“Nyet! It can’t be done.” Was the response I was given in Russia to almost any request. It was a common and expected challenge. But I am not one to easily take “no” for an answer. Then I learned how to respond. “I realize it is difficult,” I said, “but if you were to do it, how would you do it?” Then I got a different response.
It is understandable that the Russian automatically says “no.” “Yes” commits him, burdening him with personal responsibility, a character trait seemingly in short supply amongst Russians. He knows from experience, that even if theoretically it can be done, something will surely happen to screw it up. So why bother and then take the blame?
The second phrase I became accustomed to hearing was Eto ne moya otvetstvennost, meaning, “It is not my responsibility.” How they laughed when I tried to use the phrase to get out of doing something.
In Russia, everything is difficult and everything is possible. So appealing to the “how” of a problem immediately appeals to a Russian’s experienced sense of resourcefulness, a character trait in great abundance. The Russian spirit has for centuries struggled against adversity. Their inherent penchant for survival has prepared Russians for getting around the obstacles of life and supplying solutions, sometimes unusual ones, to get the job done. That explains why the girls in the office were always looking for a “clever” man.
Late one Saturday night, returning home from a country drive, I pushed the button for the elevator to go to my seventh floor apartment. I fumbled the keys from my pocket and watched helplessly as they dropped and slid across the well-worn cement floor and disappeared through the wide crack between the elevator and the floor. It was midnight. What could be done?
My landlord was at her dacha with no phone. My driver hadn’t a clue and was anxious to return to his family. The babushka attendant wrinkled her brow and tried to call the maintenance man, but he lived far away. I decided to sit on the bench, to pray, to sleep there if I had to, and wait for a solution. Soon it came.
My driver, who had left for home, returned in an hour with a friend who produced a horse-shoe magnet the size of a dinner plate and a long string. Slithering the magnet down the crack between the elevator and the floor, and using a flashlight to spot the keys twenty feet below in the dirt, up they came.
Then, as the keys were coming up, the maintenance man arrived from his home an hour away with his solution, which of course we would have needed if my driver’s friend had not been at home on a Saturday night. I was doubly obligated.
It was an experience like this and many others that elevated my respect and appreciation of my Russian colleagues to the highest in my many years in international business. That determination of the individual to see the potential of a task and to work toward its final and satisfactory completion is helping to turn Russia around and move it forward in this rapidly changing world. Resourcefulness is critical today—and the Russian has that.
“That’s not my responsibility” is often what you get. It is part of Russia’s heritage. But if he likes you and you have challenged his ability to solve the problem, the Russian will call on his innate resourcefulness to help. That is why relationships are everything in Russia. But things are changing for the younger generation. Today the aggressive young man or woman might respond to a request to take responsibility with an unqualified assurance of success.
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.