You understand Russia with your soul, not your brain
Gerald Böhm has been interested in Russian culture since he was a schoolboy. He studied Russian, taking part in Austrian and international academic language competitions. So it should come as no surprise that he first came to Moscow as part of a school exchange program, and later came back to live and work here. From 1999 to 2002, he was on the German editorial staff at Voice of Russia RGTRK. From 2000 to 2005, he worked as a language instructor and developer of a German language program, as well as a translator of news, medical and legal texts, and films.
In 2005, he started working at the Austrian National Tourist Office in Moscow and was in charge of public relations and press enquiries. Then coordinated cooperations with Austrian partners and worked on special projects. Mr. Böhm has been the head of the Austrian National Tourist Office in Moscow since 2014. He is happily married to a Russian woman and has two children.
In his interview with Capital Ideas, Böhm explained why he moved to Moscow, how he built his career in the Russian capital, and why he doesn’t consider himself an “expat.”
Gerald, what was your first impression of Moscow like?
My first memory is of the old Sheremetyevo airport, before it was renovated. And the ceiling that looked like large honeycombs, similar to baking molds. This was back in 1994. The Soviet Union had only recently collapsed. And I thought they were doing such a great job, how they sorted things out and made a ceiling from whatever they had to work with.
I came for a school exchange program. There were about 10 spots in Moscow where I was staying. I remember January was cold, there was a lot of snow, stands with beer, loose cigarettes, and Mars bars. I lived with a family where the girl’s father liked to drink and this often led to arguments. And I told my teacher that I couldn‘t take it any longer. Even though they made great food, they were always arguing. Then I moved in with a boy who was into rock music. We became friends, and I visited him even after I moved out. I started learning Russian back in school, and understood right away that I didn’t want to limit myself to one exchange program. Alexander Smirnov, who was the head of Russian cultural center, helped me out.
Why did you want to come back to Russia?
It was a contrast to the stable system of my home country. As an underage kid, I had almost absolute freedom. I just told my parents that I was leaving, that I had a place to stay and didn’t need money because I had saved up. It was freedom in the wild. I could have probably gone to Uganda, but the news about Russia were interesting. News outlets were reporting about tanks, Ronald Reagan, the Cold War… I understood that if you want the front-row seat to world history, this is the place to be. It was an important global shift at the time. And third, I was born in a small town where we had Soviet soldiers (1945-1955 years). My school had Russian as a language option. My dad studied it too. He showed me the alphabet when I was a kid and that’s how it started. (Laughs)
Did the thought that you might stay here cross your mind?
I couldn’t imagine how to live in Russia with no job, no money, and no education. But I had good parents, friends, people who helped at different points. And I had a great Russian teacher, Otto Gutmensch – that’s very important. I won invitations to seminars. I saw the beginning of a big journey. Successfully tried my hand as a translator.
What was your first job in Russia?
In 1999, I took a job as a correspondent of the German department at “Voice of Russia,” where I was supervised by a legendary show host. He found me an apartment and helped me take care of a lot of things. That’s how I met my wife. We had a group of girls as interns, and I selected a few for my department. At first I was her mentor, and Tatiana and I recorded a lot of broadcasts together. This was a really happy time, and not only because we were young. The air smelled like freedom and anything seemed possible.
When you first came to Moscow, what were you most surprised by?
First and foremost, Russian hospitality. And then I found out about how helpful and generous people were here, and I was absolutely shocked. One time I got sick and was at home with no medicine. And someone came from the opposite end of the city to help, even though we had only met twice before. I think this is what sets Russia apart from all other countries. There were many things here that made no sense. You have to understand Russia with your soul, not your brain. This is the only thing that can open up the full spectrum of personal growth and make you a better person.
You have been living here for a long time and have seen how the business processes have changed…
The country is moving toward a system for sure. I think the first big driver is the concept of KPIs. We even assign some parameters like this to conversations. It’s important to compare one thing to another, to quantify the effects of your actions with some metric. This desire to measure everything. If before people used to say that they met with some person and everything went well, today there is some coefficient assigned to it. Business in Russia follows global trends. Of course, the government’s strong arm is still there. Government control over business adds pressure. Right now, my wife is promoting German wine and we stay up at night to write presentations. We came across this phrase: recently, the government has introduced a ban on using imported wine for state purposes. This is an intervention that is typical for Russia right now and is becoming more common. It’s interesting, but I hope it doesn’t lead to isolation. It’s important to keep a balance here. You’re left wanting more flexibility. In Austria, for example, we don’t produce a lot of things, so we use imports. If we don’t have a great car industry, that’s ok, we buy German cars. But this doesn’t detract from our own accomplishments.
How did you start working with the Austrian National Tourist Office?
