Stephanie Balsys, trainee, Herbert Smith
12 January 2011
17 November 2003
8 May 2006
25 February 2008
8 April 2002
8 May 2012
Herbert Smith Moscow: No 10 Ulitsa Nikolskaya, at the heart of the most exclusive streets in the city. Prada, Gucci and Roberto Cavalli are just below my window. Jump in the lift and directly underneath the office is, would you believe it, Pascha, Moscow’s very own branch of the notorious super club.
A lunchtime wander down Nikolskaya past the blini (crèpe) cafes takes in the ruins of the 14th century Nikolskiy Greek Monastery, straight down to Red Square whose vastness never ceases to surprise. Thirteenth century towers of the Kremlin poke up over the shiny lights of GUM (previously Moscow’s main department store, now famously home to “exhibition price” shops whose wares no-one can afford to buy).
You get the idea. Moscow is a place of extremes; one giant contradiction. A mega city of around 142m people, weird juxtapositions of the plain and the decadent, the derelict and the glamorous, the Soviet and the globalised lie at the end of every street. It is by turns disarmingly welcoming and infuriatingly obdurate. You’ll survive a run-in with an impossible cashier one day and make a friend for life on the street the next. Sky Lounge bar, the exquisite, glitzy brasserie set on the 22nd floor of the Academy of Sciences (one of the most Soviet style buildings you could imagine), is my unquestioned favourite place in the city because it is a perfect monument to this contradiction.
Moscow has evolved beyond belief in the last 20 years since the break up of the Soviet Union, a story the Paschas and Pradas and Porsches tell and which is making the city ever more open to foreigners. Even so, parachuting into Europe’s largest metropolis as a chirpy blonde English girl set to embark on a traineeship seemed at least verging on daunting (N.B. I clearly didn’t actually parachute in. Daunting was the cultural maze that had to be navigated, not the prospect of jumping out of a plane and attempting a landing in Red Square).
I came here with Herbert Smith. The Moscow office opened in 1999 and has been expanding ever since. Having heard great things about its disputes group, particularly the momentum gathering in its arbitration work, and having cultivated an irrational fascination with a country that I was sure I had never quite heard the truth about, I packed my bags and prepared for adventure. But no amount of anticipation can prepare you for Moscow life. The nights disappear in a haze of frantic partying or cultural exploration and the days become consumed by the stream of work being generated at an ever faster pace by the city’s evolving economy. It’s an exciting time in an exciting place.
The linguistic challenges are welcomed by some, avoided by most, but everyone gets by fine. Moscow is relatively used to naïve Europeans and most people function here easily for sixth months without any Russian. Of course if you don’t make the effort you are likely to be caught out by an opportunistic car-driver charging you five times the standard rate for a trip round the corner (you know who you are!), and it is a rewarding place to give the language a go. People value it, you (begin to) understand some of the absurdities and your enjoyment goes up a notch.
Of course, come to Moscow as a trainee and life is made as simple and stress-free for you as possible. I swan down to my office behind Red Square with a breezy 15 minute walk (taking in none less than the State Duma, the Bolshoi Theatre, Revolution Square, the Kremlin and numerous other sightseers’ envies). There is an established network of trainees here from other London-based firms so that from day one friendly faces pop up and there’s a bunch of good people to get to grips with the place with, if you want.
That means partying begins in earnest at once. But even the most concerted socialite and culture buff would need an entire training contract’s worth of seats in this city to take in its best entertainment. You can check out Chekov, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky any day of the week, nibble fine sushi or Georgian hachapuris until six in the morning, wander around haunts that inspired Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, follow trails of avant-garde and modernist architecture down roads boasting the houses of numerous world-class composers, writers and artists.
And weekends can be agonising – to dip into one of the underground, arty bars and warehouse galleries or to slip into one the bewilderingly lavish, exclusive nightclubs and gaze at the city’s most beautiful? It goes without saying that here you need one life for work and another life for life.
I’ve now spent half of my second seat working on domestic and international disputes in Herbert Smith’s fast-paced Moscow office by day, exploring the buzzing super-city by night. It will be incredibly hard to leave the work, the people and the place, with all of its intriguing oddities. I may sing a different tune once I’ve lived out the deepest winter months, but for the moment I couldn’t recommend the Moscow experience enough to anyone with a sense of cultural curiosity.