Tsars in your eyes: Life as an intern in Russia

When Tom Beardsworth decided he wanted to do an internship, he decided to cast his net a little bit wider than rainy old London

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The Independent Online

I’m on my way to the Moscow Cats Theatre. With a freshly minted Moscow News ID in hand, I’ve been sent to review an afternoon performance of the show as well as interview its lead performers.

Outside Kievskaya station the pavement, greased by the thin ice of the long Russian winter, is perilously slippery - especially in a pair of Loafers. So I slip, slamming the side of my head against the subway wall. It busts my ear open. The cut is quite minor but the bleeding is profuse. Bugger.

I’m trying to blot the bleeding with scraps of newspaper. But I’m already late for the theatre. So through the snow I trudge, fully conscious that I look like something out of 28 Days Later. It’s cold, -10 C, and I’m walking wounded to see a cat circus – something that my editor assures me will 'leave you smelling of cat piss for days'.

“Welcome to Moscow!” says Dmitri Kuklachev, the theatre’s chief clown, in the entranceway. “Quite,” is the response I mumble, in English.

Interning in a foreign country has the obvious perk of, well, being in a foreign country: new tastes, new sights and new people abound. For me that means Georgian cuisine (gorgeous), Red Square (daunting and charmless) and Yuri, my roommate, who spends so much time in the hostel that I’m convinced he’s trying to evade capture by the authorities.

It’s of course exhilarating for linguists, especially Russian ones. The average Russian doesn’t speak your language any better than you speak theirs. There’s no safety net - therefore you really have to learn it.

One of the first phone calls I made whilst at The Moscow News was to a director of a well-known human rights organization. We started in Russian but when the conversation started becoming clumsy I asked if we could switch to English. He didn’t know any, and was quite miffed at the casual expectation that he would. It’s a reminder that the English language isn’t quite as global as we might think.

In any case, I’m not even an undergradaute linguist, having briefly flirted with studying Russian beyond A-level, before opting for the more lenient choice of PPE. Unfortunately the core skill cultivated by PPE (to eloquently spew bull) is not easily transferable to language-learning.

Another blessing of interning here is that for a lot of companies, the working day starts mid-morning and finishes early in the evening, rather than the 9am start that’s undoubtedly a killer for most undergraduates. That’s especially true of media companies, who start and finish later in order to match the working day closer to the European one in other time zones.

The internship culture in Russia is not well established. Most university students in Russia opt for courses whose material is spread out over five years, affording them the time to hold down paying jobs over several months and years. These are not considered internships though, in the sense of being thrown into a new environment in order to learn about it.

Aside from Western-orientated firms, most organizations may be rather flummoxed when you ask to join them for a few weeks over the holidays. But they will also be intrigued. The UK education system - through which many wealthy Russians push their kids - remains highly respected. If you can put together a strong pitch, and if you’re prepared to work expenses-only (a big if, admittedly), then you have every chance going for you.

I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a shot.

Tom Beardsworth is studying PPE at Brasenose College in Oxford. Follow him and his perilous Russian adventures on Twitter here.