About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

Choosing a specific subject to major in at a university does not mean you will never become a ‘specialist with a broad profile’. Vladimir Todorov, graduate of the HSE Oriental Studies bachelor’s programme, once studied and worked in China, but has leveraged that international experience to build a successful career as a journalist and now works as chief editor of the Lenta.ru portal. In this interview with Success Builder, he explains how an ex-pat can earn a living in China, why HSE teaches students about the ‘living’ East and how to ‘retool’ from Sinologist to journalist.

How did you tie your education to the East and discover your interest in China?

I joined the newly opened Department of Oriental Studies at HSE in 2009. That remains my first and only formal higher education, despite my current activities. I scored well on the state exams in high school and this opened the doors to many universities. I considered the HSE Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, political science and Moscow State University, but then it hit me that an education connected with China would offer a great deal of opportunity.

Everything we hear about China right now is remarkable. And 10 years ago, the media were reporting even more impressive figures on the growth of the economy and the strengthening of various international ties. It was the first time the public saw media reports saying that Russia and China were not only great powers but also brothers. Back then, BRICS was gathering momentum and the global outlook was bright and sunny. It was obvious to me that I should try to work in the Chinese economy, what with its booming development and enormous population and IT sector.

I had a clear aptitude for languages, but none for the exact sciences. I knew English and Spanish, and I wanted to learn Chinese. What’s more, the Oriental Studies programme did not have any advanced math classes, which I would never have passed. So, these factors determined my choice, and HSE — as the most advanced university at that time with a super-progressive programme, new methods and unique paradigm for teaching Oriental Studies — was very attractive and beat out other universities.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

I had several internships during my studies. After finishing our first year, we could go to Beijing or Shanghai universities as exchange students. I took advantage of this opportunity. I worked in Beijing during my second year and got a one-year internship as part of one of the many agreements that the HSE School of Oriental Studies had with Chinese universities. I had really liked Shanghai University during my first year of studies, so I was happy to study and work there for my one-year internship.

You spent a lot of time in China. What do you think makes this country so interesting?

The first thing that strikes you in China is the enormous number of people. Everyone knows that the population density is growing there and about the incredible urbanisation that is taking place. But to see it with your own eyes — the situation is incredible, unbelievable. After you get over the first impression, you begin to notice the amazing pace of the country’s development. You see how an entire city block goes up in one month. In China, they build things in advance, and so social networks often show pictures of empty cities and districts and accompany those with various conspiracy theories about China. But it’s just that local developers look beyond the horizon of events, which, as we now understand, does great harm to the country’s economy. During my year of studies in Shanghai, when I would walk with fellow students on the Bund, another skyscraper went up next to the legendary ‘bottle opener’ tower.

The most important thing you realise when you live in China is that it is impossible to become part of the local business scene and society without understanding the historical and cultural traditions. This is a country without an official religion, but with its own views and beliefs that have a significant imprint on all areas of life. Man is a bio-psychosocial being, and in China, the way of life and the worldview were formed by three philosophical teachings: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. At the same time, because China is a socialist country, residents do not consider themselves adherents of a particular religion. But, because it is a very ancient civilisation, traditions have become part of the DNA. Here, the primacy of the public over the private reigns in everything, along with a certain duty to society, as a result of which it is customary to make concessions as an individual. This fact in particular contributes to the incredible ability of the Chinese to work.

I would compare the social mechanism of the Chinese with an anthill where everyone knows exactly what their tasks are and organizes themselves. For example, food vendors would arrive on campus every single day without fail at the same, pushing the very same food carts and standing in the same spot where they’ve been selling for years. Nothing, not even some sort of disaster, could make them late. The branches that many Western corporations have opened in China operate according to a strict ‘boss – subordinate’ hierarchy that has not prevented them from achieving record high IPOs, even though the directors are often forgiven for their ridiculous and cruel actions because, as multi-billionaires, they really believe that they live in a ‘slightly different country’.

This is why social rating works so well in China, while such a project would never get off the ground in Russia.

The giant Chinese Internet also works extremely well. It has all the key elements of the Western services – the outstanding WeChat app, Weibo, QQ, Baidu – and no one is has a problem with it. They are even proud of their home-grown apps, with the global fame of TikTok only reinforcing that pride. China has incredibly well-developed IT corporations, one of the most powerful armies in the world, advanced developments in almost all spheres of life, and a social rating system – why not be proud?

For a person with a European mindset, China looks like a pure dystopia. Neither Orwell nor Huxley could have imagined that people would enthusiastically accept such a system

On the other hand, the understanding of one’s responsibility as an individual before society gives rise, in principle, to the possibility of a social rating. Nobody rejects it. Nobody feels they are trying to force everyone into the same mould because no one is opposed to it.

Why did you decide to stay in China?

