One of the events on our program was a visit with a Russian family for dinner. There were only six families, so we had to visit in groups. My group of four intrepid RSMers traveled to the second to last stop on the red line (don’t ask me any names, my Cyrillic isn’t THAT good), and met one of our hosts.
Dasha was a short but lively woman with dark hair who spoke fluent English and walked us to her apartment. Dasha, her husband, and their two daughters live in a large-ish apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. Like many of the apartment blocks we saw, it was in a state of general disrepair. Once you got past the heavily bolted doors though, the interior was very nice. And in truth, the locks weren’t anything that any New Yorker isn’t used to. We didn’t ask for the full tour, but I got the impression there were three bedrooms and a living room.
We were introduced to the whole family, including Dasha’s mother Nadia, and Dasha’s two adorable children Lisa and Lucia. We gave them the gifts that we brought: Dutch licorice (yuck) and cognac (which I bought a small bottle of at the local grocery market for fifty euros). We started talking, started pouring the Vodka (a bottle of “Putinka” for the occasion), and started getting to know one another.
The whole point of this visit was to experience Russian home and family life first hand, and that we did. We enticed Lucia and Lisa into singing some songs for us, we looked at family pictures of their dacha in the countryside. Two things were immediately noticeable: once outside Moscow the size of the towns and the standard of living drastically drops off, and it dawned on us that our hosts were probably very upper middle class compared to the average Russian family.
Throughout the night we learned a few interesting things about Russian culture. In general, the entire family was pleased with the fact that communism was a thing of the past, and that the transition was bloodless. But, like most Russians, when taking stock of their current situation they have little to be happy about.
Corruption is rampant. The gap between rich and poor is obvious and growing larger every minute. The costs of living in Moscow are ludicrous. Dasha’s husband now has to work two jobs to maintain the same level of lifestyle as in the previous regime. Leonid, Nadia’s third husband, is a consultant for foreign companies seeking to do business in Russia. In short, he’s one of those guys medium sized companies hire so that you have someone on the ground who can navigate the local scene. Life is harder now than it was before, and there is now a greater sense of chaos and insecurity in their lives.
All that said, the Russians (kind of like the Irish) have an affection for their constantly troubled situation, and it’s a part of their character to both be dissatisfied with conditions, but to be idealistic about their improvement. Along with the negative aspects of the new Russia, there is also the huge explosion in consumer choice that has happened in the past ten years.
During dinner we grilled Dasha’s husband Sasha (who had to join late after his second job) about their new purchases: two mountain bikes (for the dacha) and a new laptop. Like many other shoppers all over the globe, they made a list of the features they wanted, then shopped around to see which brand and which model would give them the most of what they wanted for the least amount of money. Sandor, who works for Toshiba and has traveled to Russia previously on business trips, was disappointed to find out that they selected an Acer laptop.
I have a feeling that the Russians, like the Dutch, are an extremely price sensitive people, and that discount brands will probably do well here. Luxury brands also do very well in the status-symbol oriented Russian culture, where people still remember the days when only special privileged people got anything out of the ordinary. Red Square’s biggest billboard was a building sized ad for Rolex. Mercedes and IBM ThinkPads definitely have a place here, but there will always be more middle class than rich people, even in Russia, where the middle class is somewhere between 7-10%.
We also learned that Nadia was a translator for the Soviet embassy in Washington during the Cold War. Living in the US and completely immersed within the enemy, she must have been both a Communist party member, and also pretty trusted by the KGB, but I didn’t deem it tactful to ask.
Different time, completely different.
Our hosts were extremely gracious. The food was very good (lamb with rice pilaf and beef stroganoff after we finally got through all the appetizers). We had a fantastic time and got a glimpse into the life of a middle class family in Moscow.
After our visit I understood a bit more about what life is like for the average Russian family. In general, the fall of the Soviet empire has caused many large and frustrating problems. The benefits of capitalism have not been enough to counterbalance the problems it has created.
There is no culture of political participation in Russia, even though they elect their officials they do not really have that fundamental attitude most Americans have of “those guys in government work for ME.” Politicians in America have to at least come across as if they are a servant of the people, because they know that the people always have an alternative, and that they cannot hide their actions (usually) from the free press. These two forces are absent in Russia. The press is state-controlled again (thanks to Putin) and there is no significant opposition party (thanks to Putin and all his predecessors who just weren’t that excited about the prospect of a strong opposition party).
I appreciate the honesty and the graciousness our hosts showed us in inviting us to their homes and answering our questions. I understand more now than I did before the family visit. But I cannot say that my overall opinion of the conditions in Russia, or my feelings on what lies ahead for them, have changed. They are only more informed.
Yes, the Cold War is over and the capitalist/democratic ideology has won the day, but for the Russians life is harder now than it was, and the world has become a more complicated place for the rest of its inhabitants. The fall of the Soviet empire has reduced world stability (as recent events in the former Soviet republics testify). I applaud the Russians for their optimistic approach to the future, but my fear is that things will need to get worse before they get better.