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“In just six months I got my welder's diploma.” How Russian immigrants become downshifters willy-nilly

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a significant increase in emigration, primarily of highly skilled personnel. However, not all emigrants are fortunate enough to secure jobs in their respective fields abroad, leading many to adapt to new professions in their new country. For instance, some of them have transitioned from being journalists to construction workers, from makeup artists to welders, and some have even given up their businesses to assist with household tasks. While some may struggle with the loss of status, others view this as a unique and exciting opportunity.

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  • From journalist to construction worker. “I can't take a year off to rest on a couch, like Dovlatov, since I don't even have a couch to lie on”

  • From restaurateur to handyman: “My wife is surprised: you could never be bothered to fix anything back at home”

  • From makeup artist to welder: “The frame of a spiral staircase is insanely beautiful”

  • From chief editor to coach: “The transition from brain to body is not as strange as it seems

From journalist to construction worker. “I can't take a year off to rest on a couch, like Dovlatov, since I don't even have a couch to lie on”

Miloslav Chemodanov, Russia - USA

On February 24, 2022, my boyfriend and I purchased tickets on the computer at 8 a.m. Initially, we decided to travel to Georgia since I did not possess a Schengen visa. However, due to the country's homophobic nature, we realized that we needed to relocate to a place where we could feel accepted. Ultimately, we traveled to Mexico and sought political asylum at the US border. By law, officers cannot deny such requests, and the applicant has the right to be evaluated for asylum while being protected from deportation.

But you can't work either. And you don't have a Social Security number. Even if you want to do, say, dog walking, you need that number for signing into the app. Nobody cares what you do.

There are several benefits available to low-income individuals, such as state travel discounts, free health insurance, and access to a food bank that provides free food. However, despite these benefits, people may still struggle to pay rent. In such cases, there are two options available. One is to take on freelance work secretly, such as offering graphic design services to clients in New Zealand. The other option is to seek low-skilled jobs that pay in cash.

I have experience with both options. I work as a freelancer, writing texts, and I also have two jobs that pay me in cash. When people ask me about my profession (which is a common question during introductions here), I tell them that I work at a construction site in the mornings, attend cooking classes in the evenings, and write in my free time.

I work at a construction site in the mornings, attend cooking classes in the evenings, and write in my free time

I am aware that when I tell people that I am a journalist, they tend to react with a certain level of surprise or interest. However, if I were to say that I work at a construction site, their reaction would likely be different, even though it is still me standing in front of them.

Personally, I do not judge people based on their profession. If someone tells me that they have a multi-billion dollar business, it does not affect my opinion of them. Work is a temporary thing. I had two prosperous careers in Moscow as a journalist and DJ, but I cannot say that these professions brought me true happiness. In my opinion, what is more important is to be a good person, to treat others with kindness, and to engage in activities that are beneficial to others.

Miloslav Chemodanov
Miloslav Chemodanov

None other than Sergei Dovlatov once joked that before he left St. Petersburg for the US, he informed everyone he would work as a dishwasher. People were shocked and disheartened that such a renowned figure would take on such a job. However, upon returning home, Dovlatov discovered that he did not enjoy washing dishes even at home, let alone in a restaurant. He spent a year resting on his couch while his wife worked two jobs. Unfortunately, I do not have the luxury of taking a year off to rest on a couch since I do not even have a couch to lie on.

I wake up before 5 a.m. and head to the construction site where I operate the hoist and transport people and materials between floors. It can be quite tricky to manage traffic flow logistics, especially when there are many materials that need to be transported to various floors. I often hold two walkie-talkies to communicate with different teams, and there is always someone shouting instructions. During quieter moments, I can even take a brief phone call.

I operate the hoist and transport people and materials between floors

Due to the harmful construction dust, I wear a respirator all day to protect my lungs. My boyfriend works at the same site as an elevator operator, and we both know that the job is not particularly hard. We often joke that even a monkey could do it, but unfortunately for us, we were the ones hired instead.

But this job makes us very happy, because it allows us to rent a room and pay off the debts we accrued in the first months.

I found my second job on Facebook. In America this social network is very popular, everyone is on it. There is a New York group called “Jobs for Queer People”. I messaged them, and a complete stranger helped me meet my current employer.

