The History of the Irish in Moscow
Text by Phil Baillie
Photos by Liza Azarova
End of an Era
On the eve of July 3, 2009 a ballroom full of Irish expatriates and friends of Ireland gathered in secret for a surprise event dedicated to the outgoing Irish Ambassador Justin Harman, and his wife, Carmen Casey. The event marking the end the six-year long posting included a program of Irish dancing, music from writer and musician Tony Watkins, speeches and messages of appreciation from the Irish community. Similarly, it was a chance for those that gathered to celebrate the cultural and economic successes that the Irish have recently enjoyed in Moscow, while reviewing what it means to be Irish in Moscow. In an impromptu speech, the ambassador gave credit to every Irish person living in the city as each person carries a personal responsibility in representing Ireland in Russia, noting that although the Irish my have a small footprint, they have always left a deep impression.
Take, for example, one of the Irish pioneers to arrive in Moscow in the 1800s. John Field was considered to be a “Russian” Irishman as he was an influential figure that lived for a large part of his life in Moscow and his remains are buried under the Kremlin. The Dublin-born composer, accredited with the invention of the Nocturne, moved to Moscow in 1822 having lived in St. Petersburg for a number of years with the Italian composer Muzio Clementi. He earned a substantial income to sustain an extravagant lifestyle by performing in concerts for aristocratic families and teaching promising pupils on the piano. Crucially, his significance as an Irishman living in Russia had cultural ramifications on the country as he oversaw the artistic development of the likes of Mikhail Glinka. Although Field was not without personal problems, he was a brilliant pianist and remains a cultural inspiration, symbolizing the rich culture that Ireland continues to bring to Moscow. Today a Pushkinesque impression of the famous Irish composer stands at the entrance to the Irish Embassy, reminding people of the influence and importance of Irish culture in Russia.
Despite the obvious geopolitical differences between the countries, Russia and Ireland have maintained relatively warm diplomatic ties, especially in recent years. One key political interaction between the countries took place in 1916 when Russia was the first country to recognize Irish independence following the Easter Rising. Relations during the Soviet era, however, experienced a dry period as Ireland objected to the Soviet Union’s accession to the League of Nations in 1934 and was an alleged reason for Russia’s decision to veto the Irish application to the UN until 1955. Relations strengthened again from when the Irish Embassy was established, creating a permanent political presence in Moscow. At the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the national policy of neutrality was an influential factor in improving Russo-Irish relations, which paved the way for an influx of Irish business men and women to establish themselves in Moscow; a center of opportunity for economic growth.
Open for Business
In the early 90s the Irish expat community in Moscow swelled to over 500 active members, given the ripe opportunities as a result of the rapid capitalization of the country and demand in the national economy for development. Irish social events were regularly attended by a committed core of entrepreneurs, including those who set up bars such as Shamrock, Rosie O’Gradys, Sally O’Briens and Silvers, supermarkets and even D.I.Y. stores along with a large employment base for Irish citizens provided by Aer Rianta. Avril Conroy, current chair of the Irish Business Club in an interview reminisced of the times when there was a large Irish presence in the capital and the social life was vibrant. However, following the default on the Russian economy in 1998, many left the country in often difficult, sometimes ambiguous circumstances while investors retracted to the safety provided by the Celtic Tiger. Others were on short-term contracts and came for a new experience, seeing an opportunity before going back home a year later. In 2006 the business club underwent a successful revamp. The Irish presence in Moscow today is much smaller than it was in the 90s, although those who remain are a group of resilient and persistent people who have integrated into Moscow life.
There are then, of course, stereotypical aspects of Irish culture represented by the ubiquitous Irish bars abroad. Moscow is no exception to this global rule with its fair share of tricolor- decorated saloons and Guinness taps. Even the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited the centrally located Silvers bar owned by Steve Conway during a state visit to Russia in 2004, confirming the cultural importance of the pubs as representing institutions of the Irish presence in the city.
The annual St. Patrick’s Day parade is the cultural and social climax for the Irish community in Moscow. Ever year the parade is attended by thousands of mostly Russians who have adopted Irish culture. Whether inspired by James Joyce, Michael Flately, U2, Celtic art, folklore or even the Gaelic language, such a large volume of people sharing in this cultural event makes people like Conroy “Proud to be Irish”. The event is special as there are no other groups in Russia that are allowed such large parades, taking over one of the main streets of the city, and have had their culture so widely embraced.
Passing it All On
On June 16, 2009 in Sally O’Briens pub, a passage from James Joyce’s Dubliners was read out as part of the Bloomsday celebrations (as mentioned in the book);
“I wish from my heart it may do for so many and long year to come – the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we must in turn hand down to our descendants.”
In many ways, the attribute of hospitality is reflected by the Irish community today in Moscow, welcoming Muscovites to take part in events such as the Irish Film festival organized by Gerard MacCarthy. It is possible that the Irish footprint makes such a great impression not only because of its rich cultural heritage, but because of this tradition of welcoming others to share in it. The Harman Era has left a large footprint through developing in particular business and cultural links. The Irish Community in Moscow is now looking ahead to the incoming Ambassador Philip McDonagh to take the opportunities created from the economic downturn firstname.lastname@example.org and maintain a strong cultural presence of Ireland in Russia.