The French community of Moscow
Journalism students from Brussels are wondering what it's like to live in Moscow when you speak French. They met French speakers to discover how they are integrated in the Russian society
We stayed in Moscow for only two weeks, but the cultural differences between our countries appeared to us at first sight. This isn't completely unusual, of course. Russia has its own way of life, and if it's not the opposite, is far away from what we are used to in France or in Belgium. We have highlighted some points that were pretty obvious to us. Habits, food, way of speaking, teaching, using the internet, learning from the media, behaviour, … While there are differences, we're not that different because our cultures have a lot in common. That's why it makes it so interesting. Our approach was this: we wanted to take a look at the habits of this country and to find out how expatriates from French speaking countries accustomed to its culture. Some of the people we met have been living in Russia for 7, 5 or 2 years. Let's see what those temporary Russians think about their hosting country…

Guilhem, blending in
Guilhem was reading a book at a table of "Le Pain Quotidien" when we met him. Guilem Fabre arrived in Moscow one year and a half ago and lives nearby. This Belgian café is his favorite place to work – and drink an espresso.

Guilhem is a pianist and used to study at the Conservatoire de Paris. A teacher of his was Russian and offered him in 2015 to pursue his mastering in classical piano at the Gnessin State Musical College. After arriving to the capital, he quickly decided to subscribe to the intensive lessons of Russian that the College provides. In few months he became able to have conversations with Muscovites in their mother tongue.

He took those lessons because relying on the French community of Moscow was not in his intentions. "I really wanted to learn the language," he says. "When I live abroad, it's important for me to understand the people I live with". That is exactly what permitted him to immerge so well into the Russian society. Most of his friends are Russian, even his girlfriend whom he has been dating for 1 year already.

"When I live abroad, it's important for me to understand the people I live with."
When asked if Guilhem had any French friends in Moscow, he answered that his roommate was from France as well but that it is about it. Most of the French people in Moscow are expatriates and stay together in a French-speaking atmosphere, which he does not like much. Even though he does not hang out a lot with his French peers, this "community" has helped him when he arrived in the city. He then joined the Facebook group "Alexandre, francophone de Russie". When he had trouble understanding the paperwork, strangers from this group helped him. Some of them even landed him money when he had to enroll to Gnessin.

Despite the stereotypes often conveyed about Russian people's coldness, Guilem enjoys living here. He appreciates their honesty and familiarity once you get to know them personally. "In Canada, for example, people are much more friendly at first. But it's way harder to really know them. Here in Russia, they won't smile at each other out of politeness but if they do it's because they mean it".
Confederating the French community
There are many possibilities to meet the French-speaking community in Moscow. One of them is "La table Moscovite" that takes place each Wednesday, an event where people discuss together in French and that usually occurs in a bar. The purpose here is more to learn the language of Molière by practicing it than to gather native speakers. On the website and the Facebook group "Alexandre, francophone de Russie", French people exchange tips, news and events. The website lists the good restaurants but also information on how to get a visa, health security, education… The French Institute is an establishment founded and funded by the French Ambassy in Russia to promote the language and the culture. They organize French classes, conferences and events throughout the year, both for natives and enthusiasts

Sébastien, Tsar of the French Community
We met Sébastien Iwanski at Jean-Jacques, a chain of French cafés in Russia. Appropriate choice to meet a French guy, right ? We ordered drinks and the conversation began… Sébastien has been living in Moscow for 7 years, with his Russian wife he met in France. When he first arrived in Moscow, he quickly found a job. And that's, for him, a big difference between his native country and his new one. "There are jobs in Russia, a lot more than in France. Russia's where the money is. They're actually helping people wanting to create business." After his first job, he worked for the "Courrier de Russie", a French newspaper in Russia, then for the Chamber of Commerce, and finally he decided to launch his own business.

Back in 2013, with pal François, they organized big parties in the city center, with mainly French people. The popularity of these parties grew so fast that they quickly realized that they needed to find a place to host them and a space to share with the french community. François's flat became too small and the morning-after cleaning, tiring. They decided to create a Facebook group and a website called "Alexandre, francophone de Russie", an alias with a universal name. "So, when we write an article on Alexandre, it's on his behalf. Especially when there's criticism, our names are kind of protected. " At their finest, Sébastien and François threw parties with more than 200 people, "French men and Russian women, mostly". Now, the Facebook group has more than 3300 members. It's used as a space to share events within the community, tips to facilitate your everyday life as an expat, places to eat, to visit.

