“Never Talk to Strangers” is the title of the first chapter of Bulgakov’s iconic novel The Master and Margarita. If two of the characters in the story had followed that advice; one, the literary editor Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, would not have slipped on Annushka’s spilled sunflower oil and lost his head under a streetcar’s wheels; and the other, the poet Bezdomny, would not have found himself stalking around Moscow on a hot summer night in winter underwear pursuing a transparent foreigner and a tall black cat who rode trolley cars and played cards. What to do with foreigners has forever perplexed the Russians.
An acquaintance of mine, whose name is Yuri, but whom I called “The Bolshevik” behind his back because he wore a stubby beard, a little black cap, and had a narrow attitude, said to me once, “I can look out from the border of Russia, and know that behind me is everything I could ever need or want.” I said he had a narrow attitude. People and cultures stagnate if kept in a vacuum without others to test and strengthen them. Russians, who nowadays are fighting for jobs in Moscow’s numerous foreign companies, are well aware of the dangers of stagnation. Even the Bolshevik’s wife had a good job with Price Waterhouse.
Russia’s defensive xenophobia would not have so singularly prevailed had the country been in the crucible of conflicting European thought over the past centuries. Geography and religions precluded that. Instead it has been poised atop of Asia with only the sash of its black robe dangling in Europe. Russia’s insecurity has led it into seizures of reactive misdeeds with self-defeating and long-lasting consequences. It is foreign influence rather than foreigners themselves that many Russians dislike. Of course, they forget Peter the Great who went to Europe and brought back all sorts of technology, craftsmen, and foreign ideas and built St. Petersburg and the Russian Empire. If Peter the Great had thought in the same way as my friend Yuri the Bolshevik, Russia would have never become an empire. But maybe it is not the foreign help they reject. It’s being seen accepting that help that is the problem.
Some say Russians are proud of being a mystery to the West. They look at the West not as a geographical place, but as some kind of spirit, style of behavior, or a way of thinking that is “not ours.” It threatens their sense of identity, or national mentality, their status. While the West has its internal conflicts, it has less of the “them” and “us” mentality prevalent in Russian society. Time will erode this Cold War holdover. It has changed already in the young, particularly in the big cities. And business ties across borders have been significantly shortened by technology, which the young Russian has such a knack for.
A successful Russian friend once complained to me: “My life is better today, but there is something missing, something valuable - time for each other. We used to sit in the kitchen and talk until the early morning hours. And now all I have is demeaning TV programs, violent American movies, and the ever-present cell-phone with calls from the United States or my Moscow partners. There is no culture anymore.” The Russian proclivity for deep thought and endless argument is threatened by Western quick-cut editing and sound-bite condensation of important events. I understand and identify with that complaint.
It is understandable why some Russians feel emasculated by the technological superiority of Western products and systems. After decades of delusion about superior Soviet production and the perfect Soviet man, anyone with money now buys European, U.S., or Japanese products. This frustration is understandable, since Russia is a highly educated nation capable of enormous creativity. It is not the people, but the system. Many thousands of young Russians are directly supporting global technology ventures today. The entrepreneurs among them are stepping out in front. Russia has to team up with the rest of the world to develop its full potential. They have to talk to strangers. And so many are now doing that. The young Russians in business today know that as part of their life, even if they can’t sit at the kitchen table and talk. They are on their i-phones to friends. It’s like that all over the globe.
Russia is racing into the global economic and social norm, but at the same time, I hope, it will retain the unique color and strength of the Russian character. Russia is talking to strangers.
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.