"I don't feel isolated": How globalization is changing the perception of immigration

Alexander Balashov created his first custom website at 14, and one of his team's projects won the European Design Awards
Stories
9 min
Portugal
April 12, 2024
24000

Alexander Balashov created his first custom website at the age of 14. In his student years, he and his partner founded a digital agency that has repeatedly won prestigious professional awards, and in 2022 the company's project took the grand prize at the European Design Awards. Six months ago, Alexander and his family moved to Portugal. We met with him to to discuss how globalization is changing the perception of immigration.

Tell us a little about what you were doing before you moved and how you won one of Europe's most prestigious web design festivals?

Fourteen years ago, my partner and I founded the Redis agency, which focuses on branding, design, and development of mobile applications, sites, and services. My profile is in medicine and health. We have developed apps for Pfizer and launched our startup about insomnia treatment in the US market. But my most significant contribution to medicine so far is in Russia. We developed an entire digital ecosystem for the Fomin network of clinics, where artificial intelligence medical checked records, doctors continuously learn and receive evaluations from AI, and patients can monitor their treatment path in a convenient mobile app.  

We also have festival work. For example, a documentary site about Andrei Sakharov: is an online museum. We submitted this work to The Webby Awards - the Oscars of the web design industry, and they included it as short-listed, but in the last, it was rejected because we were from Russia. However, the site took the grand prize at the European Design Awards. Unfortunately, we could not go to the festival, but at least they did not take that award away from us. 

A few days ago, I sold my stake in the agency to a partner, so the answer to what I do is no longer so obvious.

How, then, did you decide to start your own company? Many people think about starting their own company, but only some take the first step.

I made my first website at the age of 14 in 2002. I earned 500 rubles for it :)  And then, I spent all my university years as a freelancer - I was a developer. It was then that I met my future partner in the agency.

I only worked as a freelancer for half a year as a master's student at HSE. It was one of the top 5 advertising agencies at the time. I came in as a manager, but my supervisor quit almost immediately. I had to replace him, representing the "digital" direction in significant sales for Apple, Olympus, and other well-known brands. I quickly realized that we were doing something strange and costly. I quit and found my first client for our new agency on Twitter. In the Russian segment at the time, it was something like tens of thousands of people.

Is the decision to sell your stake in the company related to your move to Portugal?

The war and the move precipitated what, in principle, was logical to do, but in calm times it would have been even more challenging to decide. It's scary, of course, for both partners. The fact that we could agree, and so correctly - is a great rarity. Pasha is an excellent partner and a great professional. 

I continue to do projects in medicine and tech. I have a fantastic team of developers and designers coming together. 

Why Lisbon?

I've been here once, at the Web Summit three years ago. Before the trip, I was all fired up about the network. I decided to take it to the max and start on the way to the summit. So I met Vlad Shipilov, the founder of Migrun - on the plane in line for the bathroom :) It was impossible to imagine that this contact would someday be helpful precisely in immigration.  

My wife and I landed in Sri Lanka the day the war began. We sat at the same table with Ukrainians, having breakfast and chatting, but no one knew anything. I decided to check the news, and after a few seconds, my apple watch started vibrating: "Your pulse is 200, and you're sitting there. Is everything ok?" I started picking up words to tell the guys at the table what was happening. 

This journey gave me distance and time to make decisions. Many friends left Russia in the first weeks after the war began. At that time, we were thinking about how to save the company and how to help the employees. We realized we had to prepare to move when we returned to Russia. 

At the beginning of May, we visited friends who had left - Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. In two weeks, we visited five cities. We met those who had just moved and listened to heartfelt relocation stories. Probably the best trip of my life, the most emotional. Before this trip, we had never been to these places. Friends are almost everywhere now; you can find someone you know in any country. 

On this trip, we called Vlad from MigRun and made a plan to move. My team is already helping MigRun with the launch of the new site. I like the fact that the platform gives maximum opportunity to go through the immigration process on their own, turning to experts only if necessary. It is ok for people who move planned, unhurriedly: from Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. In our case, the importance and urgency were off the charts, and the help of consultants helped a lot.

It is interesting how people choose the country to relocate to. Some chose "to wait for a year," while others chose a passport. Portugal is, for many, a possible final destination. You must come here, like to Georgia or Armenia. This is an entirely surmountable obstacle but requires proactivity and making decisions. There is a filter that gathers people with similar values here. I did not meet a single person from the last wave who I did not like. The Russian-speaking community here is amazingly enveloping. It reminds me of a university dormitory. When I, as an adult, went to graduate school and started living in the dorms, my living conditions deteriorated manifold, but it was one of the most beautiful times of my life. You leave your room, find yourself in a long corridor, go through any of the doors - and behind it, a new interesting person, a new, unusual conversation. Everyone is open to communication; everyone has about the same problems.

