Many people find traveling to Russia an extreme and exotic adventure. Some say that once you enter the country, you won't make it back; some expect Russian cities to be more like deserts of planet Hoth with bears walking around snowbound streets. Is it that way? Are Russian megapolises different from European ones? Do Russians ever smile?
"To Russia with love" is a series of interviews with techies from Western Europe and the USA, who came here to share their experience at JUG Ru Group conferences. We'll talk about expectations and impressions, people and culture, cities and conferences, visas, and security. So stay tuned.
Simon Ritter @speakjava is the Deputy CTO of Azul Systems. He has been in the IT business since 1984 and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from Brunel University in the U.K.
Simon joined Sun Microsystems in 1996 and started working with Java technology from JDK 1.0; he has spent time working in both Java development and consultancy. Now at Azul, he continues to help people understand Java as well as Azul's JVM technologies and products. Simon has twice been awarded a Java Rockstar status at JavaOne and is a Java Champion.
Ruslan: Hey, Simon! We're going to talk about your trips to Russia during the last couple of years. You've been to Russia several times, right?
Simon: Yes, I've been there twice. Two years ago I went to JBreak which was in Novosibirsk. The second time for me in Siberia, the first time in Novosibirsk, which was very good. And then last year I was at JPoint in Moscow. Then I've been back to Saint Petersburg for the Joker conference. So I'm doing very well in terms of Russian trips. I like Russia.
Ruslan: That's great! Recalling your first trip to Russia — what were your expectations? Did you have any?
Simon: I'm not sure. Before I came to Russia, I suppose the only expectations I had were that people there were very well-educated in terms of software development, and so they had a lot of knowledge already. So I was gonna be presenting to an audience that already knew a fair amount of subjects that I was gonna talk about.
Ruslan: What about any expectations of the country itself?
Simon: The very first time I went to Russia was back in 1993, so I have seen a lot of changes in the country over the time that I've been there. I mean, it's a very big country and very diverse. And I'm not sure I had any expectations back then. I thought it was probably gonna be cold.
Ruslan: What time of the year was that?
Simon: Novosibirsk was in March. So it wasn't as cold as it could have been if it were January. But there was still snow and ice on the ground, it was cold.
Ruslan: Yet in terms of the audience have we met your expectations?
Simon: Oh, absolutely yes! I've always been impressed by the developers I've met in Russia. They're always very focused on things, and when you present, you can tell that they're listening, they understand what you're talking about, and then they ask relevant questions, and they kinda drill down into the detail and think: "Yeah, how does that work?"
Ruslan: You had nice expectations and a nice experience. Good to hear that. What was the hardest part of your visa application process? As far as I understand, you even grumbled on Twitter about the visa application form.
Simon: [laughs] Yes. I have to say that the visa application process is probably the most complicated of any country I go to, and for two reasons. One is I have to have my fingerprints taken at the Russian embassy or the Russian office. And I have to do it every time that I apply for a visa. So it's not like I can do it once, and they keep it on file. And the other thing is that I always enjoy the question which says: "Have you traveled abroad in the last 10 years?" You answer "yes" and then it says: "List the dates and all the places you've been to in the last 10 years". I actually did that and came up with, I think, 480 trips.
Ruslan: 480! Really?!
Simon: [laughs] I sent them an entire list! 480 trips!
Ruslan: I guess, you need a separate person to sort it out, actually.
Ruslan: How long did it take?
Simon: It took me a while. I have a database that has a list of all the trips that I've done, so I pulled it out of that database.
Ruslan: If I was asked that question, I wouldn't be able to answer. If you look in your passport, the dates are quite hard to read.
Simon: Yeah, that's true. It took me a little while to get the data. But it was almost fun to do that.
Ruslan: We've already touched that topic but you give a lot of talks every year. Do you feel any difference in your audience? For instance, some say that people in northern countries like Norway or Sweden never ask questions and never welcome you with a round of applause.
Simon: Well, there are obviously cultural differences. When you travel to different countries, you will find that some people are happier to stand up and ask a question. And other people will not stand up and ask questions right away, but they'll find you afterward and talk to you one on one. A lot of that is down to whether somebody's first language is English, so somebody may not feel confident standing up in front of an audience and trying to ask you a question, when they're not confident in their English, whereas they will talk to you one on one where it's easier to do that.
