By Frederick Andresen
Author of Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia
“Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.” Alexis de Tocqueville had it right in 1831 about America and Russia. And his perspective is right today. How does the United States interact with its closest neighbor next to Canada and Mexico? Many Americans have worked hard at this. Some have failed and others have succeeded. Based on one of those successes, this nine-part series focuses on the issues and practices that make success happen in Russia today.
Part 7: Deciphering the Culture
Where do we start when it comes to understanding Russian culture? Back with the Princes of Kiev, 1,000 years ago? Back when they hired the Vikings to solve their arguments and chose the Orthodox Church to organize and control their people? Or in the recent headlines -– the Russian/Georgian debacle. It’s all connected. But let’s start with a word.
If one word describes Russia it is “irony.” Webster says irony is a “discordance between what one says or does, and what one means or what is generally understood.” Under Stalin, or even the Czars, one could get in big trouble for saying what he thought or meant.
What has always intrigued me about Russian culture and history is how under a thousand years of autocracy and dictatorship, such amazing men and women have emerged and survived. So in this historic autocracy, a people who have so blessed us with its famous writers, composers and artists, have become masters of irony and ironic humor, a fact true even of its everyday citizens.
There is a painting from Soviet times that illustrates this. Across a bleak land, a black paved road stretches straight to the horizon with a dark silhouette of a modern high-rise city. Pushing up through the cracks in this road are leaves of grass and budding flowers. Those vibrant plants reaching for light through the cracks represent to me the great writers, poets, composers, painters, filmmakers, dancers, scientists, inventors and now the entrepreteurs.
That is actually, in part, what makes it all so enjoyable. To see this at work, even if the real meaning is somewhere under the surface.
It still holds true. You have to think twice to know what is really meant. Recently I locally hosted some civic leaders from a major Russian city. I wanted to know more about President Medvedev. My guest looked straight ahead and without expression answered, “We have two presidents in Russia. One is named Putin. The other – I can’t remember his name.”
That was funny to me, but not to him. But his meaning came across.
It is a truism in Russia that “Everything is difficult, and everything is possible.” Some complain that Russia is unpredictable. I say no, it is predictably unpredictable.
When you understand at least there is a second side and often a third side to the Russian coin, at least you are not surprised.
What makes a Russian tick was a leading question when I first went to Russia in 1991. I was told long before — Russia was not a European, but an Asian country. That’s true.
I am now convinced that principally two things make a people –- geography and religion. And in the end, the most powerful factor is geography. Religion is often confined or projected by the mountains, oceans and rivers of the land. But still it conditions the minds and actions of its adherents or the general human mindset.
Putting things into perspective is one of the problems. Russia has a 1,000 year history and like so many other such civilizations and peoples has a vertical culture. America? 232 years old and lives in a horizontal culture. So perspectives on both sides can be slanted by those differing cultural points of view.
Czar Nicholas I said that Russia must be ruled by three things: orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality.
Autocracy and nationality are control methods well known. But the deep roots orthodoxy has in the Russian culture may affect even the present day Russian. Even after 70 years of state-sponsored atheism, orthodoxy remains one of the most powerful, albeit silent, forces on Russia.
“Born Russian, born Orthodox” was the title of a course I took in Russia. Although many do not believe in God, they do adhere to a conviction of predestination, fatalism. It is all preordained, the believer feels, and man, born in sin, has no hope of salvation until the afterlife and maybe not even then. So why tempt fate? “It’s not my responsibility.”
>> Read Part 1: Three Sides of the Coin
>> Read Part 2: Walking on Ice
>> Read Part 3: Quest for Global Status
>> Read Part 4: The Burden of ‘Yes’
>> Read Part 5: Tollgates, Not Roadblocks
>> Read Part 6: The Rule of Thumbs
>> Read Part 8: Power of Human Capital
Title: Walking on Ice: An American Businessman in Russia
Author: Frederick R. Andresen, a 1958 graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management, specializes in general business management, marketing, entrepreneurship and relationship building in Russia and other emerging markets.
Endorsement: This book “is mandatory reading for all who contemplate a tour of duty whether government or business in Russia or who have worked there … it brings back memories and reality. With insight, understanding, and a rare degree of humor, Fred Andresen tells us about working with the Russians,” Richard Weden, general director, American Express Russia, 1995 to 2004.
Publisher: Outskirts Press (September 2007)