This is controversial, so take it with a grain of salt and keep in mind that there are lots of businesses in the private sector, so you should always evaluate the below in the specific context of the job you’re applying for.
That said, if you are looking to use Russian in a professional setting in the private sector, you probably need more Russian than you think you do. Significantly more. Let’s break it down into specific situations where you’ll need the language and look at the level of proficiency they require:
Communicating with customers
One of the appeals of hiring a Russian speaker if you are a business is being able to get that person to help you identify new customers or communicate with existing ones more effectively. While certainly, quite a few Russians speak English, it’s a show of good faith, credibility, and commitment to bring in your own Russian speakers. It also can help in social situations — imagine going out to dinner with local partners — they are likely to have side conversations with each other in Russian and you might want to participate in those or at least understand them.
The question then is – is your Russian good enough for those situations? Would you know the business terminology they are using? Would you be comfortable going back and forth with them on complex discussions or thorny issues? Would you be able to crack a joke if needed? Can you make a point of a group discussion and be understood? If the answer is no, then your Russian is not actually going to be useful to the business in this practical sense. While being able to order a drink in a cafe or ask for directions on the street are fine skills when you’re a traveler, they are not useful to a business and won’t actually make a difference in your value as a potential employee until you reach the necessary level of proficiency.
Communicating with contacts on the ground (colleagues, research contacts, etc.)
A similar dynamic happens if you are trying to work with local colleagues in Russia or to do research on the ground (as an example). If you are just being social and creating relationships, then basic Russian might well do. If you are trying to have deep meaningful conversations with them and they don’t speak English, then basic Russian is as good as non-existent.
For example, if you are looking to do primary research, or communicate with people with fairly unique local perspectives, then you’d need strong Russian to be able to ask questions that allow you to get to core issues, and then understand the nuances of the other person’s answers. Google translate can help a little bit with this, but chances are, you’re unlikely to take the conversation very far without outside help. This also means people with interesting perspectives who don’t speak English will be off-limits for your research, limiting the points of view you can access and the sophistication of the insights you gather.
There’s lots of research on Russia in translation. However, you will never have access to as broad of a set of sources than you would if you could speak Russian and understand local publications, government documents, or other pieces of information that would be too niche for anyone to want to translate into English or other languages, but that can be revealing or valuable in your research. This is where Google translate can be a bit of help; however, if you need to understand a bulkier document or actually look through a long document or even a book in detail looking for something specific, you would struggle if your Russian reading comprehension is not very strong.
Then there is the question of time – you might be able to read an academic article in Russian, but if it takes you half a day to go through 10 pages of text, you would be significantly less efficient than someone whose comprehension is stronger and can get the work done in less time. This becomes significantly more complex once you have to start digging into specialized literature using lots of specific and unique vocabulary or have to work through difficult texts such as laws, regulations, etc.
Monitoring local media
Monitoring local media is critical for many private-sector jobs that are trying to understand policy changes, economic trends, etc. in the Russian market. It’s also the bread-and-butter of internships in both the private sector and policy community so it’s likely to come up as an activity fairly early on in your career. Unlike with research, understanding a news article is usually easier and online translators can help get the point. Here, the challenge is volume, being able to go through media quickly and efficiently. And then you have other media – be it social media where understanding slang and jargon can be especially important, or television where no translation options would truly be available, but where you can pick up important nuances. While basic Russian skills can get your part of the way there, the more sophisticated and fluent your language the more you can make of media as a source of valuable insight.
This is the one area that’s especially challenging for non-native speakers but can have practical implications for companies. Are you able to write a coherent, professional-sounding email to a potential distributor or business partners in Russian? Would you be able to summarize an argument or clarify a misunderstanding in writing? Can you maintain a large volume of correspondence with Russian speakers (for example if there is a team on the ground or lots of customers or partners)?
If you were to write in Russian, will your Russian be good enough to 1. Avoid misunderstandings 2. Make your points clearly 3. Not embarrass yourself with huge grammatical or word-choice mistakes? If the answer is no, then your Russian probably needs some polishing on the writing side. From the point of view of a business, in a case like this, it’s actually better to switch to English or another common language than risk misunderstanding or alienating partners or customers on the ground.
Now, this list is pretty demanding and not all jobs are going to require all of these skill sets. But if you are applying for a role, think about in what context are they most likely to require your Russian and try to be specific in your interview exactly what you can and cannot do in the language and to what extent. Employers are often not familiar with the different language skill levels and may assume something that’s quite different from the reality if you don’t explain in simple and practical terms exactly how they could be leveraging your Russian knowledge. And if you found yourself looking through the list above and saying, “Actually I can do all of these,” then, by all means, explain that to potential employers with some examples that can help them envision just how useful your Russian knowledge is likely to be for them.