I discover the secret of doing business in Russia
It was my first trip to Moscow, and my Russian business colleague Tatiana had not emerged from airport passport control. Through the clear plastic barriers I saw her uncle, who was meeting us, and I signaled that I didn't know where she was. He appeared moments later in the luggage area, and I explained that she had been behind me and then not. He said we'd just have to wait.
The luggage came and went, and then Tatiana appeared, wiping tears. She had been told her Russian passport had expired and they were holding the plane for her, to return her to New York. An officer had taken her documents, and the two women guarding her had said she was not allowed to enter the country with an expired passport.
"But this is my country," Tatiana had explained. "Surely I can get this problem fixed here."
"No, it is impossible," they had said. "We have rules."
The women stood guard while Tatiana cried and fumed. "I wanted to tell them they were behaving like Soviets," she said, "but I knew they would just think I had become an arrogant American."
Suddenly she knew what to do. She thanked the women for staying with her. She told them she realized how difficult it must be to keep track of the thousands of people who come through passport control every day. Before two minutes had passed, one of the women excused herself and returned moments later with her passport.
"She even apologized," Tatiana said in wonderment. "They just wanted respect. That's all."
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia plummeted from superpower to developing country virtually overnight. Russians have been trying to claw their way back to respectability ever since. President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, at least is not an embarrassment. But there are still plenty of people like "Czar Oleg," and their pursuit of respect would be laughable if it weren't also slightly threatening.
Czar Oleg was what Tatiana and I called the executive assistant of one of our business clients, a Russian food company. Oleg came up to Tatiana's chin. He had never been outside Russia, but he spoke perfect American-accented English. He was former "adviser" to the head of security for the Kremlin. In order to make some money, he was advising this company's president. It was not clear what exactly he advised on, but whatever it is, he knew he was right. He was confident that he understood America.
"I have decided how to get our company noticed in your country," he said as we appeared in his office the morning after our flight. "I have observed that companies get headlines in the newspapers when there is a scandal. So it's obvious what we must do." I cringed, knowing what was coming. "I am looking now for the perfect idea to attract the attention of the American media. You are our consultants. What would you suggest?"
Tatiana and I were seated along the long stem of a T-shaped table, a Soviet technique for maintaining proper respect in an office. Many executives in Moscow had modernized their offices, but not Oleg. He sat at the head of the T, behind a desk that was raised so he could look down at his visitors. The visitors' part of the table was so low that my knees hit the edge, and it hurt. It was impossible to maintain dignity in this position, or to have a conversation of equals.
Oleg held up his hand as I started to talk and dialed two numbers on his phone. "Girl!" he shouted, as if he had to yell all the way to America. "Bring us some tea!" He slammed it down.
"You have to keep Russians in their place," he said to us, smiling, not catching the irony that he himself was Russian. "Now, what do you think we should do to get attention in America?"
"True, you could start a scandal," I said. "But you might be more successful in the long run if you conquered the Russian market first, as the Japanese did in their country, and then came to America with lots of momentum behind you. Then the media will really pay attention in a good way."
I could see that this suggestion bored him. He stood up and walked to the window, then turned and glared at me. Tatiana was watching him carefully.
"Do you Americans think we are idiots?" he said. My knees ached. "You just want to keep us out of your market." He sat down and suddenly smiled. "But you are our consultants, and we pay you good money, so I'm sure you can help us."
Tatiana reached into her briefcase, pulled out a handful of papers, and stood up. Before Oleg could react, she dragged her chair to the head table and sat down.
"This is our plan," she said, looking him straight in the eye. And for the next five minutes she laid out the strategy that we had prepared for him. Startled at her boldness, he listened quietly and nodded, then nodded some more.
"Perfect," he finally said. "I think that will work just fine. I will advise that our president adopt your plan."
As we rode the Metro afterward, I asked Tatiana what had happened.
"We had to get at his level," she smiled. "It didn't matter whether he came down to us or we came up to him. But he wouldn't listen until he felt we were equals. I had to force it."
I was still rubbing my sore knees. She laughed. "Those tables have got to go."