Monday, 22 February 2010
Col. Godunov, who is Russian, ‘I was VERY senior in KGB but after misunderstanding I now live outside Russia’, was the head of the local civil defence authority. My pal’s company had recently won a contract to work with them and the Colonel wished to thank him, his colleagues and their wives. It was to be dinner, we were told, and being in town I was invited along too.
About twenty of us, with partners or wives, were mini-bussed up into the hills behind Baku where we enjoyed a rustic meal, more caviar than I’d ever seen, more pomegranates than I ever want to see again, lots of booze, and a great view of the city lights in the distance . A generous gesture from the Colonel we all agreed. As we piled into the minibuses for the trip back to town, the Colonel announced he was taking us ‘somewhere else’ – we assumed a view point or possibly a place for coffee. Not quite right.
A tortuous drive on bendy roads with no crash barrier and few lights on other vehicles took us to a place that looked like the hall in my mother’s village. No bring and buy sales here ‘though – well not exactly anyway. The Colonel ushered us all – women included -into the hall. It was a brightly lit room about the size of a tennis court. There were eight or ten doors leading off the hall and on a stool by each door sat a blonde woman. It was the Colonel’s real thank you – he had set up a brothel for us. A pop-up knocking shop. “Enjoy it” he instructed.
The reaction of our happy and now oddly sobered-up band was mixed. A few giggles, some rapid intakes of breath, one scream of horror but mainly silence. As one we shuffled back out into the yard. The Colonel was enraged – he had completely lost face and had no idea why. He disappeared.
The buses had gone – we were stuck at midnight in the middle of nowhere with ten Russian hookers. The journey down to Baku via walking and flagging down cars seemed to take hours. The next day my friend who was the Colonel’s main contact was subject to telephonic abuse that varied from the threat of the contract being pulled, the anti corruption police being informed ( dodgy territory for the Colonel I think ), the boys being sent round and all our visas being cancelled. None of these actually happened of course and finally the Colonel offered an apology for his ‘cultural faux pas.’
Oddly every Russian and Azerbaijani to whom I have told the story has been appalled by it and the word most generally applied to the Colonel is ‘дурак’ – best translated as ‘idiot’.
“ Chris, I need a favour – can you meet a local detective - off to an Interpol conference in Geneva next week – teach them some British police slang ?”
I was free that evening so why not ?
I sat in the faux Italian cafe Mi Piace on Tverskaya Ulitsa and watched the blonde supermodel in the leather miniskirt park her pink Audi droptop on the pavement. I saw the policeman walk up to it. “Ha, a ticket – serves her right” , I thought. No, he stood there waiting and watching. She came up to me.
“Chris ? I am Olga Ivanova , Moscow Murder Squad. Talk to me - I need a slang.”
The flash of red knickers as she sat down drained away my focus on John Thaw’s Sweeney lexicon, but I recovered in time. We went through “old bill”, “grass”, “you’re knicked”, “banged up”,” ten year stretch” and even “sing like a canary”. Olga tapped it all earnestly into her handheld computer. Until we came to “a stiff” – she was in the murder squad after all. “Machine says this is when man is wanting. Yes ?” she looked at me a little too directly. This was not Juliet Bravo.
“ Ah yes, quite so – stiff and stiffy .” I think I went through the various connotations accurately enough and in sufficient detail, and we pressed on to “paedos”, “narks” and “bung”. Then her mobile rang – a few words in Russian and , “ sorry Chris, colleagues have the stiffy at Leningradsky station. I go now. Goodbye.” Another flash of the knickers and she went to her Audi.
No chance of a night in the cells with Olga then.
Gutted, as they say in The Bill.
Saturday, 8 November 2008
Obviously we made it and landed – as my flights always seem to – at about 4 in the morning. Minus 35 or something equally daft outside, I seem to recall. Anyway no sooner had we landed and the lights gone on, than three guys in uniforms and fur hats walked through the plane offering we merry band of passengers a friendly dosvedanya. I dosvedanyad back of course and only when we got to the door of the plane did my pea brain register that they were the pilots. They fly, they land they go home. The stewardesses went too, leaving us shivering and in the dark to deplane ourselves.