She is a woman in her sixties, with a very amiable and soulful personality. In fact, she is almost like a friend to me. She works as a cooking instructor and was looking for an apprentice to help with various tasks such as cleaning, organizing, and ensuring everything is in order. My role does not involve anything related to food preparation. However, sometimes participants of the cooking classes mistake me for a culinary expert and seek my advice. In such situations, I simply give them a straightforward response: “If it tastes good to you, then that's all that matters.”

It's not an easy job, but it has its nice moments. Especially when you see that people enjoy it. People come to these courses just to have a good time, to diversify their leisure time. And I'm pleased that people enjoy it.

Yes, I wake up early and work hard, but I have come across a few people who do not enjoy their work despite earning a substantial amount of money in successful companies. For them, it's just a means to get paid, and they still feel financially insecure.

Occasionally, I dream of creating DJ sets, not the actual performance where the audience is cheering and adoring me, but the process of preparing the sets. It seems that I've spent so much time doing this job that it carries on into my dreams. However, I can't say that I miss it. Although it brought in money and lots of enjoyable moments, I am fully aware of the reason why I am in my current situation.

Sometimes I dream of creating DJ sets

What matters to me is not making a million dollars, but being true to myself and being able to openly express my sexuality and be with my boyfriend without fear of repercussions. The threat of being denounced was a major factor in our decision to leave. The war certainly played a role, but even before that, things were becoming increasingly difficult for the LGBTQ+ community. I had worked hard to accept myself, and I wasn't willing to start hiding or suppressing who I am.

Witnessing same-sex couples showing affection in public brings me great joy, as it makes me feel at home in New York. Even at work on the construction site, the environment is very accepting. On one occasion, someone asked my boyfriend about our relationship, and when he answered honestly, there were no further inquiries or issues. The atmosphere is completely non-toxic.

I also feel a sense of excitement about the future as I have a vast field of possibilities ahead of me, rather than just one or two predetermined paths. It's exhilarating to think about what I might become in five years, as life is a journey with endless opportunities, and I don't want to spend it doing the same thing over and over again.

From restaurateur to handyman: “My wife is surprised: you could never be bothered to fix anything back at home”

Andrei (name changed), Russia - Portugal

Throughout my entire life in Russia, I cannot recall a single instance where I hung a curtain rod or drilled a hole in a wall. Whenever something needed to be fixed, I would simply call a repair crew from the factory and they would handle it. I was occupied with work, managing people since I was 24, and I never had the time or need to handle anything heavier than a pen.

Our business expanded gradually. Initially, we were involved in meat product trading, which later led us to open a meat-processing plant. Eventually, we established our own farm with various poultry such as chickens, ducks, and geese. We managed the entire process, from farming to sales in our stores. We even opened a restaurant and a cafe with a fishing pond, which we intended to develop for agritourism purposes. Unfortunately, due to the outbreak of war, we chose not to invest in guest houses and never build them.

We left the country in the autumn. Although I wasn't at risk of being conscripted due to having four children, one can never be certain in Russia. Even the slightest inaccuracy in speech could result in the authorities taking away our children. Thus, we shut down a portion of our business and relocated to Portugal.

During the first few months, my wife and I were busy settling in and getting our kids to school. Then, one day while having a casual conversation with some acquaintances at a café, one of them mentioned that they were in need of a company to clean their furniture. Without hesitation, I offered to do it myself. Although we didn't have any equipment at the time, I went out and purchased everything we needed, and successfully cleaned the furniture in that person's home. Word of mouth quickly spread, and I was recommended to another person, and then another. Before we knew it, people were recommending us to their friends and family for various household tasks, such as fixing plumbing.

Soon, I hired a 25-year-old kid who had previously worked in chemical production but left due to mobilization. I then hired an electrician and recently added another girl to our cleaning team. We now offer a variety of services including TV tuning, curtain hanging, socket replacement, house repairs, and cleaning. In Portugal, starting a business allows you to legalize yourself and obtain a residence permit, which is what we did.

Numerous companies similar to ours exist in the market, but the demand for our services exceeds the supply. We are currently in the process of completing the construction of several small bars in Lisbon. These establishments are being opened by a gentleman who previously resided in Rostov-on-Don, and currently resides in The Netherlands. The bars are quite small, comparable in size to a kitchen. He had initially tried to hire several local companies for the job, but none of them bothered to even visit the sites as the amount of work required was minimal and they had a lot of clients. Eventually, he came across our advertisement in a Russian-language group.

I must mention that our former compatriots have very high expectations and desire a level of service similar to that in Moscow, where everything needs to be precise and clear. This is how we operate, and it is most likely our competitive advantage.

