Icelanders in Moscow - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Icelanders in Moscow

Icelanders in Moscow

Published October 1, 2014

Life is far from grim in the Russian capital

Photos by
Sebastian Stephenson

Life is far from grim in the Russian capital

As a British-Icelander working in Moscow from autumn 2013 to early spring this year, I was welcomed into the Icelandic community—which comprises around ten people—with arms wide open. These days Russia is rarely out of the news, and whether that’s for the ongoing crisis in Ukraine or the recent embargo on most of Europe (bar Iceland), the headlines are hardly ever good. As Russia’s reputation goes from bad to worse, I decided to find out just how Icelanders are getting on in the harsh but fascinating capital.

“Almost everything I’d heard about Russia before I went was negative,” says Tinna Þórarinsdóttir, who works at the Icelandic Embassy in Moscow. “However, my opinion changed soon after I arrived—the city is really beautiful, full of interesting places and loads of good restaurants. I straight away felt very safe, which was something that I didn’t expect.”

Tinna settled in to life in Moscow so well that when she fell pregnant, she decided to give birth there rather than back in Iceland. “Soon after my partner and I came to Moscow, we realised that there was nothing to stop us having a family,” she says. “The health care was fantastic throughout the pregnancy.” Without knowledge of at least the Cyrillic alphabet, getting around Moscow is nigh on impossible, so hats off to Tinna for managing to give birth there. Indeed, competent English speakers are few and far between and English-language signposts are only found in the very centre of the city.

Stop the negative presses

In the Western press, there seems to be very little good to be said for Russia. Moscow recently came last in travel website TripAdvisor’s annual Cities Survey, earning the title of “worst city in the world for tourists.” Yes, the place is horrifically overpriced, and of course there’s the immense language barrier to overcome. However, such a low ranking seems surprising given that Moscow is a city steeped in culture. “For a history nerd like me, there is history with every step you take,” says Hreinn Pálsson, the deputy chief of mission at the Embassy.

Likewise, Steingrímur Árnason, the deputy general manager and chief product officer of Russia’s largest private online media company, Rambler & Co. has come to love the architecture in the city: “It’s a real treat to visit the Moscow metro, where every station has a different concept.”

Muscovite Natasha Stolyarova, who has been studying in Reykjavík for two years, is not such a fan: “Because of the sheer size of Moscow, you waste so much time travelling around on public transport. Moscow is also very crowded, so you rarely get to have any time to yourself. In Reykjavík everything is calm and friendly. You don’t have to rush, you don’t get stressed out and you have a lot more time.” Coming from a nation of 320,000, it’s a wonder the Icelanders I spoke to have not felt more overwhelmed in a city of 11 million.

Finding some common ground

No one moves to Moscow expecting day-to-day life to be easy. Even though it is by far the most Westernized city in Russia, there is still a whole other culture with which to contend. Well-mannered Brits in particular seem to clash with the Russian etiquette, which involves a complete inability to queue and a total disregard for politeness. Russians have earned a reputation for never smiling, perhaps unfairly so. “It’s not that they lack joy or humour,” Steingrímur explains. “Most likely the suffering of the people historically has made them take life seriously with their feet on the ground. Russian humour is quite good actually and not dissimilar to Icelanders’—slightly sarcastic and brutal, with a dash of storytelling.”

Icelanders are perhaps better prepared than most for life in Russia. For one thing, they are already used to dealing with less than favourable weather conditions. As Hreinn notes: “Life in Moscow is not unlike life in Iceland—the seasons and climate have a big influence on the well-being of the population. Both nations are formed by harsh natural forces and have had to adapt to them.”

When I look back on my time in Moscow, the receptions at the Ambassador’s residence stand out as a real highlight of my time there. For one evening every now and again, I was able to eat my fill of succulent Icelandic lamb, which tasted all the more delicious after weeks of surviving on legumes as the only affordable and non-questionable source of protein. After such events, I would reluctantly trek back to a fairly bleak northern suburb and return to my reality in a crumbling, albeit charming Soviet flat. I would think to myself: the Icelanders in Moscow, often against their expectations, really do have it pretty good.

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