Going Back East

When Serafima Iofina's parents decided to emigrate from Russia in the 1990s, they didn't imagine their daughter ever going back. But Iofina, who was 16 when her family moved to the United States on refugee status, is now seeing more opportunities back in Moscow. So she jumped at the chance when her employer, an international consulting firm, decided to start a new project in the Russian capital.

"Work was becoming routine in the U.S.," said Iofina, who now divides her time between New York and Moscow. Some of her colleagues, she says, were laid off or offered to relocate to more dynamic markets, and, as a fluent Russian speaker with international work experience, Iofina was the perfect candidate for the job.

Job cuts in the U.S. financial sector hit a new high last month, totaling 66,031 for the year to date, according to Challenger, Grey and Christmas, a Chicago-based employment consulting firm. As the economy slows down and Wall Street dwellers tighten their belts, many Russians in the United States are returning to Moscow, where the job market is hungry for professionals with international experience.

"Russian-Americans are like canaries in the coal mine," said James Brooke, Director of External Affairs at Jones Lang Lasalle, "they are the first to see that Russia is taking off." Brooke has already made two trips to New York to interview Russian-Americans for positions in the higher-income bracket, taking advantage of the U.S. real estate meltdown. "If you are a commercial real estate specialist in New York City, you might be losing your job right now," he added.

To Ekaterina Korolkevich, Moscow was the perfect place to speed up her career without American workaholism. "It's possible to combine a rewarding career with personal life here, while in the U.S. one frequently has to be sacrificed for the other," she said in a phone interview as she navigated through central Moscow in her car. Korolkevich, a Senior VP in an investment company, came to Moscow in 2006 after eight years in the United States "Here, I travel more often, because Europe is close enough for a weekend trip," she said.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
While many Wall Street types are out of a job, Russian trading firms are looking for employees with international experience.

Nostalgic feelings for their former homeland don't seem to be the priority for most career-conscious Russians who leave their American offices to work in Moscow. To them, the move is a result of various push-pull factors, such as Moscow's lively atmosphere and the high level of competition in the U.S. financial industry that make climbing the corporate ladder far harder.

"It's an even bigger challenge to foreigners, who lack experience in the U.S. corporate world, personal connections and adequate career advice to help them to avoid unnecessary mistakes along the career path," said Korolkevich. Meanwhile, in Moscow, the business atmosphere, though far from perfect, is becoming more civilized, as international firms move in.

"There is always interest among foreigners for positions salaried $10,000 [per month] and above, but the No. 1 barrier for prospectives is the Russian language," said Elena Sidorenko of Staffwell, a recruitment company in Moscow. "By hiring Western professionals of Russian origin, employers kill two birds with one stone," she said. There have been almost no job cuts in Moscow's banking sector, and new fields like private equity and private banking have been creating new positions here in the past couple of years, she added.

Even for people with the best jobs, however, Moscow has its challenges. Traffic, pollution and lower standards of service taint even the highest salaries. "It's harder to organize your life here," said Korolkevich, who got so used to American shops bagging her purchases that she buys her groceries at highly expensive Azbuka Vkusa and Globus Gurme -- the only chains that provide the service locally. "Even in a small corner store in Harlem, they would put your groceries in a bag," she said, recalling an episode in which she bought $300 dollars worth of food at the upscale Yeliseyevsky store and asked employees to help her bag it. They refused, appalled.

"Getting through winter was hard," said Krasnodar native Maria Shevtsova, who spent eight years in the United States before she thought the moment was ripe to return to Russia. She has been working in a Moscow bank since last September.

"Few people, Russian or not, want to stay in Moscow forever," said Sidorenko of Staffwell, "We all want to grow old somewhere on Bali with the ocean in front of us and an orange grove behind us," she added.

"New York still feels more like home to me," said Korolkevich. "I was euphoric when I came to Moscow, but the longer I stay here the more I appreciate the quality of life that I took for granted in America."