David Diamonon is Deputy General Director for Transolutions CIS, an American-owned company controlled by Amsted Rail that is focused on supplying rail equipment to the former Soviet states. Ethnically Filipino, he graduated with a degree in Russian from Middlebury College and went on to live and work in Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Here, he discusses his experiences and his perceptions of the cultures he’s encountered so far from his birth place in Houston, Texas.
SRAS: Did you begin your degree knowing that you would want to work in Russia?
David Diamonon: The best way to understand a foreign language is to immerse yourself in the culture, so, yes, I knew I wanted to work in Russia (or at least in a country where Russian was widely spoken) when I began studying the language. Initially, I thought I wanted to work for the US Foreign Service stationed in a Russian-speaking country, but I later understood I was more interested in business.
SRAS: How did you find your first job and what did you do there?
DD: I found my first full-time job by networking. After graduation, I tried the traditional cover letter and resume campaign (often via snail mail back then), but it was an extremely slow process. So I contacted a high school classmate of one of my older sisters as he was already living in Moscow, told him about my job search, and he said just come to Moscow, hit the streets, and find a job that way. I told him, “Great idea, but I have no place to stay,” and he generously opened his doors (and pull-out couch) and let me crash at his place while I got on my feet freelancing for The Moscow Times and working part-time for a recruiting agency.
After a couple of months, I was hired for the Cash Manager position at Firebird Transport in Riga, Latvia, where I controlled an annual cash flow of $600,000. At that time, Russian was still widely used in Riga, so I spoke Russian all the time. I did pick up a few niceties in Latvian, as well (Labdien!).
SRAS: We still hear from many folks that the best way to break into a foreign job market is to actually be on the ground there, that many will simply not take you seriously if applying from abroad. After Riga, you then worked for the World Bank in Ukraine and Belarus – can you tell us about that?
DD: One of my close friends and classmates from Middlebury was working for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. at the time. He referred me to an employment announcement for Financial and Administrative Manager in Minsk, the interview for which, funny enough, I traveled to Kyiv.
I worked specifically for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector development arm of the World Bank. I oversaw the financial reporting and day-to-day activities of the company. After a year in Belarus, the same position opened up in Kyiv, and I asked to be transferred as Ukraine’s operations were double that of Belarus’s ($6M vs. $3M in annual operating cash) and afforded more challenges. I spoke Russian in both countries constantly.
SRAS: You eventually returned to the States to earn your MBA and work for a technology company for a few years. First, what made you decide to go back to school and second, what made you decide to leave America again and come to Moscow?
DD: By the time I attended Rice University for business school, I had lived abroad for seven years (one year combined in Moscow and Riga; one year in Minsk; and five years in Kyiv) and felt I wanted both to formalize my business experience with a graduate degree and to spend some time back home.
Strategically, I also wanted to punctuate my career with some time worked in the US and gain more experience in the private sector (most of my work overseas was government-funded). However, I always left the option of living and working abroad open if the right opportunity came about, which it did with my current company, Amsted Rail. In Moscow, I work specifically for Transolutions CIS, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Amsted Rail, which is headquartered in Chicago.
We manufacture and supply components for freight railcars worldwide and are adapting our products for use in Russia, Ukraine, and the CIS. In my role as Deputy General Director, I focus on finance and accounting, but IT and human resources also fall under me. Additionally, I’m involved in project management, as needed. As with previous jobs here, I use my Russian constantly, and it goes without saying that there’s never a dull moment.
SRAS: Did you face any difficulties in trying to start a career in Russia? Did you feel like you were treated as an “outsider?”
DD: Once I was on the ground in Moscow, it wasn’t terribly difficult to find work. Russia was just opening up, but at the same time it seemed like droves of other foreigners were here trying their luck at making it big in Russia. That said, not many of them had put in the time or effort to study the language or learn about the culture, so I think those types found it more challenging being here long-term. Now that that “Russia Fever” is over, it’s actually rather refreshing not to have so many foreigners around. Those of us who are still in the region (or came back) are here not only because there’s opportunity, but also because we genuinely enjoy it.
As for being an “outsider,” no, I felt quite the opposite. I’ve found most Russian colleagues to be very welcoming of foreigners, myself included.
SRAS: That also confirms something else we hear consistently: that you must know the language to really succeed in Russia. What were some of the major differences you experienced between the places you have lived and worked in terms of the culture and how you were accepted into it?
DD: The most obvious differences were in language, which was genuinely interesting to experience firsthand. I started in Moscow, where, of course, the native language is Russian, and I could use the language freely.
Then I moved to Riga, Latvia, where, although Russian was widely spoken, it wasn’t always the preferred language. Accordingly, you had to apply a measure of diplomacy in communicating. For example, when meeting people who were likely Latvian (you could sometimes tell by their names), I would greet them in Latvian, then switch to Russian.
My time in Minsk was a return to free use of Russian. There you could speak it without any concern that you might offend someone. Even so, you saw the difference in such simple things as street signs, so you were always reminded of the fact that you weren’t actually in Russia. But without a doubt, the working language was Russian. The only times I remember hearing Belarussian were on state news programs and at the privatization auctions that IFC conducted.
