To Live and to be a Fellow in Russia: Reflections on Post-Moscow Life One Year Later

Everyone has that one daydream life goal. Mine was to live and work in Russia, and the Alfa Fellowship Program offered that opportunity, as well as the opportunity to experience the Russian arts and cultural scene first-hand.

My first application to the Alfa Fellowship Program coincided with my first trip to Russia in 2015. I figured that if I liked the country, this would be a great opportunity to further my interest and experience the work culture in my field in Russia. In the end, I fell in love with Russia (just as expected) and turned my time there into a study trip, exploring the local creative scene and support for the arts and culture in Novosibirsk and Moscow.

Though I was invited for an interview, I didn’t get offered a spot with my first application; however, I was still firmly interested in finding a way to gain work experience in Russia. Over the next two years, I continued to work on international cultural projects, study the Russian language, and expand my knowledge of Russian cultural and creative industries development. After two years, it felt like the right time to apply again. With my second application, my persistence paid off; with additional work and language experience under my belt and a firm notion of what I could get out of the program, I was offered a spot on the program.

Initially, I anticipated that my work placement would be in digital heritage, that is to say, working with the digitization and digital promotion of heritage objects, or in social arts or heritage programs. During the first few months in Russia, I continued to expand my language skills and explored work placements in some great heritage and arts institutions. Then, the opportunity to work with the British Council and British Embassy on the U.K.-Russia Year of Music emerged. As a musician by trade, I formerly worked with musicians and arts organizations across the U.K., so this felt like it was meant to be. With an interest in cultural relations on the European Union level, I also got involved with the European Union Networks of Institutes of Culture (EUNIC) Moscow cluster. Finally, I started writing for a platform called ArtyGeneration, which highlights Russia’s emerging and most innovative creators and artists.

From each of these opportunities, I’ve been able to maintain a degree of collaboration, which is perhaps the biggest success of my program year. Having created the evaluation framework for the Year of Music, I was contracted to deliver the full evaluation, working in collaboration with two great Russian researchers at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands and the Higher School of Economics, Moscow.

This collaboration has been really enjoyable, and we plan to continue to explore the data more and potentially publish together. I’m also still working with ArtyGeneration and am currently helping with an expansion of the platform to focus on the wider Russian creative sector.

It’s only really this year that I’ve had the space and opportunity to look back on the outcomes of the Fellowship. This has been helped by writing an article for an arts management quarterly and doing some of my own writing, like a case study on an internationally facing cultural project, “The Second School,” in Nickel in the Arctic North, which I was able to observe firsthand while on the Alfa Fellowship Program.

The prestige that comes with being an Alfa Fellow and my experiences in the country have given me the confidence to keep searching for opportunities to use my expertise and insight. It’s also encouraged me to expand on some other regional interests, and work, for example, in the Western Balkans.

From a personal perspective, I also have the confidence to acknowledge what I don’t know. It’s difficult to find the time to stay fully up to date with everything that is happening in this region of the world, and the longer I’m outside of Russia, the worse my language skills become. That’s where collaboration comes in, and this collaboration, chiming with the goals of the Alfa Fellowship Program, has been what I’ve learned to appreciate and work on the most.

To read articles Nicole has written, as well as the first of a series of recently published articles on Russia’s creative cities, which take the reader through the creative side of 25 cities, the challenges and opportunities of the creative industries in Russia, and the places that should be added to the creative map, visit here.


Nicole McNeilly is a researcher and evaluator in culture, cultural relations, and the creative industries.