One freezing Moscow morning early in my Russian experience, I met Svetlana, an attractive fortyish Bolshoi ballerina who lived across the hall from me, and we walked to the Metro together. The ice, black and dirty, was four inches thick with a light cover of new wet snow-as slippery as it gets. She gracefully clicked along in her three-inch heels as if she were waltzing across the marble floor of a palace. How did she do it?
It remains a mystery to me how the Russians manage the icy streets of Moscow with such confidence. They move briskly along and never seem to slip. It’s not the shoes, no different from mine-rubber soles with a tread. It must be something else. I lived in New England for many years and am used to ice, but I cannot keep up with the Russians.
Exceptions to this phenomenon are the tragicomedies of drunks in winter. One I remember, wildly negotiating a narrow icy incline on his knees, was getting no help from his wife who kept insulting him and beating him with her purse. Another was a man with rubber legs, leaning on his wife as they inched their way down a slippery sidewalk, when around the corner charged a horse of a Great Dane, huge paws scratching wildly at the ice as he leaned into the curve. The dog brushed the drunk, spinning him, arms flailing, head first into a snow bank ten feet away.
But these are the exceptions. Even the drunks often handle the ice quite well-like sailors on the rolling deck of a ship at sea.
I asked Katya, my Russian teacher, “How do they do it?” Of course, she was surprised at the question. Her answer had more meaning than she intended. “Russians have been walking on ice for a thousand years,” she said. “We have no choice. We have never really known anything firm under our feet.”
Doing business as a foreigner in Russia is also very much like walking on ice. Nothing is ever secure, nothing is for sure. As on ice, progressing in a straight line is hard enough. You change directions carefully or spin out of control. Slipping around confused by the eternal problems of doing business in Russia will likely end you up in the snow bank like the drunk. The reason for this insecurity is of course that Russia is not a country of laws but of personalities and tactics, both unpredictable.
We all have choices. No one ever said it would be easy. In fact, everyone advised against it. My partners in California were encouraging and helpful, but said they would not put a penny into Russia. That is why I went. It was a mountain to climb. At an age when others were retiring, I began a business in Russia; a country and a people I knew precious little about, except their music, which had enchanted me since a child. We each have our own experiences. We make our own choices.
For me, although unexpected, there was a personal price to pay that can never be retrieved. I thought I was going for six months, and it became six years. The protracted time away from family, my devoted wife, children, and grandchildren proved heart rending. But, there was a reward also, and I think my family has shared in it, even if vicariously.
I enjoy much about Russia and find much to laugh about—not at, but with the Russians. While often sensitive to foreign criticism, they generally have a robust sense of humor with a wonderful ability to laugh at themselves. But, maybe that is unfair, as one friend told me, “You foreigners can enjoy Russia and return home—but we have to live with it.” In over forty years in international business I have traveled the world over. For me the excitement and color of the Russian experience surpasses all.
My life on Russian soil began in November, 1991 with a business development tour sponsored by Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. My wife, Betty, and I invaded the Soviet Union in search of adventure. It was a time of naïve expectations on part of the Russians, and Americans as well. For me at least, it was a time of wonderment with a surprise around every corner.
Russians asked me why. “You live in Newport Beach and you came to Russia? Are you out of your mind?” Like most Americans I knew little about Russia on the other side of that Cold War wall of exclusion. My first small encounter began when as a child, my sister Winnifred, twelve years my senior, read me Pushkin fairy tales and enchanted me with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I was growing up on the West Texas desert at a gas pipeline pumping station. That tidbit of Russian culture was a slowly germinating seed that grew the best it could in the darkening shadow of the Cold War. My love of Russian music and art grew, but the interest in all things Russian did not come into full bloom until the Berlin Wall fell a lifetime later, and I, for reasons I did not fully understand at the time, went to Russia to start a business I knew little about. That is the way life often is.
It was a pivotal time in Russian history. Now after nineteen years of participating in Russia’s wrenching entrance into the real world, I begin to look back on my own experience of living and doing business there, and what did I learn. I still can’t handle the ice with the confidence of a Russia. But that is understandable. They’ve had a thousand years of practice. I am still learning.
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.