It'd be hard for me to name the country, but sometimes you find the audiences are less responsive if you like, and I mean that not in a negative way, but you talk to people and you don't really feel that you're getting a lot of reaction from the audience. In other countries where I've been to, like, for example, South America or Brazil, you kinda feel more of a vibe from the audience. But again, it's a cultural thing. People are more reserved than other people, there's nothing wrong with that. It's just the way it works. But it's always fun to talk to all sorts of different audiences, and I love meeting people from different countries.
Ruslan: Speaking of the vibe from the audience, where would you put Russia on the scale from Northern Europe to Brazil?
Simon: I'd say you're probably a little more reserved, so not the Brazil side…
Ruslan: Of course not.
Simon: But not the sort of completely, when you get nothing from the audience.
Ruslan: One more thing: many people say they are not going to Russia because they are not ready to face extreme directness (up to being rude) which Russia is known for. Have you faced it in any way?
Simon: No, I'm very happy with people being direct with me. I've been doing this job and this role for a long time, so I've kinda got used to it. People ask you questions and they may ask questions directly. But again it's an appreciation of different cultures, so you need to understand that if you going to do this and you going to present to people, you may not always get the same interaction that you would with somebody of your own culture. So there's nothing wrong with that. It's a great learning experience to find out how other people are and to learn about other countries.
Ruslan: I've got another question regarding security. There are two types of security I'd like to hear your comments on. The first one is more personal. For example, when you want to go outside to grab some coffee, what are your first thoughts? Is it "it's gonna be okay" or "I'm going to be stabbed in the stomach?" And the second question is about the governmental security. When you are visiting a foreign country, how do you feel interacting with governmental representatives? When I was flying to the US, I was extremely worried that I would be sent back after my 11 hours long flight.
Simon: I understand what you mean. Let's start with the first question about personal safety when you leave the hotel or the conference and you get out for a drink or something like that. As I've traveled a lot, I've kinda used to the idea that certain parts of any city are safe, and there will be parts of any city that you probably need to avoid. I think that if you stay in the central hotel, you will find that most of the places around it are fine, you just need to be aware. And you need to be aware all the time of getting pickpocketed. I've got pickpocketed in Spain once. And so you just need to be aware of those things. I don't find that a problem at all. I'm quite happy to go out and go to a bar or a restaurant on my own. It doesn't trouble me.
As for a broader perspective, the government and so on… No, again, I find that other than the bureaucracy, as I would put it, in terms of getting the visa application, not a problem at all. I mean, I'm very happy to go to Russia, you know, we have two offices in Russia so we have close contact with them on that respect. So, yeah, it's all just part of the process of traveling. Different countries have different requirements and things like that, so it's all good.
Ruslan: Okay, so the next one is a specific question: some people are not coming to our country in terms of a protest against the censorship in Russia. Some say there is no freedom of speech.
Ruslan: Some say there is no freedom of speech anywhere in the world, but in Russia especially. If that's all right with you, could you please comment on this? Did you experience that?
Simon: Well, it's a tricky thing. And you do have to think about it, but the way I look at it is that I'm going to Russia and any other country to help educate people. So as long as nobody is trying to censor me from talking about what I'm trying to help people to understand, then, I think, I have to take a step away from the bigger picture. And say "If I go, I can help people, they can understand more about Java, they can understand more about software development that will help them in their job, that will help them to do their career and so on". So I think, that has more value than me trying to make a protest statement by going "Well, I'm not going to go to Russia, because there is censorship". Because again you know there are other countries that have censorship, and I try to stay out of the geopolitical side of things and just think, what am I able to do when I go there. So I don't have a problem with that.
Ruslan: What was the biggest surprise you faced in Russia? If there were any. If you have one negative and one positive example, that would be perfect.
Simon: [laughs] One negative and one positive about Russia… That is a bit tricky actually. One positive surprise about Russia: I love the food. And I love vodka as well. I love Russian food and that's not just caviar. It's all of the different dishes that you get, cause there is a lot of different things in Russia. And I really do like the food. So that's positive. As for something negative… I would say I struggle a little bit with the weather in winter.
Ruslan: Nobody likes the weather in Russia in winter.
Simon: Well, my wife is Canadian, so I go to Canada a lot in the winter, so I'm used to being very cold.
Ruslan: Thank you so much for your answers!
We thank Simon for sharing his experience with us. Next week we'll introduce another guest, so stay tuned!