Something is clearly coming out off Sébastien: his love for the nightlife. "Moscow is the best place to party and I've been partying a lot… If the weather were more clement, I'm sure that more people would come here. It's cheap and safe." Alexandre was also created for that, so his founders could share the good spots to spend an evening out. "People tend to think that the city is dangerous, but I've never seen any fight occur in a bar. Women are not afraid to wear light clothes when they go out. I like that feeling. Of course there are some heated areas in the city, but that's more in the suburb."

"There are jobs in Russia, a lot more than in France. Russia's where the money is."
Even with a Russian wife, Sébastien is more active in the French community, as he manages one. "At home, we talk in English with my wife. And we argue in French and Russian. I learned Russian, I'm not fluent but I can manage. Of course, I have Russian friends. Russians may seem colder, but their friendship is less superficial. You have to be patient to get it but once you do, it's a true one…"

Another thing we talked about was the cleanliness of the city and particularly of the metro stations, actual masterpieces. "No graffiti, no trash, the city-dwellers actually respects a lot Moscow." That, and the considerable presence of workers cleaning all the time. Everyone has a particular job among the metro employees. From the cleaner to the escalator watcher. The tiniest function has its meaning in this giant underground mechanic. People are also very fast and pushing when it comes to take the metro, even the babooshkas, the grandma's. "They're often running faster than you. That can be related to the Russian way of doing things. There is no shame in imposing yourself here. It can be in the metro, at the grocery store, in your job. Russians are not afraid to do that. During the Soviet time, the babooshkas had to rush to get food if they wanted to eat. You can still feel this. Russians were stuck for so many years, they are now going fast… In that way, it's also very different from what we know in France."

Two hours later, we have to leave Sébastien, a bit more conscious that our way of doing things is not the only one and is certainly not incompatible with others, once you dig a bit deeper than meets the eye
Manon, immigrate not expatriate
As a gymnast, I've always been fascinated with Russia. When I was 10-11 years old, I came here for a gymnastic tournament and I had the chance to meet all the best gymnasts at the time. Then, after I graduated from high school, I decided to spend a year in Russia and I've ended up in Vladivostok."

Manon Masset does not practice gymnastics anymore. For the last three years, she has been working as a journalist at "Le Courrier de Russie", a French-speaking newspaper based in Moscow. After her year abroad in Vladivostok, she also spent a 5 months-erasmus in Moscow, where she worked as an intern at the end of the master degree she was attending at IHECS, Belgium. Needless to say that her ties with Russia are very strong.

For anyone leaving the Western World for Moscow, the cultural acclimation can take a little time. But for Manon, who previously lived in Vladivostok, the shock was minor as Moscow is "almost European when you compare to Vladivostok" she says.

Living in Moscow helped Manon put in perspective all the clichés linked to the Russian society and the Russian people: "from Europe, Moscow has the image of a violent city. It's crazy because I've never felt as safe and secured as in Moscow. I can walk in the street at any hour, day or night, with or without clothes, and never feel endangered. It feels so different than in Brussels where every girl knows what it feels to be harassed in the street."

Thanks to her job as a journalist and to her knowledge of the Russian language that she had learned during her year in Vladivostok, she visited, she shared discussions and she learned about the Russian culture. It gave her the ability to temper the demonized vision that Europeans often share about Russia. "The thing is, when I speak to people in Belgium about Russia, they expect me to tell them how bad Russia is and how awful it is to live there. So when I tell them that their vision is a bit simple, they tend to tell me that I'm brainwashed. So now, I've decided just to avoid that kind of conversations."

About the Russian people, Manon makes an observation that appears to be shared by a lot of foreigners living in Russia: "Russians are a bit rough around the edges and don't smile much at first, but when you get to spend time with them and to earn their sympathy, they tend to become friends for life. Once they get to know you, they would do anything to help you, it's really impressive."

After all this time spent in Russia, there is still one thing that Manon cannot adapt to: "I miss our food so much. Before 2014, we had still access to French-Belgian food but the sanctions had quite an impact on the prices. Even cheese became a luxury product, and don't get me started with fruits and vegetables. In Europe, we live in so much abundance, we don't even know it.
That's why travelling is so important, it helps you realizing."
Meet our team
Five students in journalism from Brussels.

Alessandra Marchione
Journalism student at Ihecs.
Noé Boever
Journalism student at Ihecs.
Sarah Barbier
Journalism student at Ihecs.
Louis Van Ginneken
Journalism student at Ihecs.
Romane Heinen
Journalism student at Ihecs.
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