I was reminded of this episode at Domodedovo airport last Sunday night as I tried to get to London on a British Airways flight. Waiting at the departure gate we saw the plane pull up to its stand on time, and for a few minutes I felt optimistic that we would leave in time for me to get the last train home in London. The lack of local ground staff and announcements should have told me otherwise – anyone who thinks no news is good news does not know Russia well. Silence means that something is being avoided and sure enough after 45 minutes or so it was announced that there was a delay ‘due to the servicing of an aircraft’. The definite/indefinite article does not work in Russian so watch out for the difference that ‘the’ or ‘a’ can make. In any case it was clear that it was our aircraft.
Sometime later there were still no BA staff –just a few giggling gate people and a bored-looking passport checker, but that was it. Requests for information proved pointless and the mood began to sour and deteriorate rather quickly.
After a suitable interval, the Captain himself, flanked by a couple of cabin attendants appeared at the gate. He explained that there was problem with a black box and it needed to be changed – if this could be done locally, we would be on our way soonest. The Russians in the passenger group were very impressed that the Captain had appeared and spoken so openly to us. I have always thought black boxes were red but it seems ‘black box’ is a term for any box on a plane full of kit that is, er, black. However, I digress.
Soon after the Captain had left, the local BA duty manager arrived and did whatever duty managers do. A few moments later – and this is the bit that really confused the Russians - the whole crew appeared with drinks and pretzels, (why not pork scratchings – it’s a British airline for God’s sake), for us. Both pilots acted as waiters and glass collectors in a British ‘all hands to the pumps’ kind of way. They were however vague about what this famous black box actually did despite much questioning from the newly pretzelled up passengers.
Just before the cut off time when the pilots needed to sleep, (have they never head of Red Bull), the local mechanic fixed whatever was wrong with the black box and off we went. BA also paid a taxi home for me.
So why is this of interest? There were three aspects of Russian behaviour on display. The first is status – this is very important for Russians and the idea of a pilot (very high status) appearing publically and effectively doing a PR job is totally alien – as was the waiter act. YAK pilots do not speak to passengers before or during the flight, let alone worry about the airline’s image. Secondly the issue of authority came up. The Russian BA manager did not appear at the gate even though one of her three daily flights was very late, because nobody told her to. The Captain, I was later told, had called her and asked her to come down. This submission to, acceptance of and desire for authority leads many foreign managers to the belief that Russians have no initiative. It’s not that really – they just expect to be told what to do. The third issue was patience – the Russians were waiting in silence- it was the Brits who were getting ratty and tapping their watches. Russian acceptance of things going wrong and the feeling they can do nothing, you see.
So in essence the Russians do the tech. bit and the British pacify the crowd.
I hope to see you on board one of our YAK 40s again soon.
Monday, 22 September 2008
In ‘Dead Souls’, Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol writes that Russia is ‘mired in poverty and mess, unwelcoming with no arresting wonders of nature’ He goes on however to ask what is ‘this unfathomable, uncanny force that draws me to you ?’
Anyone who has ever lived or worked in Russia will know what he means – there is a remarkable fascination with all things Russian that grabs people who are exposed to its people and cultures and refuses to let them go. It is for these people above all that ‘The New Russian Business Leaders’ has been written. It is for Russophiles because it is about Russia first and about business and leadership second. The other potential readers will be MBA students of leadership and corporate cultural change, but I think that the majority of those picking it up will be the Russia enthusiasts particularly those of us who lose sleep over what is going happen to that country in the 21 century.
The book is not really for business people in the conventional sense, as it does not contain very many practical tips for doing deals in Russia – it is a very academic book and the reader would have to form their own conclusions about the practical application of the insights into the Russian model of capitalism. The book also assumes a knowledge of cross cultural theory that business people simply won’t have. You need to have read Hall, Hofstede, Lewis et al to get the most out of this book.
