From Wivenhoe to Moscow: charity worker Shona McGrahan
Get a shot of inspiration with the FT Weekend bulletin - the best in life, arts and culture. Delivered every Saturday morning.
In 2002 Shona McGrahan and her husband were settling into a new life in the pretty town of Wivenhoe, Essex, with their three young daughters when her husband Andrew’s employer, an American oil company, offered him a job in Moscow. The family had only just moved south to gentler climes from Aberdeen, a centre for the oil industry in the UK. “My initial reaction to the Russian job was not positive,” McGrahan says of her other half’s news. “I hadn’t even finished unpacking boxes at Wivenhoe and the girls were settling into new schools.”
However, not one to shirk a challenge, McGrahan soon decided it would be a mistake to turn down this chance for adventure. Her husband’s company offered what is called a “look-see”, when it flies you out for a few days to assess prospective postings. However, once the McGrahans made up their minds to go they didn’t get the chance to fly out in advance.
“Andrew picked up some accommodation brochures from work and we plumped for a place in an international residential complex called Rosinka, where we still live 10 years on. It’s a great location on the western edge of Moscow, near the Krasnogorsk region – we love it.”
Transition to their new life went smoothly as the girls took up places at The Anglo-American School of Moscow. The facility, set up for the children of diplomats in 1949, takes pupils from the ages of four to 18 and follows the international baccalaureate curriculum – there are 1,250 students from more than 60 different countries.
Once the girls were settled, McGrahan started to make her mark in Moscow life. Other halves of expats employed in Russia are irreverently known as “trailing spouses” (this isn’t a sexist term; it applies to men and women). It is hard to find paid work in the country if you are accompanying a spouse on an expat contract, so there is a pool of educated, highly qualified talent available and willing to be engaged in a range of pursuits.
At a British Women’s Club meeting, McGrahan was introduced to the work of the UK-registered charity ARC (Action for Russia’s Children). It gives grants to Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) supporting charities dedicated to improving the lives of deprived children, or those with special needs. All the organisations offer an alternative to the network of state-run orphanages and children’s homes.
Within a year McGrahan was a director of the charity. Her work with good causes enabled her to meet many inspiring Russians. She has visited 14 different NGOs in the Moscow area, forming strong work relationships and friendships.
“At the Centre for Curative Pedagogics, I met the marvellous and indomitable Anna Bitova. I admire her more than anyone I’ve ever met.” Bitova uses the best of therapeutic methodologies from across the world to help children with special needs.
Speaking generally about her time in Russia, McGrahan says: “In the UK, Russians are often portrayed as the bad guys and inevitably the media reports on grim incidents and sinister political shenanigans. My experience of meeting ordinary Russians has been very different, it’s very positive.”
With no previous experience of fundraising (she trained and worked as an archaeologist) McGrahan launched the ARC ball to raise money. The first bash was at Yar restaurant in Hotel Sovietsky, Moscow, built under Stalin’s orders in 1952.
“This was my favourite venue. We had it there for three years but outgrew it – it’s mad and quirky.”
It became a hallmark of the ARC ball to use interesting venues across the city. “We used three funky arts centres over the years, which were all converted from industrial plants. They were great, but quite stark. My husband rather rudely referred to these venues as ‘your Doctor Who sets’.” In 2010 McGrahan was made an MBE for her work with ARC. After 10 years’ involvement, she stepped down from the charity in January.
McGrahan has found the language hard to learn, and her spoken Russian is still poor. When she arrived 10 years ago this was more of a problem because, even in the city’s centre, English was not widely understood.
“Russians now travel more and tourist numbers have risen enormously, which means there is an ever-increasing knowledge of English.”
Many things have changed to make life better during the McGrahans’ time in Moscow. Roads are still dangerous and congested, but the number of accidents has fallen because of higher standards. “In my first few years I saw dead bodies lying by the side of, or in, the road – victims of erratic drivers; it doesn’t happen now.”
What is also evident is the changing attitudes among the younger generation – those brought up in a more open country with access to travel and social media. “The older generations tend to be fatalistic. They’re still suffering from the effects of 70 years of communism, when many people had little control over their destiny. They tend to avoid taking control of situations as this may have got them into trouble in the past.”
McGrahan eulogises about the city’s rich culture. Architecture, art, iconography, ballet, music and history are all accessible. She does not find the weather a negative point, necessarily, although it can be bitterly cold for four or five months of the year.
“Occasionally there is a precipitation of the most beautiful ice crystals that will sit in your hand for a moment before melting. Among the shapes there is sometimes a perfect Star of David. This is one of the very special memories of my time here.”
What you can buy for . . .
£100,000 A one-bedroom apartment with underground parking in areas beyond the Third Ring Road
£1m A 120-140 sq metre flat in a new building beyond Sadovoe Ring
£2m A four-bed flat near the Kremlin
McGrahan’s verdict . . .
● Russian fatalism – it’s a good coping mechanism when life is tough
● Fabulous Russian soups
● Very congested roads
● Long winters
● Moscow is expensive
Novodevichy Cemetery An absolute must-see. Full of wonderful, unusual gravestones and monuments dating back to the Soviet period.
The Boulevard Ring walk Central Moscow is composed of several concentric rings that run around the Kremlin. The Boulevard is the second ring. The pathways and community spaces have recently been renovated and there are parks for children to play in, alongside other amenities.
Embankment next to Gorky Park Until recently, this was a road running along the river and beside the New Tretyakov Gallery. The entire area is now pedestrianised and has been transformed into a place for people to walk, cycle, and eat and drink in.
Lenin’s Mausoleum The building is quite fascinating and the interior has been kept dim, with very low-level lighting in order to disorientate you upon entering.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published