Nowadays I do everything at home myself, such as painting and laying tiles. My wife is surprised: “You could never be bothered to fix anything back at home.” However, I explained to her that living in a new country requires adaptation, and I am willing to take on any job that needs to be done.

Nowadays I do everything at home myself, such as painting and laying tiles

In Russia, it is common for people to feel ashamed of working as waiters, but in Portugal, people are not embarrassed about their jobs or income level. In fact, it is acceptable for someone to arrive in a Bentley while another person arrives on a bicycle, and they will still find common ground to talk about. In Portugal, there is no tradition of dividing people into castes or ranking them based on their occupation. Personally, I've never divided people that way either. I have always respected those who are skilled at manual labor, and I have never kept a large distance between myself and my employees.

Overall, my experience in Portugal has brought me a sense of tranquility that I have never felt before. I no longer worry about being approached by Rospotrebnadzor or law enforcement, nor do I fear betrayal from my partner. In Russia, living in a state of constant tension was the norm, where you could just get stabbed by a drunken man. At the restaurant I used to work at, even well-behaved patrons could become unruly and engage in drunken brawls, particularly at weddings. Every month, a fight would break out or something would get damaged. However, such occurrences are unheard of in Lisbon. As a result, children can roam freely and safely without any concern.

We want to do something like what we did in Russia - get some land, grow stuff, build a café, and have visitors come over. We don't plan to go back to Russia. As a business owner, you have to know the lay of the land well. It was hard to leave Russia after doing this for 10 years, but now we're doing the same thing here in Portugal.

From makeup artist to welder: “The frame of a spiral staircase is insanely beautiful”

Julia Dalidovich, Russia-Lithuania

I studied journalism in college, but I have had many different jobs since then. I worked for the Petrovka 38 newspaper that was affiliated with the police, did stunts, did makeup, and wrote ads. Just before the war began, I started studying modern art at the Rodchenko School, and I even sold some of my art pieces, like a plaster nose with snot and a crow's head named Zina. Now, when I tell people that I am a welder, many of them assume that I do artistic welding. However, that's not the case. I work in a factory, and I start my day at 4:30 am, working with a torch for eight hours. Even though it may not seem like it, I still consider my work as a form of art.

When we were leaving Moscow in the spring of 2022, my boyfriend Sasha asked me what I wanted to do. I said that I would make felt toys. But none of that worked out. Welding, on the other hand, was the second item on the list.

Back in 2016, when I was working as a prop master, the guys in the neighboring workshop were welding the frame for the DeLorean, the car from Back to the Future. They were coming out of there filthy, with holes in their clothes from sparks, but happy. And even back then I thought I wanted to learn how to do it.

We came across a welding course in Vilnius that allowed girls to enroll. Actually, I was the first girl to attend the course, but they made an exception for me. I completed the course in just six weeks and got a diploma in MIG-MAG welding. It's a type of welding that uses a semi-automatic machine. A wire is fed into the machine, which then gradually releases it from the nozzle and melts it.

I completed the course in just six weeks and received a diploma in MIG-MAG welding

I attempted to apply for jobs at various factories, but they all turned me down, citing the lack of adequate facilities for women in their production departments, including restrooms. This was a recurring story I heard everywhere I went. I recall being told a story of a female welder who happened to be better at her job than men. I'm not sure if it was multiple women or just one who had worked in all the factories in Vilnius, but I would love to meet her if I had the opportunity.

Finally, at one plant, they gave me a chance to prove myself, and that's how I got my current job. My work involves putting together reinforcement frames for reinforced concrete buildings. Initially, I struggled to adapt and felt like a kitten trying to find its way in the dark. However, once I got the hang of things, I was able to work independently. Nowadays, I'm able to read blueprints and, if necessary, look at 3D diagrams on the computer screen. Then, I go around the plant to look for the metal I need, such as fittings and clamps, which I sometimes have to lift with a crane if they weigh around 30 kilograms. Finally, I weld the frame together.

In an ideal situation, I should be able to assemble 11 frames per shift. However, despite being able to perform the same job as my male colleagues, I'm not in as high demand as they are. Some frames are standard, like those for balconies, which can be assembled in as little as 15 minutes. However, some frames are more complex and require more than one welder to complete. When any of my colleagues get assigned to one of these complicated frames, I always ask to work alongside them, but unfortunately, they rarely take me up on the offer.

