How to succeed in Russian business is the question. While it does not require sleeping on a bed of nails, as the hero did in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s famous novel What Is To Be Done? to prove his commitment 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 hard-working. New leadership is developing out of that 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 in short order 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. One, at least, is buried there. In Russia, like anywhere else in my experience, honesty, intellgence, 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. Remember The Grand Inquisitor’s “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. Even if you have to fake it, never be the bottom dog in Russia.
One Soviet joke illustrates this in a different way. 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. I don’t belittle the issue. But, I never let it slow me down. You can steer around it.
One of the perplexing answers to “what is to be done,” comes from Victor Chernomyrdin who in 1997, at the end of his stint as premier of The Russian Federation 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?