It’s common knowledge that in Russia the contract is often the beginning not the end of negotiations. It used to be called a “Protocol” not unlike the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in the West. The Protocol was a mutual understanding of the personal agreement at the time of signing.
But of course both sides understood that things could change, out of the control of even the best intentions of the signing parties: a new boss gets into the loop or something similar. After all, no one is personally responsible. Signatures today do mean something. Contractual personal responsibility for tomorrow is growing. It will be a while until the concept of contractual law is as normal and enforceable as in the West, but it is changing.
I can’t help but think again about Kafka’s novel The Castle. The protagonist, known only as K., strives to gain access to the mysterious authorities of a castle on a hill that governs the village where K. has arrived to work as a land surveyor who is no longer needed. It is about the endless frustrations of man's attempts to win against the system—forever, it seems, the challenges to the Russian, the “system.” In the book K. is wisely advised that “It is not the official letter, but the unofficial letter that counts.”
My first experience with this was with a letter I received from the officials of a major Russian government organization after an initial meeting in the United States. At first, it read like a proper acknowledgement of our meeting and conversation. But I intuitively felt there was something else there. It was not a James Bond code between the lines, but a deeper meaning behind the words. After some re-reading, I realized what was being meant. This important international organization was looking for a reliable American partner—not officially, of course. That started a long personal and mutually beneficial relationship—unofficially.
One thing you have to understand is that Russia is a political country. A popular definition of “politics” is “the art of the possible.” Never mind about the Kremlin. That is another ocean most of us encounter from afar. But at the daily business level, it can be like crossing a big pond in a small boat. It is better to know you may need help with the oars and prepare by choosing your helpers yourself. In Russian they call it a “roof” which means political contacts that hopefully will be there to help when you need it. Also, hopefully they will leave you alone to manage your business and not interfere. In my Russian company we were fortunate to have connections which did just that. Some roofs leak in a storm; others are overwhelming and starve you of sun to grow in. It’s like getting married. Be careful to pick the right one as you may be with them a long time. Again, here is where patience pays. Patience is strength.
For over 1,000 years in Russia the rule of law was whatever the ruler ordered. The interpretation of his decisions depended on those down the line. It was more like what I call “The Rule of Thumbs.” Everyone had a thumb to put on top of another. Sometime I think nothing has changed. It is what happens in a “top-down” bureaucracy. What is understood by “The Rule of Law” by one party may not be the same to another. Indeed, today in Russia laws are being made, and step-by-step they are coming closer to a universal meaning. In a democracy, the laws are made by duly elected representatives of the people. Russia is not there yet. In many ways it is still “The Rule of Thumbs.” Everyone seems to have his thumb on someone else. Even the lowest guy on the totem pole looks for someone lower on whom he can put his thumb, maybe a parking attendant. As de Tocqueville says: “The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men.”
But, things are changing. Contractual law in Russia is becoming real. But, thumbs are still there.
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.