When Americans who've never been to Moscow try to imagine what it must be like to live there, they typically envision a cold, bleak and unfriendly place, full of restrictions and constraints, says James ("Jimmy") Miller, the American founder and principal of Baobab Wealth Management, who, at least until the end of last month, has been living there for the past four years, (while also maintaining a base in Alaska)...
For this reason, companies based there, even before Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine, have typically found it difficult to recruit foreigners to work there, Miller says.
As a result, he notes, such Russian companies were known in certain situations to pay for their short-listed job candidates to come to the country to see it for themselves, in addition to offering salary and benefit packages that they thought might be sufficient to overcome their foreign job candidates' preconceptions.
Miller admits that he and his wife, Sonja, actually had reservations themselves when they first arrived in January, 2018, for a "look-and-see" provided to them by the Russian company that she'd eventually end up working for.
But in actual fact – at least until recently – "we had an amazing life there [in Moscow]," Miller says.
Miller made his comments in a phone conversation this past weekend with Toronto-based lawyer and American expat advocate John Richardson, who is also the American Expat Financial News Journal's head of audio broadcasting, and its regular podcast interviewer.
Miller spoke to Richardson from Sarasota, Florida, where he, Sonja and their 4-year-old son arrived on March 3, with eleven pieces of luggage (pictured left), their Philippine nanny (who probably wouldn't have been able to leave without their help and a U.S. visa from a previous employer), and a sense of relief at having managed to get out of Moscow when they did.
(All of his American clients based in Russia have now left, Miller says, and he thinks any foreigners who are still there should probably leave as soon as possible, if they can.) Many have no choice, of course, because they work for non-Russian companies that have closed down their Russian operations in response to the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Miller (pictured above), who at the time he and his family left had around a dozen American clients who had been stationed for various reasons in Russia, as well as roughly the same number of clients of various European nationalities also living there, said he was keen to set the record straight as to what it was like living and working in Moscow before the recent events in Ukraine – as well as what it's like there now (or at least, what it was on the day that he and his family left).
Also important, he thinks, is to warn non-Russians what the country is likely to be like going forward, if Russian president Vladimir Putin's military campaign aimed at making Ukraine a part of Russia continues.
Miller's comments came a few days before the New York Times published, on the front page of its New York edition, a story about how "tens of thousands" of Russians have been fleeing their own country, to such countries as Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgzstan and Kazakstan, as "the descent of Russia into new depths of authoritarianism" had left "many Russians despairing of their future."
The exodus was being likened to a much larger flight by "opponents of the Communist Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War" in 1920, when "more than 100,000...left to seek refuge in what was then Constantinople" (now Istanbul).
Miller: Moscow was 'wonderful'
Miller admits that he's sad to have had to leave Russia's capital city, and that he looks back on his four years there with his family as having been "wonderful".
"In four years of being there, I never had a bad experience, not even a close-to-bad experience.
"We lived right downtown, off Tverskaya Street, about 300 meters from the Kremlin, and Red Square, and not far from the American Embassy.
"Everyone [in Moscow] speaks English, so in four years, I managed to learn, maybe... 20 words of Russian?
"People used to stop me on the streets there to practice their English, after hearing my accent. They'd say 'hello,' and how much they loved America, and how they'd always wanted to go to New York or LA or Las Vegas.
"As a city, [the Moscow we knew was] very dynamic, full of art, culture, things to do; and the Russian people were very friendly. There was nothing we couldn't get in Moscow that, you know, I could get from any other place I've lived, including America."
Miller says he had become so relaxed about life in Moscow that he "didn't see anything like [the invasion of Ukraine] coming, to be honest."
Until recently, he says, he'd thought the Russian political climate in Russia had "actually had felt very stable" over most of the last four years. "Wages were going up, and there were not a lot of restrictions there, compared with, say, living in Shanghai or Hong Kong. There were a few things, but mostly it felt quite open and free."
In fact, he says that he and his wife had been so relaxed about the course events seemed to be taking that they were around 2,000 miles away from Moscow in Siberia, on a ski trip with a group of expat friends, when Russia formally began its attack on Ukraine.
"Once the invasion started, that's when it became very clear that this was going to escalate, and that it was time to make other plans."
An interesting side note, Miller says, is that in Sheregesh, where he, his wife and friends were skiing, "almost all of the Russian skiers there were wearing banners on their ski jackets that said 'we don't want a war.' "
Addicted to the adventurous expat lifestyle
Born in Livingstone, Zambia to two American expats some 47 years ago – who then took him and his two siblings to such places as the Philippines, Haiti and Hong Kong before finally finding their way back to the States in time for him to go to high school in Michigan – Miller confesses to being addicted to the life of an adventurous expat.
(In fact, as he tells Richardson in their podcast conversation, he made a point of setting out to find a wife who shared his passions. And perhaps not surprisingly, he met Sonja, whom he married in 2015, while climbing the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, where the German-born retailing executive was taking a break from her day job in China.)
Miller's preference for adventure led him to attend college in Anchorage, Alaska (where he got a business management degree), followed by stints at the University of Phoenix, University of Melbourne and Deakin University (Australia), during which years he began working for various firms in the wealth management sector.
In 2006 he struck out on his own with a group of other advisers with a company called ING Financial Partners in the Denver, Colorado area, and then, in 2015, he moved to found Baobab Wealth and Baobab Wealth Abroad as independent, fee-only firms affiliated with Intervest International Equities Corp., a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based, SEC- and FINRA-registered RIA and insurance brokerage.
Including the roughly two dozen expat individuals and their families in Russia that Baobab Wealth Abroad has been looking after until now, Baobab's client base is approaching 100, spread out across some 22 countries, with around US$170 million under management.
As reported, a book Miller wrote, Divorce the IRS: How to Defuse Your Biggest Tax Time Bombs Before You Retire, hit bookshelves last year, courtesy of Lioncrest Publishing. (Thus far it's sold more than 5,000 copies.)
To listen to Richardson's interview of Miller, about his and his family's experiences in Moscow how they came to be there, and what it was like to leave, click here.
To visit the Baobab Wealth website, click here.
To view Miller's book, Divorce the IRS: How to Defuse Your Biggest Tax Time Bombs Before You Retire, on the Amazon website, click here.
John Richardson, pictured left, is a U.S.-born, Toronto-based lawyer and citizenship expert who is also an increasingly well-known campaigner on behalf of American expat issues. He's one of the founders and board members of SEAT (Stop Extraterritorial American Taxation), and is also the American Expat Financial News Journal's head of audio broadcasting and its regular podcast interviewer.
This interview of Jimmy Miller is the latest in a series that Richardson has been doing on behalf of the AXFNJ. Other editions of his podcasts may be seen by clicking here, and scrolling down...
Click here to sign up to receive the American Expat Financial News Journal's free weekly news bulletin, and occasional breaking news bulletins