During five years of living and traveling throughout Russia (1988-91, 1999-2001) plus a series of shorter trips to that country, starting in 1987 and continuing through the 1990s, I, like many others, became intensely fascinated by the Russian people and their remarkable culture, to include their history, language, literature, music, theater, cuisine and just general manner of dealing with one another and with non-Russians.
As you’ll see from the dates of my time in Russia, a lot changed during that period. From a Soviet Union in its last days under Gorbachev, when he was trying to introduce radical change while preserving the underlying system, through the birth of the new Russia under Yeltsin, to the start of the years of Putin and company, every day seemed to bring something new. Russia went from being a communist state where it was often hard to get consumer goods or even a meal in a restaurant without a formal reservation, and one shopped for food, even in Moscow, in outdoor markets or specialized shops, to a bustling country with cities like the modern-day Moscow and St. Petersburg, where shiny new construction, modern hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and shopping malls prevail. Of course, Russia also suffers from the high prices and elevated crime rates that often accompany such prosperity.
Through it all, though, it seems to me that the Russian people changed less than their surroundings. Yes, a newly-found degree of political freedom made them more likely to be outspoken about their opinions in public, but they’ve always found ways to express themselves, with biting criticism and rich humor, even in the grimmer days of their history. So I think that’s one of the big cultural constants for visitors to Russia: the people. They are probably going to be pretty direct about letting you know what they think. They may be a bit formal at first, so business dress, arranging appointments, initial meetings and presentations, etc., should be on a fairly formal basis. I always found, though, that once one got past the initial formalities, Russians are quite cordial, open in manner and speech, and, again, pretty frank – you generally don’t need to guess where they’re trying to go with something. The ability to speak some Russian and demonstrate an interest in their culture will, as with most people everywhere, break the ice pretty quickly.
There are a few things, in particular, to watch out for with regard to travel and doing business in Russia. Bring a copy of your passport with you wherever you go in case your are stopped by police. Also, be very careful not to run afoul of laws or government regulations; while this is generally the case everywhere, there have been a number of instances in Russia in which travelers or businessmen have gotten themselves into some pretty hot water (or worse) by crossing lines of which they may or may not have been aware. And remember, the security services operate from a position of power in Russia – rule of law may not have quite the same meaning as it does in some other nations.
Which brings up another point: take measures to protect any sensitive or proprietary information before traveling to Russia. If you travel with a laptop computer, assume it may be compromised during your visit; the same with documents, telephone conversations, and other means of sharing information.
Another is to take threats seriously; if you are engaged in business and a dispute arises, keep everything above-board and do not disregard your personal safety – talk to someone knowledgeable who can provide context and advice.
Don’t engage in visible displays of affluence, either; remember, many Russians can’t afford all the glitzy new products and services that are so much in evidence now.
The usual security advice applies for people traveling to Russia: use only reliable, prearranged transportation whenever possible; research your accommodations to ensure quality and security; do your due diligence before engaging a tourism company or jumping into business situations; and have a plan, someone to call, for emergencies. If you are thinking of traveling outside of a main tourism zone, do some research first to ensure you aren’t going to an unsafe setting.
Transportation quality varies. Intercity trains can be reliable, as can airlines. Taxis vary as to quality; use only official, marked cabs, agree on the fare before you go, and consider using vetted companies to provide drivers whenever possible. Again, do your research and consult a reliable travel expert before jumping into your journeys.
And enjoy your travels in an exciting country rich in cultural opportunities and full of wonderful, engaging people! We hope you can join us on June 21 for a webinar that will explore the basics of doing business in Russia.