BANGKOK — The Russian ambassador to Thailand is a youthful, physically stalwart gentleman who loves to praise the health benefits of winter – and who hopes that his host country will purchase amphibious aircraft from his home.
Ambassador Evgeny Tomikhin has been Russia’s representative to the Kingdom since December. His interview with Khaosod English represented perhaps the first time that any ambassador was presented with the Thai phrase, “hode sud Russia” – a common phrase among Thais roughly meaning “brutal like Russia” denoting fearful, impressed awe.
“Cool,” he said, briskly nodding upon hearing the saying’s meaning. “Am I brutal to you?” Then, after a pause, he smiled.
The 53-year-old previously served as a diplomat in three posts in China for a total of 17 years – he is fluent in Chinese. He is currently also the federation’s Permanent Representative to the UN Economic and Social Commission in Bangkok.
Tomikhin personally loves winter, skiing, snow, and frost – he believes the cold to be good for his health, and hopes more Thais will venture north to face Father Frost.
“Some people think that it’s too cold and hard to survive in Russia,” Tomikhin said. But he thinks the winter is ripe for enjoying winter festivals and indoor parties. “Vodka is a fast way to get warm,” he said.
One way to experience Russian culture in Bangkok is the From Monet to Kandinsky exhibition currently on display at River City mall, developed by Russian company Vision Multimedia Projects and featuring art by modern masters such as Kandinsky and Malevich.
“For one hour and 20 minutes, you can relax, enjoy, and refresh your knowledge about the painters,” Tomikhin said. “Russian culture is not frozen. There aren’t just three ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and the Nutcracker.”
For the average Thai, Russia’s most-felt impact on the country is the presence of Russians themselves. In 2018, 1.5 million Russians visited Thailand, a 15 percent jump from the year before, with holidayers ferried in by about a 100 weekly flights between Russian and Thai cities.
Many Russians have even decided to make the warm kingdom their home, with thousands-strong Russian communities in Pattaya, Hua Hin, Bangkok, and Koh Samui. Tomikhin says many expats originally hail from Siberia and have come south to seek economic opportunity, as the region is known for being less developed than the European part of Russia.
“It’s like how Bangkok and the rural areas have a big difference,” Tomikhin compared. “Some find that it’s easier to do business here than in their hometown.”
In contrast, Thai tourism to the Motherland is a trickle – averaging about 20,000 tourists a year, though 2018 saw a sharp uptick to 100,000, possibly due to the World Cup. Assawa “Itt” Puntasu, a Thai man married to a Russian woman, has jokingly claimed to be the only Thai in Kirov.
Although there are increasing numbers of Thai package tours to Russia, most tourists stay in Moscow and St. Petersburg – but Tomikhin says there’s still much to be discovered in less-popular areas. Try skiing in Sochi, seeing the northern lights in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, exploring the lakes and wooden churches in the Republic of Karelia, and bathing in the hot springs of volcanic Kamchatka.
Tomikhin also kept circling back to prospects in the Russia Far East – ice hotels in the Republic of Sakha in east Siberia where “a fridge is warmer.”
Time to Shop?
Russia-Thai trade dropped from USD$4.9 billion in 2014 to USD$2.4 billion in 2015. Previous ambassador Kirill Barsky in 2016 attributed that drop to Western sanctions – and Tomikhin echoes sentiments against them.
“I don’t like this word, sanctions,” Tomikhin said.. “From a legal point of view, these are unilateral and illegal…and politically motivated by the US and Western Europe.”
Tomikhin gave the example of Polish apples which used to be exported to Russia. After the sanctions, Russia turned to North Africa and Asia for fruit instead.
“Who loses? The Polish farmers,” Tomikhim said.
So Russia’s been seeking opportunity, trading with other members of the BRICS bloc and the rest of the world, including Thailand. In 2018, trade with Thailand inched back to USD$3.5 billion, a 10 percent increase from 2017.
Of this volume, more than 40 percent, or USD$1.5 billion, is tied to Charoen Pokphand (CP) group, the biggest Thai investor in Russia. While the conglomerate has run a dairy complex outside of Moscow for some years now, Tomikhin says the group is now planning to expand to Siberia.
Other Russian imports from Thailand include exotic fruits and rice, while Thailand trades for crude oil, machinery, tech, and weapons. Still, Tomikhin hopes that Thailand will buy more in the last category.
“I can tell you openly, I hope military trade will be more significant,” Tomikhin said. “Russian arms are famous for their quality, and we also offer humanitarian aid and emergency disaster relief services.”
Tomikhin highlighted one model that may be of interest to Thailand: the Beriev Be-200 amphibious firefighting plane, able to refill its water tanks without having to land.
But for the average Somchai looking to get a taste of Russia – besides imported vodka, of course – Russian expats are already establishing businesses producing items like smetana sour cream, kefir, tvork, sturgeon, caviar, all most easily found in the Pattaya community.