Elizabeth Bagot enjoys a warm summer night in Red Square.

Elizabeth Bagot: From Intern to Professional in Russia

Published: August 30, 2012

Elizabeth Bagot holds a BA from Stanford University in International Relations with a minor in Russian Studies. After graduation, she enrolled for a full year of Russian as a Second Language through SRAS to improve her language skills. She also served an NGO internship and business internship while abroad – which helped lead her to become a professional editor and translator in Moscow, Russia.  

The School of Russian and Asian Studies: You are currently based in Moscow, working as a translator for Interfax, one of Russia’s largest news agencies. Can you talk a little about what exactly you do for them and what professional challenges your work poses to you? Also, how did you find out about this job and was it difficult to land?

Elizabeth Bagot: I started out at Interfax as an English language editor, a job I landed through a connection, as is almost always the case in Moscow. I was later invited to test for a translator position that had been vacated within the same company. I never planned on being a translator, but the opportunity presented itself, and I passed the test and was accepted (lured in, of course, by higher pay and the excellent opportunity to further improve my Russian). I’ve been a translator for Interfax’s business and financial newswire, focusing mainly on the Russian oil and gas sector, since October 2011.

Professionally, the most challenging aspect of my job is using the Russian language. I come across new Russian words and phrases everyday that I actively try to incorporate into my own vocabulary. Not only is this a challenge, it is a pleasure. My main goal in moving to Russia was to become fluent in the language. Nothing has helped me on the path to this goal more than my translating job.

That said, it can be stressful to translate at a news agency because it requires speed and accuracy. Major market movers and shakers pay close attention to what the media says about them, and Interfax can and will be called up if there is an error. On more than one occasion, I have been phoned by the boss to tell me I slipped up on an important Gazprom-related story. It’s a serious no-no to mess with Gazprom.

Elizabeth Bagot takes a brief respite at the Interfax office, where she translates for the business and financial newswire.

Getting a job in Moscow requires not just basic marketable skills, but connections. When you come to Russia, it’s time to throw away that fundamental American notion of merit-based job acquisition. In Russia, it’s networking, networking, networking. I was fortunate enough to land my Interfax job through a connection at my former internship at the American Chamber of Commerce, which I in turn landed through a connection I made at SRAS’s semester-ly Living and Working in Russia Seminar, which places students around a dinner table with several professionals who have already made a career in Russia. Jobs aren’t hard to find in Russia – you just have to put yourself out there. It’s like setting a fishing line – you just have to watch it closely and wait for the right fish to catch.

SRAS: You graduated with honors from Stanford with a degree in International Relations and a minor in Russian Studies. Did you always think that you wanted to work abroad?

EB: When I was in college, I never really entertained the notion of working abroad after graduation, except in the context of working as a diplomat. Even though I spent 9 months abroad (6 in Chile and 3 in Russia) during my junior year and majored in international relations, my sights were never set on foreign employment per se. Instead, I dreamed of a US government job as a Russia specialist – working in Washington on Capitol Hill.

In order to attain that goal, I relocated to Russia immediately after graduation to improve my Russian skills, with the intention of moving back to the U.S. after 9 months to get my master’s degree in Russian Area Studies and then seek employment. However, my plans changed dramatically once I got to Moscow. I had a chance meeting with one of my favorite professors, who, together with his wife, is a specialist in Russian history. Both my professor and his wife advised me to forego a master’s degree in Russian Area Studies and instead garner real-life experience in Russia by finding a job for a couple of years, then moving back to the US for employment. That was almost two years ago, and I’ve been in Russia ever since.

SRAS: You studied with SRAS for a full year after your graduation. First, how did you find out about SRAS? Why did you choose us and why did you choose specifically your program in Moscow (as opposed to Irkutsk, St. Petersburg, or any of our other locations)?

Elizabeth Bagot poses next to a traditional Kazakh yurt (collapsible living space) in Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan.

EB: I found out about SRAS through a website recommended to me by the same professor who told me I should stay and work in Russia. Upon requesting advice from him on how to go about relocating to Russia, he provided me with a database of study abroad programs. I did lots and lots of research – I was specifically looking for an opportunity to study Russian and intern at the same time, to build my resume. I came across SRAS, and it seemed like the perfect fit.