And how is the relationship with the Portuguese?

Renting in Lisbon is a pain; the competition is off the charts. So far, there has been little time or reason to make close contact. The most intimate relationship we have is with our landlords (landlords). To "sell" our family, we had to present overnight: with photos, a story about us, and proof of our financial solvency. Okay, they chose us, we went into the apartment for the first time, and we saw our photos in the form of magnets on the fridge - the owners took them from the presentation! They wrote our wishes on the chalkboard and made presents for everyone, even the dog. They also constantly bring us something from the farm: oranges, herbs, and vegetables.

The Portuguese are terrific! They always smile and ask how you are. When in a store or a bank, employees can not explain themselves in English (and it rarely happens); they apologize and are embarrassed. It becomes embarrassing for me - we are guests here, after all. It is impossible to imagine such a thing in France, for example. As a southern nation, I also expected the Portuguese to be more emotional, but they are very calm: they do not raise their voice and are attentive and friendly. 

 

Or school. Our Lida went to an ordinary Portuguese school. The junior school teacher speaks excellent English, we all discuss learning strategies together, and she posts photos of what's happening in class on her mobile app. Some interesting people come to the children all the time. A children's writer gives a lecture, or an agronomist helps grow mint in the school vegetable garden. 

However, there are reasons for discontent. Take the real estate situation and the increase in rent prices in Lisbon.

Was it difficult for the child to adapt? As far as I know, you and your wife have created a community of parents and children.

We must have been lucky with the child because Lida is independent and sociable at seven years old. I was also fortunate with my wife. Dina has built a community in Russia and here, so socialization is fine. We organize big expat meetings - parents get acquainted and socialize in a networking format, and the kids, in a crowd of twenty people, run around the vast playgrounds in the park in a safe, enclosed area. Lida also goes to the school of architecture, which guys from Belarus opened. Friends have also appeared in the neighborhood where we live. You go out to the garden for a walk with the dog and see familiar faces chatting at the coffee kiosk.

What advice do you have for someone just starting down the path of immigration?  

The most challenging moment is deciding to move. Because once you have moved, in principle, you are doomed to build a new life for yourself, there are no other options. A lot depends on people, on what they do. It's one thing if the profession involves working remotely. That's what helped me. I sit with my laptop in my room, and most of my day has not changed with the move. Immigration is much more difficult for those who leave a profession in their country, such as doctors. 

The significant loss for me is the office. In Russia, we built our "bubble" before the war; we created a space where we gathered and taught designers and programmers - on the territory of a former beer factory on the river bank, with our chef and cat :) They moved from one "bubble" to another. Now in their place came the expat telegram chats. To play soccer, puddle, go to the beach - everything is in chat rooms. If we're talking about fear of socialization, which is one of the reasons why people are afraid to move, it's solvable. But, of course, you have to be willing to do certain things - joining chats and socializing can be a barrier for some people. 

Is it temporary? You'll learn the language, get used to it, and then start to expand your circle of communication.

If you want to make a huge breakthrough and integrate as much as possible, you have to go to university or work in an office of a local company. I see that it's not only in Portugal - people in London also go to Russian-speaking hairdressers and work with Russian-speaking accountants. 

How do you feel six months after you've moved? 

I don't feel like I'm in immigration, in some sort of isolation, in a radically new country. It may be one of the stages of relocation. That feeling may persist.

What has pleasantly surprised me in these six months is how willing people are to help each other. All the friction that used to be there has faded into the background. Petty grudges have lost their meaning. The second thing I realized is that everything is solvable. 

You didn't ask me why we left - the reasons are clear. But if you had, the answer probably would have been - because we could. Many people can't go, most often for economic reasons. These people are held hostage in a sense. If before everyone was in "bubbles," now everyone is in "dens." I want to keep in touch with the people who stayed. While getting ready to move to Russia, we felt pressure from those who had left: "We left everything; we left our homes, but what about you? Why did you stay? And I don't like that attitude. I want immigration not to divide us but to keep us connected. Most of those who have immigrated have no arrogance or anything like that. Many treat the time they spent in Russia very reverently and with nostalgia. Many have relatives and friends left in Russia whom they miss and want to see, and I, among others, would like to be able to visit. Sometimes it is embarrassing to post a picture from the beach and boast about the opportunities here. I need to learn how to solve this problem. I want us to stay in contact to help each other.

Photo: Julia Vasutenko

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Yulia Bykova
Immigrant and writer
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