Moscow Personality – Andrew Pyner

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How did you end up in Russia?

That’s a story that goes back quite some time. As a schoolboy I was very passionate about learning foreign languages, namely French and German, which were the two languages that we learned in those days. I chose French, but I wanted to try something new. The choice was: Mandarin, Russian or Arabic. The university of Bradford won, and I got onto a course to be a translator and interpreter in French and Russian. At the time, it wasn’t that I had a passion for Russian, which came a little later, it was a practical thing. I wanted to do something unusual, and therefore useful.

I started that course in 1986, and first set foot on the territory of the Soviet Union in 1988, when I was 19 or 20. I was studying in Moscow and St. Petersburg. That was the time when it was all happening. The world was in love with Gorby, but the Soviet people weren’t in love with Gorbachev. There was no sugar in the shops, he was trying to stop the vodka drinking, it was an incredible time to be in Russia. I decided as a young student that I was going to speak Russian properly, live like a Russian, as a young, politically convinced, dare I say it, Marxist. But although a part of me loved it here, it was all a massive culture shock and I was grateful to leave, that first time. You read Dr Zhivago, Dead Souls, the Gogol stories, and you get this romantic story of what Russia is. At the time I was this firebrand of the left, but the reality in Russia was rather different.

So then you went back home to finish your studies, but you came out here to work, what happened?

When I first graduated I was one of those linguists who didn’t know what to do. I went into teaching which is something that I really enjoyed doing and taught Russian and French for two or three years. As a linguist, if you have taken enough time to learn a language like Russian, you have to get back into the swing of things. I figured out that Russia would have to develop as some kind of tourist destination, so I got myself into the wholesale travel business. Eastern Europe was my chosen destination, and that was where it was all happening in those days, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The opportunities which opened up for me were amazing, and by that time I had got over my initial culture shock., and I have been working intensively and living periodically in Russia for the last 20 years.

What are the main differences in the way that Russian and Western business people operate?

Russian business people have changed. The way that I do business in Russia has changed massively over the past 15 years. In the hotel business you had a choice between going to one central supplier who knows all the hotels, or going to each hotel separately. If you went to the central supplier, you had an easier time, because they were very keen to facilitate the growth of business, and they made things relatively easy. But there was a cost to that. I decided that I was going to take the bull-by-the-horns and visit each of these hotels one by one and try and slug it out. I was working at the time for the world’s largest hotel wholesaler. So I did my best to explain, time and time again to chain smoking, seasoned negotiators what we were doing. Half way through the negotiations they would tell jokes and I would think: ‘Oh No!’ I understood all the words, but then the punch line came, I simply could not understand why the joke was funny. Then there were the dreaded words: ‘Do you fancy a spot of lunch Andrew?’ Heavy drinking to seal a toast was unavoidable. The evening sessions were even worse.
That was then. Now, with the younger people who are coming in, the drink and smoking culture is not there, not within business. Once you have closed the deal, you might have a little celebration, but it’s not the hard-core supersonic drinking that it used to be. People in Moscow and St. Petersburg are outward looking, they are interested in understanding how business is done in other ways. But there are still echoes left of the old system, and after all, Russia, like all countries, has a set of rules that governs the way that business is done here. These are comprehensible by the Russians, but not by all westerners.

What are the main differences on a personal level?

Obviously the cultures are completely different. The English, for example, are nice to people when they want something. Therefore it’s quite easy to form superficial relationships. In Russia it’s not like that at all. People who are not familiar with this culture will say that Russians are miserable, they will rush you out of the way and so on. For them, there is no reason why they shouldn’t. If I am in a shop, I’m serving you, I’m not here to be your friend. It’s very transactional, and that’s quite challenging. Any kind of relationship above the transactional level takes a long time to develop here, especially if you are a foreigner. There is a whole code system, which – even after living here for such a long time – I still don’t fully get. Are you resilient enough to accept this friendship etc..? You should never say: ‘next time you’re in London, drop in!’ Because they will.
Having said that, the hospitality that you experience in this part of the world once you are accepted, is quite spectacular. If you are invited round to anybody’s house, you will be treated like a King. In my own culture, if you invite anybody round, you are going to look after them, you are going to make sure that they’re fed and watered. But it is nothing to the extent that the Russian host will treat you. We will have lots of diner parties in the UK for people we know tangentially; people from work, our bosses and so on. Not so in Russia, if you get invited, you are going to have a good night. You probably won’t remember much of it, but you will have a fantastic night.

Are you able to satisfy your culinary desires here?

The problem that I have here is that I don’t have the time to cook in the way that I want to. You can go into any supermarket here and find what you would expect to find at home. With one big difference. The prices vary much more here than they do in somewhere like London. There are very large seasonal fluctuations, and you have to buy things quickly, because the produce won’t hang around as long as it does in other countries. Russians like strong flavours; the fish counters are not for the faint hearted. It’s nonsense to think that you can’t get products here, because you can. You can eat well and eat healthily.

What don’t you like about Russia?

Russia is the biggest country in the world. It is a massive flat country. You don’t have to look too far into the history of the world to understand that this massive country with poorly defended borders has suffered all sorts of unwanted and unexpected visitations from other people. Russians have suffered a lot from that. Therefore it makes sense to have a very strong central government. Russians are not westerners, but they aren’t easterners either, they are Slavic. This strength of identity is much stronger than anything I’ve seen in Europe and it can be quite intransigent. In Western Europe where the whole movement of society these days is to be quite inclusive, the idea is: we can respect any kind of opinions as long as you don’t interfere with me. But that’s not the automatic Russian way, and I find that sometimes tough to deal with. On an individual level, there is a cognitive difference, that’s another challenge for westerners. For example, Russians can think two or three different things at the same time, and all versions are correct.

That’s confusing for us mono-thinking people!

But I’ve been here for so long, and I have become accustomed to all this. It is true, that I have to close my eyes to certain things, things that I would never dream of closing my eyes to at home. Sometimes I wonder: have I changed my value system? Well it’s not my value system to judge. I chose to live here, I am not here to impose my value system on Russians, I am here to accept and live within the value system that Russia and Russians have.