In a little more than seven hours I’ll be on my way to Russia.
I’m going for a week as part of my MBA program, to do an immersion in a different business culture and environment and broaden our knowledge of how business is done around the world.
I have to say, I’m very intrigued and excited about this trip. I’ve been all over the world. I was comparing notes with Ian the other day, and figured out that I’ve been to over 25 countries on the planet (I kind of lost track, you know, math and all). And Russia is one of those historically significant countries that have played such a large role in the shape of the world today, so I am excited to get to see if first hand.
I also have a fair amount of anxiety about the trip right now. Now is not the best time to be an American while travelling the world. The actions of our country both in Iraq and even on the home soil of our allies, has been a disgrace. There was research released today that indicates that among many of our old Cold Warallies, there is a greater favorability toward China than toward the United States. That’s what five years of Bush has done for American credibility: people who used to be on our biggest supporters now view a repressive Communist regime more favorably than the land of the free and home of the brave.
I may have been a little melodramatic before, but I realize more and more how much Bush years have impacted the reputation of America in the world. And the worst part is, there are still three more to go.
I have a bet going with some classmates as to which American in our group (there are three) will get the first anti-American comment, and how long it will take. They all seem to have their money on me and plan on collecting the first night. (I am not allowed to place a bet though, sadly).
I don’t know exactly how I feel about Russia. As I got into high school and got interested in world politics I had an immature kind of survivor’s guilt when thinking about the place. “Gee, we won, they lost, their economy is in ruins, all their former vassals can’t wait to get away and join NATO and the EU, must be a real blow to them. Must be really tough. They must be pretty bitter.” I guess I always viewed going to Russia as akin to walking into the losing football team’s locker room wearing the winning team’s jersey. Just not a terribly good idea.
But after my Organizational Behavior class (and growing up a little), I realize that the only thing I know about Russia is what I’m told by the Western media outlets I watch/read, and that even when I go there, I’ll be viewing the place from Western eyes, and I won’t ever really “get” what Russia is like. At least, not what it is like for a Russian.
As one of the great cultures of the past three centuries I have a lot of respect for Russia. No matter what prejudices I might have about communism, or the seemingly unrealistic or irrational reactions I may perceive the Russian government as taking, you have to admit that the Russians have a lot to be proud of. They have a lot they need to own up to (Stalin, the brutal wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Scorpions), but they also have accomplished some of history’s most amazing accomplishemnts (first satellite, first man in space, keeping Boris Yeltsin sober fo r a few days).
I have respect for Russia as a country and for its people. I recognize that I have a lot of prejudices about the place as well, but I’m truly interested in seeing that business life in Russia is all about. After you put your Western experience aside and you get past the knee-jerk nose-crinkling from the huge bureaucracy and the corruption, you can see that there is something fundamentally exciting going on in Russia: one of the worlds largest nations, with some of the world’s most educated populations, is going through a complete paradigm shift both ideologically (slowly) and economically (like a freight train).
The oligarchs. The imprisonment of the Oligarchs. The revenge of the oligarchs by buying Western football teams. The new relationship with the former Soviet States which is increasingly market-driven instead of dictatorial. All of it is a fantastic experiment in how much radical change can a modernized country absorb, and at what pace.
I’m not enough of an expert to have a good opinion about what the Russia of twenty years from now will look like, but without having set foot in the country, my initial impression is that Russia has too many similarities with Europe from both an ethnic, historical and a strategic point of view for it to go in any direction except closer to “the West”. I don’t think that the Russian people or government will ever go so far as to join any European institutions or adopt the Euro or anything like that (they still view themselves as a superpower I think, and wouldn’t stoop to being just one member of a club), but there will probably be the kind of close ties and regional closeness (politically) that neighbors like the US and Canada have.
I’ll post some more from Russia when I get there (if I can), and we’ll see if I revise any of my predictions or opinions.