Early in my Russian business experience, in 1992 I think it was, I contacted a man high in Yeltsin’s circles and he invited me to his office at five PM, Room 250. It was on a street just down from the then new McDonald’s where young entrepreneurs were taking orders from passing drivers and giving them to their buddies already well positioned in the block-long line for Big Macs.
The nameplate on the office building said it was a children’s book publisher. We got past the guard easily enough who was impressed we were going to Room 250. We went up the stairs to the second floor. There was no Room 250–lots of other numbers, but no 250. We asked a person walking by and he pointed, “Right there.” There was no number on the door and it was not next to 249 or 251 or any number close to 250. It was one of my first exposures to Russian disinformation.
Inside were two ladies, one in authority and one talking to her boyfriend on the green plastic desk phone. The one in charge told us to come back another time, that Mr. P had gone to the bank to ask a question. I said I would wait–and I did for over an hour. She put me into his private office to wait and that alone was a lesson. In the corner was a glass covered case of Lenin’s writings which I guessed had never been handled, much less read for many years. Under the glass on his desk were name cards, about twenty of them, different organizations, entities of one sort or another, all with Mr. P’s name on them. My assistant and I sat at the long table and waited. Soon entered another man with an appointment. Then is when I got a good lesson on Russian organization and power.
Mr. K was from Kursk, my assistant said. She could tell by his accent. Mr. K explained that in Russia, the man you see is not the man who “does.” He said there were twenty military districts and in each–he held up his hand like a puppet master–there are the controllers for that district. And at the end of the strings–he bounced his hand up and down–are the “officials.” He told us not to assume that who we see in the Kremlin was who ran the country and he cocked his head toward the empty desk.
I have never forgotten that lesson. It rang true to Kafka’s “The one who you call is not the one who answers,” and “It is not the official letter, but the unofficial letter that counts.” Indeed, if our elected officials, dealing with this vast and geographically vital country ever read Kafka, they would understand the minds we deal with there. I have been in business there for now over 17 years and while there are two sides to the coin everywhere, in Russia, there are often three.
Excerpted from “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia”