No one said it better than Dostoevsky. In his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, he clearly defines the underlying rationale for the mental despotism that has for centuries burdened the Russian people. In the famous chapter, The Grand Inquisitor, the middle brother, Ivan, relates an allegory he has written, set during the Spanish Inquisition, in which Jesus has returned to earth and is immediately imprisoned for bringing a dead girl back to life. The wizened Grand Inquisitor lectures the silent Jesus on the folly of freedom and individual choice and says to him, “There are three forces, the only forces that are able to conquer and hold captive forever the conscience of these weak rebels [the people] for their own happiness—these forces are: miracle, mystery, and authority.”
These three things are generic to the traditional Russian character: the idea that good, if any, will come from some unexpected outside source (miracle); that man is not ordained to be responsible for his own welfare and progress (mystery); and that guidance and protection come only from constant dependence on and obedience to someone else (authority).
This perspective on Russian thinking has smoothed my way on many occasions. One Friday afternoon soon after I first began living in Russia, I was gazing out of the office window on the 28th floor of what is now called the Mayor’s Building on Moscow’s Novy Arbat street. I was talking to Eugene, the congenial Russian engineer who had been assigned to work with me, and we were discussing a matter which illustrated the fact that his company, our partner, did not understand the small but promising progress my company was making. They wanted to take an action I felt was in violation of our working agreement, namely doing a deal on our joint project with a major U.S. competitor. I said, “Eugene, we have now six customers - strong U.S. companies. How do you think we did that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a mystery.”
“These companies pay us each month and your company gets its share as we agreed. How do you think we do that?”
“I don’t know,” Eugene answered. “It’s a miracle.”
I could not believe my ears. That weekend I reread “The Grand Inquisitor” and it suddenly hit me: Authority! The third force according the Ivan’s story.
On Monday morning I returned to the conversation I had been having with Eugene. “Concerning the issue we were discussing about your dealing with our competitor,” I said, “the answer is NO!”
Eugene said, “Oh, Okay.” That was the end of it. I had exercised authority and it had been accepted.
I remember Marina, in 1993, when we were starting the business. She loved to challenge authority. We had to show passes to a couple of kalishnikov-armed guards whenever we entered or exited the building, but some VIPs didn’t do this. It was a mark of authority. So, Marina, who is petite and charming, would stretch herself up in her mink coat, and walk briskly past the guard as if he was not there. Once, a guard grabbed her arm and asked for her pass. She jerked away, looked him up and down and barked, “What are you, new here?” and walked on. The guard looked around, shrugged and focused on me. I quickly showed my pass. If you exercise authority in Russia, the other party will often assume you have it.
How to exercise authority is another story. It depends on whom the authority is being imposed. In the case of a subordinate type, such as a clerk or underling of some sort, the person involved must know or accept that you have the authority to request whatever it is you are asking for. She (or he) gets that approval from her boss. Then, you get agreement from the person that she will complete the task and ask, "Is there anything that may keep you from getting this done?" If she says her grandfather's funeral is that afternoon, then you know she is just following the oriental custom of not making you unhappy by saying no. She will handle your disappointment later.
At the same time, you must gain her cooperation and respect. Give her some flowers when she has done you a favor or an especially good job. Compliment her (in front of her boss if possible), but not too much or she will feel she is losing authority in your eyes. You can be strong and still sensitive and respectful of her lowly position and don’t forget March 8 is Woman’s Day and flowers are in order.
Even if the person has convinced you she is fully committed to fulfilling your request, she still, of course, has no control over destiny (mystery). Fate may intervene (a call from her sister in Omsk, for instance) and the job won't be done, through no fault of hers of course.
Three steps forward and two backward. These young Russian workers are increasingly aware that personal responsibility is the key to their success. But, wherever you step into the world of government institutions, you can expect the old bureaucratic attitude to still be operating. But, patience and dogged perseverance in a straight line will eventually bring results. It may even bring a miracle.
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.