(Note: this post is not the advice of a qualified specialist, who knows all the details about immigration to Russia and the laws that govern this process. Both the process and the laws may change, and I might also be mistaken in describing some of the details, since I submitted documents for residency over a year and a half ago. I’m writing this post to give people a fairly realistic idea of what it takes to immigrate to Russia.)

America and the rest of the western world seem to be going to hell in a hand basket, and you’d love to do something about it. Unfortunately, because you probably have (relatively speaking) zero influence on the hearts and minds of nations, and next to no power economically, politically or militarily, there is really nothing you can do about the Occident’s highly disagreeable trajectory. Realising this state of affairs should lead you to two broad avenues of future thought and action: remaining in place and adapting as circumstances dictate, or leaving and relocating to places far, far away. One of these often-mentioned far-off places is Russia, and, as a Canadian who has immigrated to Russia and currently lives in St. Petersburg, I would like to shed some light on the main challenges you’ll face, should you decide to join me: finding employment, learning the language and adapting to the culture, and dealing with the bureaucratic process of obtaining residency.

Unlike Europe’s approach to welcoming Arabic and African immigrants, Russia demands that foreigners planning to stay in the country for long periods of time have work visas and proven sources of taxable income. What that means for you is that you need to find a Russian employer or business partners who are willing to support you with a work visa. In practice, this is not so easy, since the Russian system is set up to protect Russian workers, and there are quotas on work visas, especially for positions that could be filled by Russians. Also, your Russian employer will have to make a substantial effort to get you into the country, since they will have to interface with Russia’s bureaucratic migration offices, wait for hours in queues, fill in application forms on your behalf, etc. Your employer really has to need you to be in the country for the whole process to work, which brings up another point: why you? You, as a westerner, probably don’t know Russian (a real disadvantage in all contexts, since only a small minority of Russians speak English fluently), and for all job positions you’re in competition with Russian people, who are at least as capable and educated as you are. So, what advantage are you bringing to Russia? In my context, I found work teaching English, which is in decent economic demand. But, if you follow in my footsteps, be prepared that your labour will be exploited for years with little profit to you, and you might not like teaching work, or even get hired in the first place (depending on your personal character or qualifications).

Let’s be optimistic and say that, glory to God, you found something you can do in Russia, obtained a work visa (not a big challenge, once you get a letter of invitation from your future employer, but the process takes a few months), flew over here, and have the basics of life and work satisfactorily settled out. Your next challenge, and it’s a difficult and lengthy one, is learning the Russian language and adapting to Russian culture and mentality. Russian is an incredibly complex language to learn, several orders of magnitude more so than Spanish, French, or German. You’ll also have to learn it in your own time- you have full time work during the day, presumably using the English language, and you have to make time on your own for Russian. The Russian language has three genders of nouns, six different cases (that modify the endings of nouns and adjectives, depending on how and with which verbs they’re used in sentences), perfective and imperfective forms of verbs, reflexives, as well as different pronunciation and sentence structure, compared to English. Looking at Russian, you might be intimidated by the Cyrillic alphabet, but that’s actually the least of your worries, since many letters are analogous to the Latin alphabet and the others are just a matter of memorisation. People generally say that I’m good with languages (although I do not consider myself excellent in this sphere), and in my first year I was completely lost with Russian- nothing was understandable around me. After one year I could hold a very simple conversation about easy topics. After two years, I could converse fluently, although with simple vocabulary and many grammatical mistakes. At this point in time I started to work with a tutor, and after three years I had something around an intermediate level in Russian. Four years into my stay and I was most of the way through War and Peace, with an upper-intermediate level. Now my level is approaching advanced (which is what’s required for professional work positions here), although some days are better or worse. With consistent study and practice, I’d expect most people to be able to follow a similar line of progress.

You might be asking, «Why would I need the Russian language in the first place, if I already have a work position in Russia?». Well, without Russian, you’re tied to the benevolence and support of your employer, you won’t be able to deal with immigration procedures on your own, and you also won’t be able to interface with Russian society. Russia’s greatest asset and gift to the rest of the world is its people and culture, both past and present, and to be able to read and converse with people here is key to personal and professional growth. Learning the language will also go a long way in helping you to understand differences in mentality, between Russians and the residents of your home country. In my own experience, comparing Russians and Canadians, Russians are more curious (they ask «why?» and «for what?» very often), are very direct in expressing their thoughts (somewhat like my Irish grandmother), and have different standards of behaviour, especially between men and women (analogous to 1950’s North America). The differences go much deeper than that though, and to really get to the roots of them you’d have to come to terms with Plato and Aristotle, Greek and Latin Christianity, and more than two thousand years of history and civilisational influences.

So, assuming you’ve made it so far- you’ve got work here, you’ve learned Russian to working proficiency, and you’ve got friends (maybe you’ve even started a family!) in Russia. The next step is getting residency. No, it’s not so simple as just marry a Russian and get citizenship! Marriage will get you around the quota restriction for temporary residency, but that’s it. Getting temporary residency is a bureaucratic nightmare. First, you need to spend three years living in Russia on work visas, before you can even apply. Then, the application form itself is long and detailed, and you need to provide details about your work, finances, and family. You’ll need to get a criminal record check done in your home country, which will then have to be stamped by the Russian Embassy in your country, and then it will all have to be translated by a certified translator and notarised in Russia. You’ll also need to pass a knowledge test, about the Russian language (relatively easy) and about Russia’s history (moderately difficult) and political and legal system (hard). Some of the documents that you need as part of your application are also time-sensitive and expire after a couple of months, adding another layer of complexity to the process.

Once you’ve collected all the documents, you need to go to the regional migration center, sign up as part of a very long queue of prospective immigrants (many of whom are from central Asian or Caucasian countries, or from Ukraine), maintain your place in the queue for as much as two days, then go yet again to the migration center at 5am, wait in the queue until they open, get a ticket as part of an electronic queue, wait another several hours for your turn, then go to a window where an unpleasant woman is waiting to look at your documents. She will look them through, tell you what’s not correct (I hope you know Russian or have a good friend with you at this point- she won’t tell you more than once), and you will go away disappointed. You’ll then spend a week or more fixing things in your application form or documents, so that everything is just perfect. You’ll wake up early, return again, wait in queues, and if you’ve done everything right your documents will be accepted. Then, you have to wait for six months, and hopefully then you’ll get a new visa and residency stamp in your passport, which lets you stay in Russia without a work visa. Following your success with bureaucracy, you’ll have to find out where you can be registered- everyone needs to have a stamp in their passport with registration at a certain house or apartment. This requires the help of a friend, and another trip to yet another migration services office.

That whole bureaucratic process is important because it gives you tangible freedom- you are no longer tied to an employer, you can switch jobs or start your own business as you like. One very nice fact about living in Russia is the low cost of living, compared with western countries. Here, it’s realistic to work hard and save up money for five years or so, then buy an apartment with little or no help from the banks. I can’t say that coming to Russia is going to make you successful and rich, or that your life will be easier here with fewer problems than in your home country, but by coming here, learning Russian, and dealing with immigration procedures, a whole new world will open up for you. What becomes of you in that new world all depends on your own character, curiosity, drive and imagination.

Kind regards,

Nick Byrne


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