This is one of the happiest coincidences of my life. In 2004, I graduated from the University of Vienna with a Slavic linguistics degree in Russian. I translated subtitles for movies and medical negotiations. I felt like it was fine to take the next step and find something permanent. I was calling about every vacancy when I came across the name Austrian National Tourist Office, which was the only thing on that list I felt at least some interest in. I called and said that I recently graduated from university in Vienna, that I’ve been in Moscow for several years, speak Russian, and have experience in journalism. “Interesting,” the person on the other line said, “I’ll think about it and will call back in 2 weeks.” In the meantime, I kept looking. But he really did call me back and asked me to come in for an interview. Our first meeting went on for 3 hours and I left feeling like we were on the same wavelength. I remember it like it was yesterday – 2005, mid-February, I started working at the Austrian National Tourist Office in Moscow and have been there since. I worked my way up from manager to the head of the Russian office. I like and value every member of our team. And even though I have my own office, I come out to the common area to sit and work with my coworkers.
Do you have advice for expats about surviving the wild big city?
I don’t feel like I’m Russian, but I’ve never lived like an expat and am very happy about this. I’ve always been drawn more to locals. I was never interested in things foreigners discussed, like where the best restaurants are and how to spend weekends. I really live here, I’m not here temporarily. So I have Russian relatives and I have close ties to Moscow on the one hand, but also never part with Austria because of my job.
Right now, Russia is celebrating the Year of Austrian Music in honor of 150 years of the Vienna State Opera. How are you celebrating it?
It’s the 150th anniversary of the famous Vienna State Opera building. And this was lucky for us, because in our line of work (promoting the country as a tourist destination) it allowed us to implement a project with tangible benefits people could feel jointly with the Vienna Tourist Board. We chose “A Gift from Vienna” as our tagline. We built a model of the Vienna State Opera that was 27 meters wide and 13 meters tall, with two screens that were 30 and 60 square meters in size. We broadcast four performances that gathered over 12,000 people in total. The screen that was facing Vasilyevsky Spusk could be seen even by people sitting on the grass behind the stage of the big amphitheatre. Interacting with the public like this in person is really nice in our world, where everything is measured in the number of likes and comments. Such a nice contrast, when we could give people something more human than just a picture with some information on it.
And in the fall we’ll hold our annual Austrian skiing holiday at the all-season ski complex “Snezh.kom” in Krasnogorsk. We’ve been organizing alpine skiing competitions jointly with the Salzburger State Board of Tourism for many years. Sometimes our world champions from Austria come.
Are you confident about the future?
You think to yourself, what will happen if all of this stability and certainty comes to an end? Over time, this thought becomes more familiar and you stop worrying about uncertainty. This is life experience that can probably be applied in many fields. Because in the beginning of my journey, I also could not imagine what I would become as a Slavic linguist who spoke Russian. And there is also the question about the meaning behind what you do. More and more often, you’re only getting feedback on the internet in the form of numbers.
What are your favorite places in Moscow and Austria?
I love our summer house near Moscow. And I love all of Moscow. In Austria, I like my hometown, Tulln an der Donau. By the way, Egon Schiele was born there – he’s a famous Austrian artist. And I even have a connection to him, because my great-grandmother worked as a maid for Schiele’s father. She used to say that the family doesn’t know how to raise their son and that he doesn’t have any values, because he took clean white sheets of paper, which were a luxury back then, and used them by the dozen to draw trains. And a lot of it went straight to the trash. I think that if she had seen his genius and hadn’t burned his pictures, my family history would have turned out differently. (Laughs)
How did it happen that you liked living in a noisy, busy big city after a small quiet Austrian town?
I like this question, because it’s very easy to answer. Moscow is a big village. Vienna is like Moscow in a way – it also has different districts and each one has its own character. I only really got to know Vienna fully after leaving it.
Do you have a creed that you live by?
I have a feeling that I’m at a crossroads. When I started working in Moscow, it was in the 2000s, every business sphere was growing, and Russian tourists started traveling all over the world. There was a feeling that what you do is in demand, every day from morning to night. It’s become more challenging with the crisis, and you end up thinking about what else you could do. I want to find the work of my life, where you apply what you know doing something that makes you happy and helps you develop your talent on the one hand and helps people on the other.
Do you consider yourself a lucky person?
Yes, very much so. In German, we have a saying: “the stupid are lucky.” Looking back, I can see that I had so many good things happen to me, and I don’t know what I did to deserve them.
What puts you in a better mood?
Fishing and big fish. The meditative rush of adrenaline in nature. It’s about feeling connected to the earth. You don’t see how its entire process works and this really draws you in. You listen to the silence and extract some simple, down-to-earth bit of wisdom from it. I am also interested in literature and love to read.