I almost chose the St. Petersburg program, since I had already studied abroad in Moscow and wanted to experience something new. I was set on living somewhere exciting and busy – a stark contrast to my tiny hometown in Kansas. I also wanted to be somewhere with lots of internship opportunities. I finally settled on Moscow on the recommendation of another professor, who encouraged me to live there since she could connect me with her family members and friends in case of emergency. I don’t regret it because I love Moscow, but I am certain that my Russian would have improved far more quickly and dramatically if I had chosen to live somewhere less international, like Irkutsk. For those interested in improving their Russian as fast as possible, I strongly encourage going somewhere more remote, where you can’t fall back on English.

SRAS: Second, you also served two internships during your year abroad: one with Human Rights Watch and the other with the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, two very different experiences, I’m sure. Can you discuss a bit about what you did for each and what you learned from each?

EB: SRAS’ unique program offers the opportunity to do both an internship and study Russian, so I decided to try my hand at Human Rights Watch, due to my potential interest in NGO work. It was extremely interesting, although far different from what I expected. It seems they didn’t really need me around the office that much – I was mostly there for my own benefit, instead of theirs. Most of my time was spent updating their contact database through Google Mail, which ended up being extremely technical work that I was unfit for. However, I managed to figure it out, and I learned a whole lot about domain names and the like. I also had access to the organization’s human rights reports, which covered a lot of very interesting topics, like abuse in the Russian army, drug use, illegal immigration, etc. They let me take home reports and read them for my own personal enrichment, which was great. Overall, the internship was a bit disappointing because the office is very small, and as an intern, you can’t do much of importance. However, the people there are very interesting, and I have great respect for them – they are targeted a lot by the authorities and are very brave to do what they are doing.

I secured my second internship at the American Chamber of Commerce through the connection I made at SRAS’s networking dinner, mentioned previously. That, in my mind, was the event that determined my trajectory here in Russia. I worked at AmCham full time in a paid position for more than half a year, mostly helping out the Communications Director with AmCham’s monthly journal. I edited, called companies to ask for information, proofread the annual directory, and worked directly with the publisher to put out the magazine. I learned a whole lot about the publishing process at that job, and the editing skills I honed there have served me well in my subsequent work.

Elizabeth Bagot poses with Mickey Mouse at the annual Fourth of July celebration hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. Elizabeth interned as an editor for AmCham for six months.

SRAS: You also served a “mini-internship” with SRAS, helping us to update resources and contributing new articles to the site. What was your motivation for volunteering for this and what do you think you learned from the experience?

EB: I was very impressed with SRAS’s organization and its staff. All throughout the process leading up to my move to Russia, Renee Stillings and Josh Wilson were of immense help to me. Moving to Russia isn’t like moving to Chile, for example – it’s a lot scarier and more bureaucratic. After all the help Josh and Renee gave me, I wanted to give back to SRAS. When Josh gave me the opportunity to help organize and clean up the website, I decided to take it. After all, it involved reading a lot of interesting material and using my editing skills. Between my Human Rights Watch internship and intensive Russian language course, my mini-SRAS internship kept me very busy. It taught me time management and provided me with a lot of structure. It also taught me how to freelance, which I’ve been doing ever since I moved here.

SRAS: What’s the most challenging thing about living abroad? How have you adapted to life in Moscow?

EB: Cliché as it may sound, the hardest thing about living abroad is adjusting to the limitations of your language skills. During my first few weeks here, I could not do even the most basic things, like buy bread at the store or put money on my phone. I was far too scared that the store clerk would ask me a question and I wouldn’t be able to answer. I didn’t do laundry for weeks, because I was too scared to talk to the laundry lady at the university in Russian. It’s very difficult to overcome your fear of looking stupid. I got over it after about six weeks, though, and started saying what I needed to say using the words I did know. It gets better. I promise.

As Dostoevsky said, “man is a creature that can get used to anything.” This is true for me and my adaptation to life in Moscow. It took me a good, long while, but I finally did it. Even after almost two years, though, I still have my moments. I continue learning Russian to this day, because this is not a language to be mastered in a year. It’s not Spanish. Life in Moscow is trial by fire, and if you can adapt to this, you can adapt to anything.

