Russia for Experts
Twenty years ago Russia wasn't ready for business. There were no full-service banks, no lending institutions, no stock market, no wholesale markets, no product distribution system. There were lawyers, but few with a specialty in Russian commercial law — which, in any case, was either contradictory or non-existent. There was virtually no retail or commercial space for sale or rent. The country's infrastructure was crumbling, the communication system was antiquated, taxes weren't being paid in, pensions and salaries weren't being paid out. Entire professions didn't exist: market research, advertising, staff recruitment, sales, real estate, philanthropy, private residential construction. Other darker professions like protection rackets, smuggling and illegal gambling appeared overnight. Finding a basic office desk and chair was a challenge, not to mention finding reliable sources of food.
But all the same, entrepreneurial Russians scratched their heads, rolled up their sleeves and got down to work. Foreigners, driven by opportunity or curiosity, arrived by the thousands. Some quickly headed back to the airport. Others saw past the hardships and stuck it out. Just about everyone lost their shirts, if not their nerve, in the economic crises of 1998 or 2008. Others sailed through the economic storms.
And somehow, miraculously, in fits and starts, little by little, Russia became a booming economy, and even — to the surprise of many — a land of opportunity. True, the opportunities come with a plethora of risks — economic, legal and personal. But all the same, Russia rushed to accomplish in two decades what most countries slowly achieved over two centuries.
The contributors to this book wanted to tell their stories of the past 20 years: how they entered the market or the country, made fortunes and lost them, introduced or invented new professions and markets, fell in love, served the needy, made mistakes and missed opportunities — and in the end made good lives, successful companies and enduring ties. All of them love their work. All of them have unwavering faith in their future. All of them work incredibly long hours. And all of them are enormously proud of their contributions — not only to their companies' success and families' comfort, but to the country that raised them or welcomed them, and the people they live among.
That is all they have in common. If there is one message that comes out of these different histories, there is no one right way to do business or make a life in Russia. Some foreign companies owe their success to Russian directors; others have seen explosive growth and greater staff satisfaction when a foreign CEO arrived. Some companies made their fortunes by meeting a need. Others created their own markets or offered a product Russians didn't know they wanted until they saw it. Some experienced economic downturns as a deep trial they turned into an opportunity to fine-tune and ramp up their companies. Others barely felt the hard times at all.
These diverse personal and corporate histories are like home movies of industries and time periods. In them, the 1990s are chaotic and certainly strange — gangsters make an appearance; bankers do not — but also a time of great possibilities and enormous excitement. The 2000s are split between boom time and fall — but it's hard to say which, from the point of view of corporate health and personal satisfaction, was better. Each company's and individual's graph of fiscal and personal success is unique, and together they make up a contradictory jumble of zig-zags, plateaus, peaks and valleys. If there is one truth about business and life in Russia over the last two decades, it's that there isn't one truth.
Advice to foreigners in Russia — from both Russian and foreign contributors — is simple: come with an open mind, expect that things will be different — but not necessarily worse, respect your colleagues, and do your job well. If you wish to stay in Russia for a long time, it's easier if you fall in love and marry, but it's essential that you love the country, the culture, the people — and your work. And it seems imperative that you are willing and able to change and adapt, to fit in to life in Russia — be it in the office, behind the podium, in the clinic, on the road, at the pulpit or in the kitchen.
If you can do that, if you can wait out the bad times, seize opportunities, work hard and honestly, never lose faith, notice the miracles and have fun — in another 20 years, give or take a few, you can write your own story of "Russia for Experts."
Ekaterina Ryabikovskaya, project director of A Foreigner's Guide to Russia
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