Our factory produces some amazing stuff. One of the examples is the frame for a spiral staircase, which is simply out of this world - both insanely beautiful and insanely complicated. Another impressive project is the frame for a massive 15-meter column…

While some of my colleagues who have been working here for 18 years are tired and bored, I can't relate to that. I'm always curious and eager to learn new things. I don't understand those who feel like they've had enough and don't seek anything new. I'm interested in everything and always looking to develop myself. My dream is to work as a shipyard welder in Denmark or Norway on a rotational basis.

My dream is to work as a shipyard welder in Denmark or Norway on a rotational basis

In order to be hired for this job, you have to pass a special exam that costs 400 euros. They X-ray your welding seams, which have to be almost perfect. Currently, at my job, I only make small welding seams, called tack welds. So, I plan to practice on my own time. There are a few places in Vilnius where you can pay to weld for four hours and improve your skills.

Welding is so frigging bad for my eyes, for my lungs, for my fingers and toes. Initially I wore all kinds of protection, including two respirators per day. And then I realized it was very uncomfortable. But I loved this profession so much! I'd rather get checked by doctors more often.

I'm a very energetic person, and after a day of work, I feel like I've been exercising at the gym for eight hours. I feel so energized and active. My husband Sasha works with his mind, while I work with my hands. We both do what we're good at. Finally, I feel like I've found the job I've been searching for my whole life after trying out different jobs in the past.

From chief editor to coach: “The transition from brain to body is not as strange as it seems

Olga Chernomys, Russia-Israel

I left before anyone else and started collecting the necessary documents after the annexation of Crimea. By October 2015, I had arrived here. Each immigrant goes through two stages, as I see it: the initial year's euphoria, followed by the second's depression.

My husband, who is trained in electronics, went straight to work at the factory. I attempted to continue working in journalism because I had been doing it since the age of 12 and was a chief editor before leaving.

My work involved writing texts for PR and advertising purposes, such as for a Mexican travel agency that brought in Russian tourists. However, by the time the depression of the second year set in, I realized that I couldn't earn a decent income through this kind of work.

Eventually, it dawns on you that your efforts are futile and you need to find a way to save yourself. Running became my salvation. Although I couldn't run for long periods because I had gained a lot of weight.

At that point, I stumbled upon a book titled “Healthy Brain, Happy Life” authored by a neuroscientist named Wendy Suzuki. She had come across a fitness program called intenSati, tried it herself, and discovered its potential to generate new neural connections.

And then I did something quite unconventional and unexpected: I wrote a letter to Wendy expressing my interest in learning intenSati, whereupon I traveled to New York to attend a course that lasted from morning until night for several days.

During that time, the Wingate Institute in Israel was assembling a group of coaches who could be instructed in Russian, for the first time in several years. Many new returning residents were there, including families from Donetsk and Luhansk who had to flee following the Russian invasion. I recall attending one of the classes where they were asked to share their thoughts about their homes, and it was heart-wrenching to see them break down in tears - young men, athletes who came to train as coaches.

Olga Chernomys
Olga Chernomys

Unlike them, I was already in my fifties, and the exams were going to be quite serious. In addition to the theoretical knowledge, I had to complete a 12 km run within a specific time frame and perform squats with a weight of 30 kg on my shoulders. Despite the demanding nature of the course, I thoroughly enjoyed it and asked numerous questions. Whenever I returned from class, I would excitedly grab someone by the button and share what I had learned, exclaiming, “Can you believe this is how our body functions?”

I had to complete a 12 km run within a specific time frame and perform squats with a weight of 30 kg on my shoulders

Journalism entails not only a career choice but a particular mindset and personality type. It involves a willingness to explore novel ideas and a passion for sharing intriguing and valuable information with others. Presently, that is precisely what I do - disseminate knowledge that captures my interest and offers potential benefits. I possess knowledge on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, physical fitness, and emotional wellbeing, and I feel compelled to share it with others.

Currently, I conduct five training sessions per week, and I am the only coach in Israel specializing in this area. This profession generates a higher income than journalism. That's how I have successfully transitioned from a primarily cerebral, linguistic occupation to a physically demanding one.

Although it may appear unusual at first, the shift from mental to physical activity is a relatively common occurrence. Many people have successfully made this transition, including myself. I recently encountered a woman who had spent her entire career as a programmer. However, she eventually left her job to teach tai chi, and she regrets she hadn't done so earlier.

I also came to the realization that throughout my life, I had a desire to pursue physical activities. I just wouldn't let myself do it.

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