How to actually succeed in Russian business is the question. While it does not require sleeping on a bed of nails, as the hero in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s famous novel What Is To Be Done did to prove his dedication to his Marxist ideals, it does require a clear and serious intent, dedication, perseverance, and many other things.
In a land historically devoid of the predictability of law, the cement of society is built on personal relationships. This takes time. That interwoven matrix is complex. That is why one never makes commitments he cannot deliver. It is deeds, not words that count. Character is more important than contracts. Once that trust develops, I found the Russians reliable, resourceful, dedicated, and extremely hard-working. New leadership can develop out of the growing pool of forward-looking younger men and women.
After you understand the system and the relational foundation of Russian society, the pathway is reasonably predictable. You learn quickly how to pick your friends. You may make mistakes, but learn from them and move on. Unfortunately, my biggest problem was dealing with Americans who somehow felt the rules that constrained their ambitions at home did not apply in Russia. In the end, most of them learned the hard way. Some returned home posing as experts. Some returned disillusioned and broke. In Russia, like anywhere else in my experience, honesty, intelligence, reliability, and good hard work are respected and gain the kind of reputation on which solid business is built.
Having said all that, in dealing with Russians sometimes it helps to think of two dogs. Even if you have to fake it, never be the bottom dog in Russia. In the Grand Inquisitor chapter of his famed The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky stressed along with “mystery and miracle,” the Russian respect for “authority.” You never want to be in the submissive position. You lose respect. You also don’t want to be the dominant aggressor. You growl a lot but get little done. You must assume the authority to be equal, never submissive. One joke illustrates this differently. Two sailors, one a Russian and the other Ukrainian, were walking down the street in Sevastopol and on the sidewalk they find a ten-dollar bill. The Russian says, “Great, let’s share this like brothers.” The Ukrainian however says, “No, let’s split it 50/50.” Partnership can be subjective.
What about crime? There are precautions one must take. Yes, business disagreements are settled differently sometimes. That gets the headlines, but it is the exception, not the rule. The streets are safer than in many American cities. Moscow is cleaner than New York. In the Metros the Russians are more polite and less odiferous than in Paris. I remember one Russian’s answer to the question from a reporter about the Mafia. The Russian answered, “You say sixty percent of Russia today is controlled by organized crime? Believe me, that is an improvement. Before, it was 100 percent.” I don’t belittle the issue. But, I never let it slow me down. You can steer around it.
William Lytle Schurz was an unforgettable professor of mine at Thunderbird School of Global Management, my graduate school. He stated incredulously to us at the time, just a few years after Stalin’s death, that Russians and Americans were more alike than any two peoples on earth. He said they were both people of the soil; they both loved their country, were an egalitarian lot, could laugh at themselves, and were hard workers. He was right. Americans and Russians make good partners. They are straight-speaking, self-confident, and work well as a team. When both the Russian and American understand the other’s personality and culture, good teamwork and mutual benefit can be achieved. Look at the space program for example.
If Alexis de Tocqueville was the visionary of the 1830s, I think Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson fill that role for the present. Their book, Russia 2010, although published in 1993, is still in tune with Russia’s almost daily unfolding. I studied that book when first in Russia and the experience convinced me of one of their three projected possibilities for the future of the new Russia. In between the “Two Headed Eagle” and the “Time of Troubles,” the other extremes presented by the authors, lays my choice called “Muddling Down.” In the end, the writers are convinced of Capitalism Russian-Style, which will be shaped by the individual path it takes. From what I have experienced, I tend to agree.
One of the perplexing answers to “What is to be done?” comes from Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian prime minister in the 1990s, whose death this week aroused a remarkable wave of sympathy from all over Russia and condolences from around the globe. In 1993, Chernomyrdin said, “We hoped for the best, but it turned out like always.” Or another of his historical remarks, “If one considers what could have been done, and then what we did do over this long time, one can conclude that something was done.” Really?
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.