Earlier this year, whenever I would tell friends about my planned summer trip to Russia, I would get a look like, Why would you go there?
That kind of reaction – likely heavily influenced by American stereotypes of the country and its people – is exactly why Russia has always been on my list of places to visit.
For one, it’s one of the largest countries in the world, and it’s a country that has been historically at odds with the United States. It also might just be the best example of social and political communism.
Like many people, particularly those who lived during the Cold War era, I had my share of preconceived notions about Russia. For example, before my trip there this summer, I imagined Moscow’s landscape as a sea of government-provided apartments.
But my notions were immediately challenged as I left Moscow Airport on the way to the city. The first thing that struck me was how many single-family homes there were. I then learned that most apartments or homes are privately owned by individuals.
In Moscow, I took a river cruise that included a number of presentations on Russia – past and present. Even though I still tend to think of Russia as the Soviet Union, Russians consider “Soviet times” in the past tense, as a period that ended in 1989 and the start of an attitudinal shift. It reminded me of when I first started going to China – you can know a lot about a person depending on whether they were born before or after the Cultural Revolution.
I remember hearing the phrase, “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”. This was a tongue-in-cheek way of describing frustration regarding the communist mentality of creating make-work jobs and not paying people anything in return.
If we’re being honest, we probably all have some stereotypical images about communism, in general, and Russia, specifically. I had heard about Russians coming to the U.S. and being overwhelmed by the amount and variety of available food in our supermarkets, for instance, so I expected to see long lines and sparse shelves at Russian supermarkets. That wasn’t the case. What I saw was normal congestion at check-out counters, and grocery store shelves contained plenty of products and choices.
Although there is a concerted effort to predominantly sell Russian-made products (perhaps like our “Made in the USA” initiative, we had no problem getting my wife’s drink of choice – Coke Zero – and bars and restaurants served a variety of ethnic fare in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Another thing that challenged my perception of Russia was the number of luxury car dealerships I saw within minutes of leaving Moscow Airport. There were a few older Ladas on the road, but most people drive modern foreign cars. Interestingly, a vestige of the past – standalone car storage units – stood as a contrast to the modern highway flyovers under which they stood.
During Soviet times, cars were kept in these units because they were typically only driven on the weekends to get to one’s Daca – a modest getaway weekend place where Russians went to relax, raise a garden and have some green space. Today, large apartment buildings house underground parking and those storage sheds are a remnant of the past, still standing but not in use.
Another shift for Russia has been in the area of organized religion, which can often tell you much about a country’s politics and cultural norms. There are more than 40,000 functioning churches in Russia today, predominantly Russian Orthodox. In Soviet times, there were only about 100, largely due to the fact that a person’s employment and social standing could be negatively impacted if they were seen worshipping in church. As a person of faith, it is hard to imagine turning that part of my life on or off depending on the people in power.
I noticed, too, that Russian people have a grit and determination in the face of challenges, a big one being climate. Russians describe the climate as nine months of expectation (waiting for winter to end) and three months of disappointment. St Petersburg has an average of only 60 days of sunshine per year.
World War II was, of course, a hardship for all the countries who fought, but the toll on Russia was massive – nearly 27 million people killed. Most Americans can’t comprehend or appreciate the enormity of that. Russia’s unwillingness to surrender to the Germans under extremely adverse conditions speaks to their determination as a country and as a people.
If you look at the Russian economy and how that translates to the average citizen, circumstances are much better than they were just 15 years ago. Yes, it is a totalitarian state. And, yes, there are issues with human rights. But I was surprised by the candidness of our Russian guides, who didn’t seem afraid to criticize parts of the Russian system.
Russia also has a rich history of music and the arts. We got a chance to experience a performance of “Swan Lake” and hear live folk music. In one town on our travels, we visited a local elementary school, where a young girl gave a presentation for us in English. We visited a middle-class family’s home and shared tea, chocolates and vodka.
And that’s the reason to travel to locales that might, at first glance, seem unappealing or off-limits. I came away from my trip to Russia with a much more positive feeling about the people and what they had to offer.
As with any foreign country or culture, you need to be open to new ideas and push past the leadership and stereotypes to get out among the regular people.
David Hoff is the chief operation officer and executive vice president for leadership development at EASI•Consult®. EASI•Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include individual assessment, online employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.