SRAS: In addition to working for Interfax, you mentioned working freelance as a translator and editor. How do you find new clients as a freelancer in Moscow? Do you prefer your freelancing work or office job more?

Elizabeth Bagot and friends sit on the wooden bench on which Leo Tolstoy allegedly sat and pondered his great masterpieces in the woods of Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy owned a home in the area and is buried there.

EB: The number one piece of advice I have for someone interested in freelance work is to publicize yourself, preferably on expat.ru or redtape.ru or, even better, both. When I first started looking for work, I followed the advice of other experienced expats and posted my resume on headhunter.ru, as well as a little blurb about myself and my skills on both expat.ru and redtape.ru. Both websites have a special section for people looking for jobs. I was not immediately contacted; in fact, it took a couple months before I had any hits. But I got several opportunities out of it – I had an interview with a major investment bank for an office job, I was asked to be someone’s nanny, I was hit up for English lessons, and I was contacted to freelance for a small translation company. I have been freelance editing for them for almost a year now. The pay is definitely not enough to sustain myself – it’s just additional income, maybe $200 a month. But it adds up.

Although I do enjoy freelance work, I much prefer my office job. I need to feel a part of society and to have a set schedule. Freelance work can be done anytime, anywhere – it’s much more flexible, and it’s easy to squeeze it into my after-hours. I wouldn’t want to give either my office job or my freelance job up, though. They complement each other very well – one provides stability and career growth, while the other provides extra income, flexible hours, and sometimes some interesting reading material. And it always feels good to go pick up a couple hundred dollars in cash each month for the editing I’ve done.

SRAS: What advice would you have for any students looking to build a career in Russia?

EB: Russia is not like other countries. While the people may look like Americans or Europeans, they are not. You will have culture shock, and you may experience difficulty in adjusting. I certainly did. My first several weeks were awful – all I wanted was to go home. I cried myself to sleep every night and was afraid to talk to anyone out of embarrassment for my poor Russian. But I stuck it out, made it through, and am so glad I didn’t cave in to my weakness. Living in Russia, you will have some experiences you never thought possible; in fact, it is highly likely that weird and inexplicable things will happen to you everyday. But believe it or not, that will eventually become normal for you. My advice is that you mentally prepare yourself for the rollercoaster ride you are about to experience. Ask yourself these questions: can you handle loneliness? Culture shock? Being unable to understand what’s going on around you? If you think you’re ready, I highly encourage you to take the plunge. You won’t regret it.

Elizabeth Bagot takes advantage of the cold Russian winter months to ice skate at Gorky Park, which hosts a major Maslennitsa celebration (the equivalent of Mardi Gras) in March.

When looking for a job here, don’t panic. One very valuable lesson I have learned in Russia is that even when things seem impossible, they always, always, end up falling into place. Be patient, but be alert for opportunities. Be a go-getter, but don’t push things too hard. Put your resume out there on headhunter.ru, research companies you’re interested in, meet new people and make connections. Things happen organically here. You will end up getting job offers through connections you never thought would be of use to you. If you don’t want to be an English teacher, don’t be one – I never wanted to, and I never was.

That said, don’t be hasty and expect that you can compete with a regular Russian citizen on the Russian market. Look for opportunities where your skills are required. This may require that you start on the bottom rung of the job ladder, as an editor or teacher. But in Russia, climbing the corporate ladder is much easier. You can move vertically or horizontally – you can start out as an editor and end up the CEO, even if your skills don’t necessarily dictate that.

Don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself or do challenging things. It is highly likely that you will have interviews in Russian – go for it. Employers are always very impressed by native English speakers who make an attempt to speak Russian, even if it’s bad.

If you have career goals that don’t involve teaching, then don’t get into teaching. Many people come to Russia to work but are too afraid to look for jobs other than teaching, because it’s the easiest to get and doesn’t require Russian. These people often end up unable to speak Russian any better after three years than when they got here. Don’t settle. If you don’t like a job, quit it. And if you know you wouldn’t like a job, don’t take it. There will always be other opportunities.

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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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View all posts by: Josh Wilson