The whole world wrestles with change today. The Russians are working hard at it, and succeeding. After all, it is not just changing from last year, but from a thousand years of autocracy, by whatever name. When I came to Moscow just as the Post-Soviet era began, I wanted our young employees to know things would be different. I posted the following notice by my office door.
“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system [change].
For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones.”
While the rest of the developed world maneuvered forward at warp speed, the Soviet Union, like a rusty supertanker with a dead man at the helm, plodded along to an inevitable collision with reality. Gorbachev didn’t know what he was doing when he grabbed the wheel and changed course. Even some Russians today have their doubts if it was the right thing to do.
Part of that change is getting to work in the morning and Russians seem to have a hard time getting up for that. In our office Marina had a particular problem; so much we changed her work hours to arrive at ten. One morning, about 10:20, she came into my office, still in her coat and her hair undone, apologizing for being late. “I just couldn’t wake up. I have three alarm clocks and a mother and still I am late. I don’t know what to do.”
I treated it lightly as she was usually conscientious. “Too many parties, Marina? What keeps you up so late?”
“I have to see my friends. We never have time any more. We used to visit during the day, on our jobs, and go to bed at a decent hour. But, we can’t do that any more. It’s terrible.”
A friend of mine summed it up, “We used to have an easy job and a tough life. Now we have a tough job and an easier life. Some day we may have an easy job and an easy life.”
A growing number in Moscow and St. Petersburg who populate the increasing middle class, those with disposable incomes, work hard and still happily experience the “easier life.” Outside of Moscow, that element is slowly developing and it is hard to see. Moscow and the regions are like two different countries, even two different cultures.
Dimitri and his brother Eugene, both telecommunications engineers, were among the first Russians I worked with as business partners in 1992. Great guys! Years later, Dima volunteered to me, “Fred, you said it would be like this, but I never believed you. And here I am now, enjoying a better life for my family and myself. It has worked. Thank you.” Today, Dima and Eugene both are in top management of leading Western telecom companies in Russia, working hard and doing well.
The most obvious example of change is McDonalds. I am not a McDonald’s fan in America. But I have great respect for them in Russia. I ate at the McDonald’s near Kievsky Station when it first opened and watched the attendants at the cash registers, who always raised their hand to signal they were ready for the next customer. I also watched the supervisor behind them. She walked up and down the line, encouraging, helping, and training the new girls. The next week I went to lunch with Marc Winer, then president of McDonald’s in Russia. I told him, “The criticism of America for exporting fast food totally misses the point. What McDonalds has exported is efficiency, cleanliness, quality, and pride of accomplishment. Ideas are the most valuable export.” In 1992, there was one McDonald’s, and I saw people fly in from Siberia to get hamburgers and take them back by the bundle. The company reports that original location at Pushkin Square is still today the most popular McDonald's in the entire world. Over the past 20 years, it has served more than 130 million customers. That’s a lot of burgers and fries. The company now runs restaurants in 60 Russian cities and counting.
Still there is some resistance to “corrupting” Western ideas. It is their choice. But, today they can choose, for the first time in a century if not a millennium. They have come a long way. It’s not such a “fearful burden” anymore. Now many of the “lukewarm defenders” of the new ideas are hot “gainers,” hot as Moscow’s Big Macs. Machiavelli might be surprised. Change can taste good.
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.