In contrast, over time it became increasingly important in Ukraine that you knew Ukrainian, especially if your work involved the local government. The irony is that some non-Ukrainian citizens were often the most vocal about this issue. I was in Ukraine when the then-Kiev Post decided to rename itself the Kyiv Post, recognizing the transliteration of the city’s name from Ukrainian, rather than Russian. I’d have to ask the publisher, but I seem to remember that he was not pressured by Ukrainians to change the name. In general, I found that your average Ukrainian was very appreciative that a foreigner spoke Russian. The fact is a foreigner is much more likely to know Russian versus Ukrainian. Ukrainians with a healthy attitude towards language had no problem acknowledging this fact.
Had I known I was going to spend five years in Kyiv, I would have taken language lessons while there, but as is often the case with expatriates, sometimes you never really know how long you’ll be in town. Similar to communicating in Latvia, in Ukraine, at least in official meetings with government representatives, I felt it important at a minimum to greet in Ukrainian, then switch to Russian.
Aside from language, I would say that in terms of character (and this is a sweeping generalization) Russians are the most aggressive, Ukrainians are moderate, and Belarussians are the kindest. I can’t really assess the Latvian character as I spent the least amount of time in Riga.
In fact, I’ve often said that Belarussians are nice to a fault, which at least in part explains why the country has been run over so many times and has a dictator in power for the foreseeable future. Ukrainians, as a nation anyway, with their position at the crossroads, can’t seem to decide which direction they want to pursue. Or, as many have supposed, maybe the country deliberately behaves like a child of divorced parents can and knows exactly how to play one parent (Russia) against the other (the West) to get what it wants. The problem with this approach is that it only achieves short-term gains, and any long-term improvements materialize only in spite of everything else.
Russians, with their at times “My kruche vsekh” attitude, have in any case carved out a strategically-important position for themselves on the backs of the nation’s natural resources and spurts of bona fide good government leadership. And without doubt, Moscow remains the center of the universe as far as matters of the former Soviet republics are concerned, and I think this fact can be largely attributed to the aggressive nature of Russians. Regardless of which culture I’ve lived in, I’ve found most people to be extremely hospitable. In the end, I’m a visitor to their home and to some degree a novelty to them, making me interesting enough for them to treat me with politeness.
SRAS: What is your ethnic background?
DD: My father and mother were born in the Philippines and emigrated to the U.S. in the late 50’s and early 60’s, respectively. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas.
SRAS: Have you ever had difficulties with the police or on the street that you feel may have been caused in part by your ethnic background?
DD: Nothing caused by my ethnic background specifically, no. However, there was one time I had to go to a traffic police station in Moscow in 2008 to deal with a ticket. During the experience, I overheard the portly officer ask my colleague who was helping facilitate the process what I did for a living in Moscow. When she replied that I was a director, he looked at me and made some crack about how I should “put on a cap and clean the courtyard,” a not so clever suggestion that I’m a Central Asian, and should be relegated to manual and menial labor, like a typical Tadzhik or Uzbek living in Moscow.
Other than that, in 1998, I was stopped one night walking along Kreshchatyk Street in Kyiv with the two black Americans living in the city at the time. Some policemen stopped us for minding our own business. However, to the cops’ credit, upon finding that my friend and his friend had their passports on them and I didn’t, the policemen actually focused on me. So, they may have stopped us based on racial profiling, but they only fined me for not having my passport on my person.
SRAS: Do you plan to remain in Moscow?
DD: We’ll see. For now, I don’t see any reason to pull stakes and move somewhere else. Living in Moscow has certain financial advantages, be they Russia’s low income tax and/or hardship allowances as paid by my company. I’m enjoying the opportunity to apply my Russian language skills professionally again. I certainly feel like I’m getting more value from my undergraduate degree in that regard. Having Western Europe in my backyard is always a plus. And living on the frontier, which in many ways, life in Moscow still is, also lets me be somewhat of a pioneer.
For example, I founded Moscow Lacrosse Club. Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the U.S., and I find it’s more exciting to start a new sport from the ground up. I just wish it were easier to bring equipment into Russia. Lastly, playing in a cover band, which I did on the side for three years in Kyiv, is another relatively easy thing to do here. As long as your band wants accent-less English to be sung, guys like me will always be in demand.
SRAS: Having lived in Moscow for over three years now, what would be your advice to Asian students who wish to come to Russia to study or work?
DD: I have three pieces of advice to anyone coming to Russia to study or work. One, be prepared for adventure. Russia continues to emerge from its Soviet past, and you witness history in the making just by being here.
Two, keep an open mind. The way you’re used to things may not be the best or only way. A simple example: I love that Russians ditch their shoes at the entrance to their homes. Granted, big city living, especially Moscow big city living, lends itself to filthy streets, so it makes perfect sense to quarantine your shoes. However, even ignoring the big city factor, a pair of shoes – whatever kind of city it’s in – touches all sorts of potentially nasty things, and now I take my shoes off at the entrance to home in Houston. In this respect, I’ve gone truly native, and it’s great.
Three, try to share a hobby with Russian friends. Whether it’s sports, music, or another interest, many Russians love to learn about how foreigners engage in such activities. It’s also an excellent way to expand your Russian vocabulary beyond day-to-day words and to put a new spin on an activity you already know.