‘When people ask me what I think about Putin I don’t answer’

New to the Parish: A Russian linguist and smartphone app creator is enjoying life in Cork

Anastasia Volkova was 17 when she decided she wanted to travel abroad. She already spoke English and was eager to visit countries far from her home in Moscow. However, the legalities of solo travel for a young Russian woman were far more complicated than she anticipated.

"To get a visa to go anywhere you had to prove you would not stay and would come back to Russia. This proof was if you had a steady, well-paid job, a car or owned property. It's also more difficult for single women in Russia because of the perception that you're going to get married abroad."

Contrary to the stereotype of Russian brides, not all single Russian women go abroad in search of partners, she says. “There are no reports that say single women will not be granted visas because of this, but it was the talk around me. I lived with this knowledge.”

Nearly a decade passed before the linguist finally succeeded in moving abroad. In the meantime she dedicated her time to improving her English and working on her teaching skills.

She chose to study journalism at Moscow State University. However, she never worked professionally as a journalist. "I found it frustrating when you had to ask people questions they didn't really want to answer."

To fund her student years, she became a private English tutor before going on to work in a language school. She quickly discovered that, as with her mother and sister, her passion lay in teaching.

Teaching Russian to foreigners

“If you get certain grades you can get free education at university but my mum couldn’t provide for my clothing, entertainment etc. I thought, What can I do? So I started looking for tutoring opportunities.”

She enjoyed teaching her students how to change their thought processes when speaking in a foreign language. “You may find people can speak English but will speak using their own native language sentence structures. From the first lesson, I try to introduce another frame of mind and show them how to think in English.”

She also began teaching Russian to foreigners but became frustrated at the low quality of Russian-language books available for beginners. “I expected to find something similar to Cambridge and Oxford books for English but the quality of the books did not meet my expectations. The only option was to write my own textbook. It sounds like a difficult thing to do but it was just about being creative, like writing a novel.”

She contacted publishers in the United Kingdom and United States but her book was rejected on the grounds they already had a curriculum in place. In response, she decided to turn the book into a mobile phone app. She put together a small team in Moscow in summer 2015 and began searching for start-up funding.

“We needed money to expand, complete the development and market the app. All our users were learning Russian as a foreign language, so it didn’t make sense to be in a country where everyone speaks Russian. We wanted to be closer to our customers.”

In October 2015, her app Survival Russian was awarded funding by Enterprise Ireland and invited to relocate to Ireland. In December 2015, with the support of Enterprise Ireland helping her to secure a visa, she finally embarked on her long-awaited adventure abroad. She has spent the past year living in Cork while the cofounder of the app divides his time between Russia and Ireland.

“I decided I wanted to move to Cork because it was where we pitched our idea. I made the decision without ever seeing Dublin. It was such a relief to move here. There are nearly 20 million people in Moscow. It feels packed. In public transport you’re stifled between people. You need a rest from that.”

She is very happy in her new home, although her arrival in Ireland was difficult. On her first day in Dublin, she was mugged shortly after submitting her visa documentation at immigration office on Burgh Quay.

“I had made the application for my temporary residency visa and had three hours to walk around. I thought I was in the city centre but was later told I had walked into a more dangerous part of the city.”

Very sociable

Her iPhone was grabbed from her hand as she walked along the street testing her app. She was startled when, within seconds, people had rushed over to help and call the Garda. She was even more surprised when gardaí offered to give her a lift home.

She says Irish people are very sociable and found it easy to make friends after she joined Krav Maga self-defence classes in Cork. She loves the Irish grey skies and looks forward to autumn, when a fog descends on the city. “Here the fog can get so dense you can’t see anything in front of you. It’s magical. That moody, grey weather is my favourite thing about here.”

It’s also a great country for young female entrepreneurs, she says. “From my experience, business is not male-dominated here,” says the young entrepreneur who recently took part in an acceleration programme for female entrepreneurs. “More and more media are interested in hearing about what women are doing in business.”

As a Russian, she is often asked for her opinion on President Vladimir Putin and the western perception of her country's leader. "When people ask me what I think about Putin I don't answer. I did not come here to promote an image of a political agenda. I'm here to show that Russians can be great business people.

“We have innovative ideas, we’re good in IT and we’re nice people to do business with. I prefer not to be offended by anything that is said about my country.”

She adds that people have a responsibility to gather information from a number of media outlets to ensure they get a full understanding of world events. “You cannot read just one newspaper; you have to follow several newspapers.”

One year after arriving in Ireland, she does not feel like a foreigner in her Cork home. “It’s a global economy and we live in a mobile world. I’m absolutely aware of my heritage and cultural background but I prefer not to stick with topics of me being foreign and you being Irish. I don’t feel foreign.”