The book is extremely well researched and has three sections, the first reflects upon the Russian character with speculation as to what makes Russians so Russian and a look at the classic East/West interface that runs through so much of that society. The second section of the book – and in my view the best – profiles a number of Russian entrepreneurs from industries as diverse as hydrocarbons (Mikhail Khodorkovsky), sports clubs (Olga Sloutsker) and banking (Ruben Vardanian), and this does bring the book to life as the profiles are very real. The third section of the book pulls together the strands to make some conclusions and projects Russian corporate activities into the new century.
Entrepreneurs are generally exceptional people - in many ways a breed apart - and the Russian ones are no exception to this rule. There are however significant characteristics that separate Russian entrepreneurs from the rest of the herd. All entrepreneurs are opportunistic but many of the Russian ones (including some profiled in this book) have exploited a situation in a way that in the West would have them accused of conflict of interest at best or have them arrested at worst. The previous incarnation that many of these people or their families had under the USSR (membership of state property committees etc) allowed them at the time of the collapse to acquire vast businesses with relative ease often from under the noses of quiescent government officials . ‘Dead Souls’ was written in 1842 and shows us this is not a new idea in Russia. The near total lack of regulation in the Yeltsin years gave many of these entrepreneurs a great opportunity. As the book says, Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos (now in jail for tax evasion), and seen as an entrepreneur ‘never had a great business idea along the lines of Amazon.com, Starbucks or Microsoft Windows’. The skills of many of the Russian business leaders have been ruthlessly exploiting an opportunity and tuning it around - as with Yukos - but I am not sure this is entrepreneurship.
The book shatters several myths about capitalism in Russia and Russian views of business. Money is not the be all and end all for most Russians – priorities are different and western companies often have problems hiring by basing remuneration on salary alone. Russians seek more than that and benefits such as health and pension care, fixed working hours and above all job security count for much more than just the roubles. The second issue is the extent to which Russia really is capitalist. The positive impact of red blooded capitalism on the lives of the vast majority of Russians is negligible. Salaries are still low, working conditions often bleak in the industrial sector and the civil society that western capitalism seems to have generated barely exists. Equally while there is some SME activity in Russia, the state machine does not encourage it and the collapse of the Soviet Union is too recent for any real risk taking spirit to have taken root. Of course it may never take root.
It is at this level that I do take some issue with the book - I find its tone too optimistic. The book admits that much work needs to be done to create a democratic state in Russia, emphasising the lack of a free press but tells us that ‘Many people have thrown away their old dependency-based behaviour patterns and taken responsibility for their lives and well being into their own hands…..” Some people have, but the vast majority have not. The safety net of the Soviet Union has gone but the second step of a private sector replacement has not emerged. Any foreigner visiting a residential block in Russia for the first time will be shocked at the decrepit state of the common areas – the flats inside may be refurbished and refurnished thanks to IKEA but the common areas are usually dark, dirty and unkempt. In some blocks all the flats are owner occupied but nobody takes responsibility for cleaning and painting the halls and stairs. At even this most basic level the dependency culture lives on. Capitalism will mean nothing to the vast majority of the population until the benefits trickle down to ordinary people. Russian business and political leaders need to grasp this fact.
As a study of Russian business leadership, the depth of research and cogency of argument in the book is well ahead of anything else seen to date and to that end it deserves to be highly regarded. It does what it says on the cover. To see the impact or otherwise of entrepreneurs in Russian society, a trip to the Russian regions and some Gogol are recommended.
Thursday, 28 August 2008
There is an old Chinese curse - “May you live in interesting times”. In Russia at the moment this has never been truer. Indeed in recent days a huge threat to the very viability of my business (and I suspect many others too) has emerged.
The crisis in the Caucasus ? No. Worryingly large capital outflows from the Russian banking system ? Nyet. The sharp decline in US/Russia relations over the missile sites in Poland ? Wrong again.
