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The Last Word

Always the Soldier

A mainstay of the expat community here, the underestimated Geoffrey Cox OBE is returning to England after 16 years in Russia. We shall regret his departure, and Passport has secured the rights on Geoffrey’s blog of how to live in England after Russia.

What attracted you to Russia? Why did you come here in the first place?

Old age. I had been living in Paris having retired from the army in 1983, but in 1992 two things happened. First of all, I was 60, and at my birthday reception my boss at the Institute of Political Science where I was lecturing indicated that I would have to retire, as is the norm in France. We had Perestroika at the same time, which meant the end of many wars. I was at the time the editor of the English language edition of Defense International, but the proprietors closed down the English edition, because of lack of advertising. So in one stroke I lost the two sources of my income in Paris. A friend suggested I go to Moscow that January. I did, and I’m still here.

In Moscow, while lunching with the Consul General, an old friend from Paris, he asked me if I knew anybody who could supply some apartments. I just happened to know another friend from Paris who was then in Moscow doing just that. As a result, I was instrumental in arranging five apartments for the embassy, which they are still leasing to this day. Such was my introduction to the world of real estate.

You are known to be one of the founding fathers of the expat community. How did that happen?

I don’t exactly know. When I first arrived I went to the British Embassy drinks for businessmen in 1993, when only 20 or 30 people would attend. I get on well with people, I don’t know quite why, but I do. I got on well with the British embassy, who phoned me up one day to attend a meeting at the French Embassy. The meeting was about forming a business club to strengthen the European business stance in Russia. At the end of the meeting, which led to the formation of the European Business Club, later to become the Association of European Businesses (AEB), the third secretary from the German Embassy said: It’s a pity there are no Brits here! I replied in French that there are, and that’s how it all started. I was selected to be on the board, and over 5 or 6 years I never missed a meeting. Eventually I was selected to be deputy chairman and met with economic councilors from the EU every month. I went on tours with them all over Russia; I was the only non-diplomat in the group. Last year I retired from the AEB because my job at Astera was taking up more and more of my limited time, and I was made Chairman of the Honorary Advisory Council, a role which has now been confirmed as one for life.

The British Business Club was born out of the fact that we had been holding meetings for years and years in the British Embassy club, then for some reason the British Embassy said we were not going to hold these meetings anymore. I had considerable discussions about this with the then economic councilor. We were a bit upset about this and a group of us decided to organize our own meetings, because we felt it was important to network amongst the British community. I remember one of the first meetings was held in the Zoo Bar because at that time many bars enthusiastically welcomed a bunch of Englishmen who would come along and drink free beer for an hour or so and then stay on and drink more. Now it is not so easy to find such venues. Eventually we had a welcome rapprochement with the British Embassy, so that we could hold meetings once every quarter in the British Embassy.

Witness to shattering political events

Integrating in Novgorod

Did Moscow turn out to be what you thought it was going to be?

I had been a soldier all my life, and the Russians were the enemy. I didn’t really know what to expect. My first impression was that we had all been conned on both sides, because the Russians weren’t really the enemy, and if they thought about it, we weren’t really the enemy either. I was surprised how many poor people there were in Moscow; so many people had nothing, and it was terrible. It took some adjustments; I think there were about 6 restaurants that Europeans went to at that time, but people were very warm and friendly and I made a lot of real friends. I preferred Moscow when it was a little bit wilder than it is now; I think that Russia has become a little bit spoilt by becoming over-rich. All said and done, it’s the relationships that I have in Russia which make living here for 16 years so worthwhile; I have lived longer here than I have lived anywhere else in the rest of the world.

What are the best and worst things that you have done here in Moscow?

If I look back at the time I spent here, I came here as a man who knew nobody. I am now well known and have friends. I am happy that I have played a part in the establishment of something that is becoming stronger all the time: the AEB. On the other side, the biggest disappointment is that I came with very little money and I am going away with none. Unlike so many people, I have not made a lot of money here, I have worked hard and been relatively successful in business, but not wildly successful on the financial front, maybe that’s because all my life I was a soldier, then an academic, and I don’t really understand the aggressive side of business life. In the end, it has been the financial crisis that has obliged me to leave; not the fact that I am 77 and walk with elbow crutches as a result of a parachute injury. Having stood down as chairman of Astera, I no longer have a work permit and so I can’t stay full-time here in Russia. However, I have been invited to become senior adviser at North Star Corporate Finance and this coupled with my being honorary chairman of the AEB, will enable me to maintain my interest in Russia.

On tour with the EU economic councilors in Astrakhan

Finally I would like to express my sincere thanks to all those who have befriended me during my time in this fascinating country.

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