Virtual Communities

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Ignorance is never bliss in Russia and any foreigner hoping for a happy stay must be prepared to wage a grim battle with bureaucracy -- but a virtual community has formed to take up the challenge.

In April, a group of six expatriates decided that Russia needed a new web site to provide crucial and not-so-crucial information to old and newly arriving English-speaking foreigners in a corner-cutting manner. They founded Redtape.ru and embarked on the near-impossible task they call the Russia Made Easy project.

"The idea is not to foster the we-are-in-this-together spirit, but rather to provide a medium through which foreigners can enter the Russian society and get actively involved in it," said Nathan Stowell, a U.S. citizen and co-founder of the site.

"Isn't the name symbolic?" said Jennifer Howard, an American and a regular user. "It was first conceived to help foreigners get over the red tape quickly, to help overcome bureaucratic issues in Russia."


Moscow Expat Site / for MT
Polina Dzagourova, the director and editor of the Moscow Expat Site, or Expat.ru.
The new site lets visitors buy and sell everything from iPhones to apartments, post personal pictures and profiles, share information, date each other or simply catch up on the latest gossip.

"It's no exaggeration to say that Redtape.ru has changed my life," said Maria Skalkina, an avid forum user who doubles as a moderator for the site. "What makes it even more interesting is that the users are from different countries, backgrounds, walks of life and you're always learning something new."

To consummate itself, a virtual community must involve some real-time socializing, said Lee Bradley, a British citizen and co-owner of the site.

"I want people that come to our web site to feel like members of a community as well as be opportune to meet in a bar or restaurant and talk face to face in real life environment," Bradley said.

Redtape.ru is not the first social networking web site providing the expatriate community in Russia with a forum to look for apartments, hunt for jobs or fix pesky problems -- that honor belongs to the Moscow Expat Site, or Expat.ru, in operation since late 1999.

For years, The Moscow Expat Site enjoyed a pride of place as the only web site to cater for English-speaking expatriates and Russians by providing answers to nearly every imaginable conundrum.

With 8,000 registered members, it remains a popular port of call for expatriates in Russia, and potential expatriates contemplating a move to Moscow but needing a foot in the door.

The founder, Nicholas Pilugin, an American of Russian extraction, launched the site in 1999 as a sideline to his primary business as president of Wordsmiths Communications.

In 2003, just as Russia's economic boom was peaking, new owners at Expat.ru were spreading out the red carpet for new arrivals with a complete overhaul of the site to give it "a well thought-out design and navigation concept," said Polina Dzagourova, the current director and editor.

Dzagourova maintains that the overhauled site remains popular, with registered members regularly using the forums, listings, news updates, partner services, member discounts, competitions, raffles and other regular features.


Redtape.ru / for MT
Len Readle is one of the six expatriate co-founders of the web site Redtape.ru.
"We trawl the best of forthcoming events for the arts calendar and culture picks, with handy background on the events we list," Dzagourova said.

She has also hired "a team of hard-hitting reviewers writing up concert and restaurant reviews from an expat perspective."

The facelift also included such additions as real estate classifieds, an overhauled survival guide link, children section and news links in collaboration with The Moscow Times.

Expat.ru's style editor, Neil McGowan, said he considered the arrival of a new site a welcome development.

"One site couldn't possibly cater to all needs, services, priorities or points of view," he said. "The idea of foreigners 'on the outside looking in' is really long gone. Our rationale is to integrate and not isolate foreigners."

It is an optimism shared by rival Redtape.ru's Bradley. "Competition from other similar web sites is good, it keeps us on our toes," he said.

Even for untrained eyes, Redtape.ru's looks and design bear a striking resemblance to those of Expat.ru, but its owners said they had not reinvented the bicycle.

Its popular appeal, they said, hinges on the management style and the fact that it is a site run by expatriates for expatriates.

"Being wholly run by expatriates makes newcomers feel that they are dealing with foreigners that have decades of experience living in Russia and could provide invaluable insights and solutions to their everyday problems," Bradley said.

"Our members are allowed to dictate, to a degree, where they would like to see the site going while the administrators try to implement those ideas as best they could and with dispatch."

The strategy appeared to have caught on.

Redtape.ru was recently ranked 274,000 among other web sites by number of visitors. Its geographic spread is impressive, however, with 41.7 percent of its users from Russia, 25 percent from the Philippines and 16.7 percent from India, according to Alexa Internet ranking.

By comparison, Expat.ru, which ranked 143,949 by traffic, has 63 percent of its users from Russia, but just 8 percent from the Philippines, from where many flock to Russia in search of jobs.

For Jennifer Amos, who is researching Soviet History for her PhD thesis, Redtape.ru is a thoroughfare of sorts to the Soviet archive and, by extension, to the deep recesses of the Russian soul.

"However long you've been here, there are just some nuances you can't grasp, some conundrums you'll need a Russian to resolve," she said. "Post your worries on the forum, and solutions come flying back."