It isn’t easy to identify many similarities between Malaysia and Russia, but for Her Excellency Lyudmila G. Vorobyeva, there is one key cultural connection, although it is one that serves to remind her of the sacrifice she made by accepting her posting as Russian Ambassador to Malaysia three years ago.
“It is in our tradition in Russia to live with our families, as it is here” explains Vorobyeva over tea at her residence. “In that sense, we are more Asian than European. We keep our children with us until they have children.”
Bearing this in mind, it is easy to imagine the pain she felt when leaving her 18-year-old daughter behind in Moscow: “it is like losing a limb,” she says, with a sad smile, “but she wants to attend the same university I went to, the Institute of International Affairs, and for that she must graduate from a Russian high school.”
It seems diplomacy is becoming a family trade. Vorobyeva was herself the daughter of a diplomat, and grew up in Laos and Thailand where the passion for Southeast Asia was ignited. “My husband say I am like his Thai wife,” she jokes. “I really feel I understand the culture of this part of the world.”
That is not to say that Russia – Moscow in particular – has played a pivotal role in her life. It was Moscow she returned to as a teenager to earn her degree and Moscow where, unintentionally, she found her vocation.
“It was the Soviet Union then,” she explains, “and while women weren’t officially banned from joining the Foreign Service, they were never accepted.” It was no matter; Vorobyeva’s love for languages (she speaks Lao, Thai, English, French, and a little Spanish) led her to a teaching post at her university; an experience she adored. “Teaching is so rewarding,” she says, her face lighting up. “I was close in age to my students, so they more like my peers.”
It is clear that her life could have developed on quite a different trajectory were it not for the Russian Ambassador in Laos seeking a Laotian translator and personal assistant. Vorobyeva was, of course, ideal for the job, and she swiftly found herself entering the professional world of diplomacy via the back door, and via a country she had long been missing.
“When I landed in Laos, I felt like I had come home,” she says, with a smile. She was just 25 years old, and the return to her childhood playground was to be definitive. It was in Laos she met her future husband, spent three subsequent postings, and worked her way up to the top.
A posting to Thailand as Minister-Counsellor came in 2005, and when Vorobyeva was sent to Malaysia in 2010 it was with the weighty responsibility of Ambassador. “It’s a pleasure,” she says, “but it’s quite different and very busy.” With a residence located in the grounds of the embassy, Vorobyeva can’t even walk her dog in privacy: “I can’t just go out in my dressing gown,” she says with an easy laugh, “I have to do my hair and present myself!”
But the move to Malaysia also brought companionship and the rare opportunity to mingle with a select few who understand her new existence. “There are eleven female ambassadors in Malaysia,” she explains, “and I enjoy talking to them and sharing experiences. Meeting them has been one of the best experiences of my time here.”
Currently one of just two female Russian ambassadors worldwide, Vorobyeva has always been aware of her gender in what historically was a man’s industry; “but it helped to get me noticed,” she says good-naturedly. She is also confident that things are changing: “Around 30% of the new recruits are female, although it will take a while until they work through to the top jobs.”
Vorobyeva, however, is already there, and to counter the weight of Ambassadorship she takes all the opportunities that Malaysia affords for relaxing. “As a Russian, I like the beach and the sea,” she says. “I love Pangkor island, and I recently went to Redang, which is fantastic.”
The hot beaches of Southeast Asia may be far removed from her home city of Moscow – touted as the world’s coldest – but the thought of home and the important people she left behind there is never far from her mind. A lifetime abroad certainly can’t shake the firm roots of this charming ambassador, and the values of family will always win out and lead her back to her heartland.
Source: The Expat July 2013
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