics so as to remain in the comfort zone.

In the first year when Moscow gained notoriety as Mercer’s most expensive city, the trusty Metro wasn’t even included as a form of transport on the basis that “foreigners wouldn’t use the Metro”. Oh really? Well, pretty much everyone I know here does. Get a map, work out where you’re going and you’ll get much more of a feel for the city, and you might even learn the Cyrillic alphabet on the go.

Obviously the amount of information that Mercer will actually reveal in these reports is rather limited, and intentionally so - it’s done purely for PR purposes, rather than for the benefit if mankind (well, global HR departments at least) as the main aim is to bring attention to their firm and product

As for the “quality of living” survey, Vienna comes out top with Geneva in second place and Moscow presumably somewhere down in the lower 700s. Actually that’s not strictly true, but Moscow most definitely doesn’t make it into the top 50. I made a quick count and it turns out that I’ve been to sixteen in the top twenty, one of which is Luxembourg. Granted there’s nothing actually wrong these cities but they can hardly be described as the most exciting, dynamic places to be living in, unless you’re a corporate VP relocating with your wife and three kids looking for an English language school, medical clinic, safe, pollution-free environment and daily activities to keep your trailing spouse occupied during the daytime while you’re away on business trips. But what if you don’t fall into this category? Perhaps you’re a single guy in his thirties or forties looking for a job in a booming market, ready to forsake a few creature comforts to spend a few years in a dynamic city with great nightlife. Monocle this year voted for Helsinki as their best city (and even admitted to having visited it in the winter). On my last visit to the Finnish capital we had a fantastic time (hey, we were on a stag night!) but apart from a handful of venues, on the whole it’s a pretty dull place to be.

Ronald Reagan famously said that there is no word for fun in the Russian language (and technically he’s correct on that point; actually there’s no word for ambidextrous either). But why isn’t “fun” one of the criteria used when these so called experts compile these lists. What is the après-work scene like? How easy is it to become integrated into the ex-pat circles here? Do locals and foreigners mix, or keep themselves to themselves? How late do the bars stay open, and how fit are the birds (or “how cute are the chicks” if you’re from across the pond)? Am I gonna get laid here?!

Where’s the survey for us? I’m not claiming that Moscow would definitely top the list but you don’t have to remember the days of the Hungry Duck to still enjoy yourself in Europe’s largest city.

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s still a lot wrong with Moscow . The traffic is terrible; it’s polluted; there are almost no signs in English and even fewer people speak it; the militsya are an occupational hazard; smiles are rare as honest bankers; and the bureaucracy is a joke—except one that isn’t funny. However, it’s a city that’s moved on considerably since the wild days of the 1990s, with decent supermarkets, better restaurants/bars/clubs/shops and even the aeroekspress if you need to make a sharp exit. It’s more than just an image problem but surely we’re not all here thanks to the low rate of income tax? Come on journos, give MOCKBA a break!

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