From Russia, with love
PHUKET: While tour companies and hotels – and the Tourism Authority of Thailand in particular – drool over the huge numbers of Russian tourists pouring into Phuket, a less remarked-on but nevertheless significant change has been taking place on the island: the growth of the Russian expat community.
Thursday 15 March 2012, 12:06PM
Fact: Phuket’s Russian community now has its own church, the Holy Trinity Church in Thalang, built with funds raised in the Russian community.
Fact: Of the 92 yachts in last year’s Phuket King’s Cup Regatta, 12 were crewed by Russians. They scored third place in two of the regatta classes.
Fact: There are Russian volleyball and football teams on the island; in the Andaman Soccer Sevens the Russians made it into the semis. The tournament was covered by Phuket Russian TV and in Russia magazine, one of three Russian-language magazines published on the island.
Fact: Apart from the bulk tour companies such as Pegas and Coral Tour, whose buses can be seen every day, there are local niche companies run by Russians such as Valeriy Joy Dive, which does boat trips for Russians. There are Russian property and hotel developers, and Russian restaurateurs.
Fact: The Russians are here to stay.
Their outlook on life, their social interactions with others, their ways of doing business – all of these promise to change expatriate dynamics on the island.
At present the Russian community is still comparitively small. As with other foreign communities, pinning down the exact number is impossible.
Phuket Immigration were unable to tell The Phuket News on the phone how many Russians are in Phuket on non-immigrant visas, and the consular section of the Russian Embassy in Bangkok said, “We have no idea. If they do not notify us, we don’t know they exist.”
Estimates by expat Russians themselves put the number between 1,000 and 5,000, depending on the time of year; as with other expat groups on the island some are here year-round while others are snowbirds, flying in for the sun when the snow begins to fall in Moscow or Vladivostok.
Raisa Sheludkina arrived in Phuket six years ago as a tourist. “My plan was to take a long holiday from stress,” she says. “Here I am comfortable, warm, there is the ocean, it is safe and there is a good infrastructure.” She decided to stay.
In Russia she had a successful wholesale business selling textiles imported from Europe, China and the United Arab Emirates. She sold it and put it into a property agency, Railand, which has offices just outside Laguna Phuket. Since 2009, she says, her business has grown 20 per cent.
Other expat groups on the island are not all overjoyed that the Russians are here. There is dark talk of “the Russian Mafia spreading from Pattaya”, and grumbles that Russians are unsmiling, stand-offish, abrupt and loud.
Raisa – who is herself very soft-spoken, with a delightful smile – puts some of this image down to the language gap. “Russians stick together because of the language,” she says. Most Russians speak only Russian.
In addition, Russians – like the Chinese – speak loudly because that is their culture, she adds, remarking that if you smile at strangers in Russia you are likely to be regarded as a soft in the head.
Phuket-based photography partners Kim Khamzin, originally from Irkutsk, and his wife Elena, also a from Vladivostok, expand on this.
“Guys look aggressive because of the social environment in Russia,” Elena explains. “It’s actually in their blood to be friendly. They remind me of people who are scared. They don’t speak the language, so they [make themselves] look scary. But in fact they are looking for someone to help them.”
The social and business environments in Russia are tough, she says. “If you want to do business in Russia it’s impossible to avoid dealing with bad guys. Russia is very corrupt and bribes are an everyday part of business.”
It can get out of hand, she adds. She knew one businessman who said the [official] bribes he was required to pay totalled 113 per cent of turnover. The only way to get around that is to get help – and that usually means getting in with bad guys.
But Russians have other very effective tools that equip them for business – tools that are already helping them to make inroads in Phuket.
Elena explains, “Russians are five times more entrepreneurial than Western Europeans. They are very hard-working and they do their research. They are hungry for knowledge and they pick up on everything very fast.”
She points to the Russian influence over the past 100 years in the US where, she says, Russians went into crumbling urban societies that everyone else avoided. “”Every city in the US I’ve been to, the Russians have improved it.”
Are there Russian “mafiosi” in Phuket? Kim estimates the number of “bad guys” at one in 1,000, but he warns that Russian business people, brought up in a hard environment, with little respect for the laws, “push a lot harder”.
Elena adds, “Phuket is particularly good for business for Russians. Russia is very corrupt and they are used to this. It’s easier for them to understand [corruption here] and more acceptable to them.”
She adds, “They are very hard-working and if you use them in the right way Phuket will benefit. They love Thailand and they understand the Thai [business] environment really well.
Kim think that the Thai authorities need to pay more attention to the Russian business dynamic on Phuket. Only 10 per cent or so speak English, he says, so the official Thai attitude seems to be that they don’t exist.
But they do, and they are here to stay. “The Thai authorities will probably have to push them harder to respect the law,” Kim says. But not too hard – “If you push them away, it will be them against the rest.”
A more glowing view of Thailand comes from Evgeny Parfenov, 32, who grew up in Nakhodka in the Russian Far East. Here he manages Russia magazine and Russian Phuket TV on cable.
He is the founder of Russia Market Central, a company that has five Russian magazines and four cable channels, aimed, he says, at helping Russian business cooperate with international business.
He launched his first magazine in his home town, about Japanese imported cars which flowed through the city when Russia opened up, and later spent five years in China working in logistics.
“China’s a great country,” he says with a broad smile. “I loved it.” But for him Thailand was a revelation of a totally different nature. “My wife and I were divorced in China but Thailand has brought us back together.
“This country has made me better, I don’t know how. Now I am free of all that stuff that stopped me concentrating. Here, there is openness; you are who you are. Everybody is very straight.”
And he is sure of one thing: “In Russia everything is frozen and difficult to move. I have opportunities all over Asia. I will never do business in Russia again.”
– Alasdair Forbes