It’s much worse than that.
My colleagues have come back from their holidays.
Hundreds and hundreds of them and the whole office staff and all visitors have to see them. Every one of them. They also have to be given a detailed day-to-day account of the times had in Antalya/Rimini/Sharm El Sheikh etc etc. Now under normal circumstances I am more than willing to look at photos of young females in bikinis frolicking in the sea. But these are not normal circumstances – businesses are grinding to a halt. Offices across the country are full of small groups of sun blackened people with three day hangovers hunched over PCs comparing photos and memories of heroic drinking and clubbing sessions, and all the new friends of the opposite sex they have made. (Not like we Brits if course – we can’t remember the new friends of the opposite sex we have made).
I assume I am not the only foreign manager struggling with this. So what is can be done ?
Embrace it. Join in.
Russians are above all ‘people people.’ Human relationships are far more important than business relationships, yet at the same time they underpin them. You need to get the personal relationship in place first, and maintain it, before any successful business or workplace relationship can commence. These gatherings to talk about holidays and the equally disruptive celebrations of colleagues’ birthdays (and never, ever forget a birthday) are great ways for you to cement personal relationships at work. Sitting at your desk looking grumpy will be noted and cause resentment. Taking part and expressing a genuine interest in your staff at a human level will pay off many times over in terms of loyalty, overtime and just ‘going that extra mile’ in the workplace.
So make a special effort to join in with social events even if they are in what you view as work time and you will have your team right behind you.
And you get to look at pictures of people in swimwear.
Thursday, 24 July 2008
Memo to self. Don't open office in Tokyo - Asuncion shows immense promise.
While not seeking to take issue with Mercers - at least not that much issue - I am not sure I agree with their findings. I commute between London and Moscow on a regular basis and live in Moscow as an expat - eating out plenty, rented flat etc and I have to say I think it's cheaper then London. Much cheaper.
It is perfectly possible to spend a lot of money in Moscow but I guess that you can do the same in Asuncion if you put your mind to it. But you don't have to.
I think many foreigners/expats in Russia simply allow themselves to be ripped off at so many levels. The rents that major corporates pay for frankly pretty shoddy, albeit tarted up IKEA-style flats are crazy. It's easy to find much better value via the agents that Russians use to find places or often simply by asking colleagues. You may not speak enough Russian to find a good value flat but your Russian colleagues will help you. Russians are like that.
Now really don't get me going on the subject of food. There are lots of mid-price supermarkets in Moscow where you can get the weekly food shop. Language ? Pick up food, put in basket and read the total price on the cash register. Just like at home. The card they ask for at the checkout is a loyalty card. Just like at home. A polite nyet, hand over the petrorubles and you'll be on your way. Agreed, foreign food is pricey - French cheese and wine can be silly money - but there is more to life than French cheese and wine. Apparently. The shops many expats use are the equivalent of going to the Harrods food hall every day.
Eating out can be expensive of course in Moscow but look for places where locals go. I don't mean the type of local who is driven around in an S Class V12 with black windows and a blonde on each arm with a mini skirt that is more mini than skirt. I mean regular Muscovites probably earning 1500-2000 bucks a month. They eat out and eat well. The best places are often out of the centre and do not vibrate to the tones of International English. There is however often an English menu and it is common for at least one of the waiting staff - who are often students - to be able to speak some English. Again ask your colleagues where they go.
If you have a driver use them - why not - your Russian colleagues will be baffled if you don't. If not use the metro. Cheap, fast, in English on the maps and safe. Taxis are basically licensed bandits. I just flag down regular cars. Much cheaper. You need a bit of Russian and they can be unsfafe but then again I am nearly two metres with very short hair. Not for expat females perhaps but fine for guys or two women together. Or one guy and two women - we are in Moscow after all.
So there you have it. If you want to be ripped off in Moscow then go for it. If not, go where Russians go and do what they do and Moscow ain't that bad.