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Business

For Russians the ideal job is summed up in the verb sidet, which means "to sit". By this they mean where one does as little as possible for as much money as possible. This includes coming in late, if at all, and leaving early.

Seventy years of Socialism on top of a natural inclination to take life easy has dealt a hammer blow to any notions of Russian get-up-and-go. A young Russian entrepreneur hired a middle-aged woman as a receptionist-cum-research assistant for an outpost of his very busy new computer bureau. The following day, at about noon, an enraged customer rang to complain that he had been waiting outside the office since 9 a.m. and no-one had appeared to open up. The young entrepreneur rushed over himself and dealt with the customer and later - much later - at 3 p.m., the new receptionist strolled in. "Lydia Ivanovna! What is the meaning of this?" her new employer cried. "I had a call from my old office to say they had some fresh fish in and so I went over there first," she explained, quite hurt by his exasperation.

An English transport specialist based in Russia remembers finding out when he began working there some years ago it could routinely take up to four months to clear goods from the port of arrival and up to a year to get them to their destination. If a problem arose, his staff would instinctively shove it under the carpet rather than tell. "Nobody wants to take responsibility. They never apologise and they lie without shame. Even when they are found out to be lying, they just shrug their shoulders." It has to be added that this Englishman is building a house for his family to settle in Russia.

"They want all the benefits without doing any of the work" says another foreign technician working in Russia. "It takes three of them to do a job which one man would do in England or America. If there is a piece of equipment, one will drive it and another one will operate it while a third watches. Everyone wants to be paid in cash. No-one trusts the banks and there is no loan system. Everyone has his own scheme, and is competing to do his own deal."

"When I needed to buy a new truck for the business," the transport specialist recalls, "every single member of my staff came to me individually and told me he could get me a new truck for such-and-such a price, cheaper and cheaper. But the truck never materialised and in the end I told them all to sod off and bought one for the advertised price."

Yet when Russians do set their minds to it, they can swing into action fast and deliver on the nail. "If you get a Russian who is money-motivated, they can make anything happen," says an American oilman. This can sometimes be alarming, as one Western businessman discovered when he was enquiring about getting a consignment of timber out and his counterpart explained that delivery was no problem: when they needed transport a train would be stolen.

"Position, power and money are what count in this country. If a Russian feels he has a future with you, that will motivate him - they don't have any other security in their lives, no mortgage, no pension, nothing," explains a French resident of Moscow.

New Russians drive fast foreign cars recklessly ignoring all the traffic rules, are swaggering and self-confident, have beautiful girls hanging on their arm, expensive bathrooms and constantly travel abroad. Russian teenagers used to be sensitive and naive. Now their one aim is to work for a "joint venture" or a bank. They have absolutely no principles.

Numerous young Russians have taken to the free market economy like ducks to water. Unfortunately, many a "wide boys " from the West have rushed in to fill the vacuum and there are shameful stories in many Moscow business circles of Western partners disappearing with the loot. Some observers liken present-day Russia to what the USA must have been like in the 1870s. A "Wild West" mentality prevails, fortunes are being made and lives sometimes lost in the scramble. Conditions of business in Russia can be changed by the government overnight with-out notice - for instance, taxes on imports. It's heady stuff - if you can stand the pace.

The older Russians are "plan" oriented and get quite upset if they have to make changes at short notice. They tend not to have back-up or contingency plans - no Plan B in case Plan A fails.

There is an oriental streak in Russian business practice. "Scratch a Russian and find a Tatar", runs an old saying. They will hold endless getting-to-know-you meetings. Delegations will go back and forth. After a while the Western business person may think the whole thing is a waste of time. But once he is "in", he can usually rely on his business partners.

As far as management skills go, very few Russians know how to keep accounts or draw up a business plan but they are learning fast. Business and marketing manuals are extremely popular and sell out as fast as the book-shops can stack the shelves.

Shares are now available for purchase on every street corner in practically every human activity, including esoteric investments such as the Economics Department of Moscow University.

The science of the "bottom line" is in its infancy, as witness the story of the Russian who came home in the early hours after gambling all night and said "Darling! I've had an extraordinary run of luck! You know that coat I bought for 100,000 roubles - I lost it for 150,000!" Today the New Russian joke goes: Two new Russians meet and one says "I bought a new tie in London for $70." The other says: "You idiot! You could have got one in Paris for more than $100."

Apart from the new business-oriented class, Russians tend to take a laid-back attitude to getting things done. The Russian countryside is littered with tractors and other bits of expensive machinery which have just been left out to die. Under the old Soviet system, everything belonged to everyone and therefore, in practice, to no-one. The concept of keeping to schedule, looking after things properly and feeling a sense of personal responsibility for a project may never take root in quite the same way as it has in Western Europe.

Most Russians, if asked what they hope to achieve in business, will waffle about doing good for mankind rather than homing in on the profit motive. The Russians are uneasy about financial success. They assume (from their own national experience and therefore possibly with some justification) that great wealth has been come by dishonestly or at the least at someone else's, and probably their own, expense. "99% of our businessmen are thieves, criminals and outlaws. People hate them," states one Russian computer scientist.

Relations between staff in business offices tend to be old-fashioned. Russians who go to work in the West are sometimes disappointed at how little human contact is made with colleagues outside working hours, including walking along the road together to the bus stop or underground station. Russian work teams tend to develop a family atmosphere, rallying round in times of domestic crisis or tragedy. In one case where a young office worker was murdered in his flat, his workmates took it upon themselves to organize the formalities and the funeral.

Superiors address their juniors, drivers, etc., by affectionate diminutives which might be considered patronising or chauvinist between employees of either sex in the West. But there again, how many City of London bankers are used to finding their driver curled up asleep on the back seat of the office car which is perfectly standard practice in Russia. Working hours are very long and drivers need the odd nip of vodka to keep out the cold.

Government officials in Russia usually wear a suit. Formal wear is also worn in some "new" business circles, such as commodity dealing and merchant banking. In most other offices and enterprises dress is casual, some emulating the Richard Branson style of patterned jumper. New Russians who have made their first million sometimes carry it with them in a suitcase, in which event they are also equipped with small armies of very serious-looking private bodyguards armed to the teeth with sub-machine guns.

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