I wanted to see if I could make it on my own there, earn a living purely on the fact that I knew and understood how the country worked. I told my parents right away that I would finance myself. They only had to send me money once, when I was very sick. The problem is that the Chinese can do very little to help in serious cases other than prescribe various roots and dispense advice such as ‘drink more water’. I spent several days in a semi-delirium with a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius and realized that I was nearly dying. I finally had to go to a Western hospital and take a course of antibiotics.

My main goal was to improve my conversational Chinese because, in my opinion, this is the key problem with fundamental Oriental studies in Russia. I am very grateful to HSE for its modern attitude towards the question of language and the excellent knowledge of the language thanks to our teacher, Yulia Seliverstova (now Kuprianova). She gave us a lot of materials beyond the textbooks that were based on her experience living and working in China. In this way, while supporting myself with part-time jobs, I got to practice the language wherever and however much as possible.

How did ‘fundamental Oriental studies’ at HSE differ from other departments and universities?

Teachers are what really make a programme, and I was very lucky that during my first years of study my teachers helped lay the correct foundation for my specialisation. The role of schools is to teach specific written tenets, but the university should form key abilities in the student, particularly the ability to absorb large amounts of information and analyse sources, as well as critical thinking and communication skills. It seems to me that the ability to process information, verify it and find its underlying rationale based on previous experience is the most important because this is what we all do in life.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

University students have to learn how to work in both groups and individually, and HSE provided this opportunity. What’s more, there was no standard method or approach to teaching students: the process was very flexible. For example, I prepared for exams by using Google Books that highlighted the specific passages I needed, freeing me from having to read an extra 300 pages of text. My instructors were very open to this. They were familiar with the technologies and digital sources and were interested in experimenting and including new elements in the methodology. Despite the fundamental nature of the disciplines taught, HSE maintains contact with the real, living East, and not with some fossilised understanding of it. So, we studied not in a void, but with an understanding of the subject of our research.

Still, it would be interesting to know which job you had at the start of your career.

It was in China, and there I earned money in a variety of ways – by distributing leaflets, participating in car show ads, walking the runway in my underwear because there is a great demand in the Chinese advertising industry for people who look European. There were numerous agents on the market. I would send them my portfolio and join chat groups and as soon as a vacancy appeared, you’d have to snatch it up to get work. Because I am a large man, I would also sometimes work security at local parties.

My HSE teacher worked at the Gazeta.ru newspaper at the time and suggested I submit some articles. I contributed first to the Science section, then to Business. I began to write a little and gradually became completely immersed in journalism. And when a job with a modest but permanent salary opened up, I returned to Moscow and began working there officially.

Was it easy for you to quickly adapt to a professional environment that differed from the one for which you had prepared?

By that time, I began to understand that you can only really monetize knowledge about China in the foreign economic sphere and transport logistics, for which there were already ample specialists in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk who grew up hearing Chinese and the sounds of containers being driven across the border. These people and the cross-border shuttles back in the 1990s made it possible for Ali Express to gain a presence in Russia.

In China, I learned what it is to be an ex-pat working mostly in less than desirable conditions

They are very good at exploiting such workers, knowing how dependent they are on their Chinese employers. This might have been a consequence of post-colonial thinking and revenge for the ‘opium wars’ because traditional peoples have a very strong historical memory. Interestingly, I never saw such an attitude towards African-Americans. There’s an example of reverse racism for you.

How did you manage to earn a reputation among your fellow journalists so quickly?

I learned the ropes of journalism on the job. But it turned out that while still a student at HSE I had honed the key skills of knowing how to verify information and present it so that an audience would find it interesting. I only had to shift my focus a little. Another very important skill for a journalist is communicating, including the ability to obtain exclusive information, make phone calls and requests. I got good at this very quickly, and I had a good command of English and Chinese. I was able to interview Chinese and American economists. It was 2014, there was a sanctions war going on and joint ventures and oil production projects were closing, so I bombarded each of the American companies 20 times a day.

I remember a good example of this. It was my third week working at the Gazeta.Ru office and Vin Diesel put the ice bucket challenge to Putin and the big question was…(dramatic pause): Who would be the one to call [Presidential Spokesman Dmitry] Peskov and ask whether Putin would accept the challenge? I volunteered. Peskov responded by saying, ‘Don’t call me anymore with such nonsense’. We ran a story saying that Peskov had called the Diesel challenge nonsense, and it went over extremely well. The conclusion: journalism is for active people – not necessarily young, but very patient people. By the way, regarding patience, I learned to write Chinese hieroglyphs. As someone with dysgraphia [a writing disorder – Ed.], this was twice as difficult for me as it is for other people.

How did you end up at Lenta.ru?

At Gazeta.Ru, I was promoted to head of the technology department to replace the outgoing director. That was an unusually lucky break. I did well in this leadership position: our indicators rose significantly and the department went from being just one more part of the operation to a key element of the publication, especially because I looked for non-standard topics. After some time, a vacancy opened up for Internet and Media Department head at Lenta.ru. I thought, ‘Why not? I need to develop and try new things.’ New tasks and challenges awaited there, so I left Gazeta.Ru.

At that time, there was a special atmosphere of freedom at Lenta.ru — that was lacking in Russian media generally — as well as a clear understanding of whom the media works for. Gazeta.Ru, for example, was a very academic publication that did not work as much for the audience as it did to fulfill particular tasks. At my new job, statistics were king: if something was uninteresting for our audience, we didn’t print it. This position seemed very logical — we are producers of content, just like any blogger, and we want to elicit an emotional reaction from readers. At Lenta.ru, I began to understand the connection better between success with our audience and financial indicators. I delved into the advertising market, and this gave me additional motivation.

You distinguished yourself as an investigative journalist and won several awards. What were those for?

The first was the Union of Russian Journalists award for my investigation of ‘death groups’ on the VK social network in 2016. There was a major uproar back then over the fact that teenagers were joining groups encouraging them to play games in which they would harm themselves and commit suicide en masse. A woman from Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper) wrote about this topic. She was the first to study the VK resource and was horrified by the way teenagers were communicating with each other. She claimed that these sinister games had claimed the lives of 150 teenagers. This might have been an exaggeration, given that Russia recorded only 140 teen suicides in the whole country for the period the author mentions. Still, I thought it would be interesting to speak with the members of this suicide community and discover what motivated them. It turned out to be very difficult to get in touch with them.

Today’s schoolchildren are very tight-lipped and I had to study the cultural phenomenon of romanticising teenage angst from the outside

This phenomenon has been known since the days of The Sorrows of Young Werther, but now, instead of writing poems about death inspired by love, teenagers create fake profiles on the VKontakte social network using names like Sea of Whales. They write sorrowful posts with painfully sad pictures and a corresponding soundtrack. My main goal was to expose this unusual phenomenon, but it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. It turned out that the initiator of the movement and the administrator of the groups was a mentally ill person who got a kick out of mocking gullible teenagers and urging them to cut themselves or draw fiendish pictures.

I have mixed feelings about this investigation. On the one hand, the founder of that community turned out to be truly dangerous and did drive at least two young women to suicide. On the other hand, my articles sent a person to prison, which is a tough pill to swallow given the realities of the Russian prison system. This story was also a test of my working abilities. I would go days without sleeping and looked terrible. After that, our team won the Runet Prize for a story about drug trafficking in the ‘dark net’.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

Because I worked in the Internet and Media Department, I followed digital phenomena, and especially those that were not entirely legal. The ‘dark net’ had a major forum called ‘Runion’ that hosted a store for weapons and drugs. I found it interesting to explore the trends in drug use — anonymous purchases through the use of bookmarks. I studied the same thing in other countries and was surprised to learn that the ‘dark net’ does not have the same phenomenal features in the West as it has in Russia.

What is this phenomenon?

These are not just computer geeks making websites at home but a huge business replete with professional marketers. There are chthonic sides to any ‘dark net’, but in Russia, this is complicated by the state watchdog policy of zero tolerance for any amusements that go beyond the bounds of morality set by the current authorities, whether it pertains to religion, sex, literature, etc. The U.S. spent $3 trillion on its War on Drugs and achieved nothing. Russia spent less but also has nothing to show for it. Apparently, other measures might be more effective.

Our task as journalists is to draw attention to this problem so that the Russian authorities can draw the necessary conclusions

In general, the issue of drug policy is very interesting and obvious inconsistencies exist that require revision. One of the reasons for the sad ‘dark net’ statistics is the lack of dialogue between the authorities and the youth.

How does it feel to take over responsibility for a publication and run it? Have you tried to keep the old Lenta.ru paradigm in place or create a new one?

I think one of the key things that shaped me as a professional in journalism is that I’ve travelled the whole path from the very bottom to the top. I know how each piece of content is produced at each stage, how this business works and what the consumer needs. Such experience is valuable for a manager. Without such schooling, a manager could assign tasks to employees without understanding their real complexity and cost in terms of labour. Work teams only laugh at such bosses and their absurd demands and those bosses, in turn, yell at their subordinates.

Even if you adhere to a strict hierarchy, there’s nothing wrong with asking a subordinate how something is done. Is it difficult? How do you usually manage such tasks? Team members will be pleased when someone higher up tries to immerse themselves in the work process and understand how everything works to evaluate their efforts properly.

A good chief editor is constantly learning new things and thinks of the editorial staff as a living organism. After all, the media is the most human-centred resource because it involves the making of content by people for people. This is a very dynamic environment made up of talented writers. You must remember that you are working with a team and that these people should not be turned into just so many hacks. In building the right management strategy for the publication, we take into account not only the employees’ capabilities but also their experiences, aspirations and plans. This is why the editorial staff is often more like a party or a family in which a lot of what happens is based on trust and where mutual understanding is based on clear human relationships and an individual approach.