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article imageOp-Ed: Russia Then And Now Special

By Talia Carner     Dec 28, 2011 in World
Moscow - When the Israelites fled Egypt, they wandered in the desert for forty years until the generation born into slavery had died.
I understood that wisdom when I journeyed to Russia twice in 1993 to teach women entrepreneurial skills. And I am reminded of my impressions at that time today when Russians are supposed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of democracy. Instead they are taking to the streets to protest the autocratic regime that is all too similar to the totalitarian Soviet rule it had replaced.
In late April 1993, merely sixteen months after the fall of Communism, I joined a group of American businesswomen to meet courageous Russian women who traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg from areas as far as the Ural Mountains and republics whose names I had never heard. Suddenly we were no longer The Enemy. They watched with awe how we walked tall, strutted about with confidence, and punctuated our talks with smiles. (They asked why so many of us were in mourning, or else, why would we wear black when all the colors of the rainbow were available to us?) At the edge of their seats, they clung to every bit of information we could dole out. As we spoke through interpreters to groups and individuals about business plans, marketing strategies, and pricing policies or as we lectured about advertising, promotions and selling tactics, they took furious notes. In turn, they asked tough questions to which we had no simple answers: from how to export their home-made, poor-quality products “to America,” to how to launch a women’s political party or start a women’s bank.
As hopeful and valiant as these women were, we hit a wall when we introduced the concept of networking. “Both of you face the same problem motivating employees,” I said to two students who had found themselves running ladder and chair factories respectively after a lifetime of working on the conveyor belt sawing and gluing lumber. But the two women glared at one another with suspicion. “Look, you live over six-hundred kilometers apart,” I explained. “There is no risk, and you can both benefit if you share ideas about ways to deal with business problems. You are not even selling to the same consumers!” But the women only shook their heads at my naiveté.
In a city that had never published a phone book, one’s Rolodex-equivalent had become a cherished commodity. It meant survival in a country that had never had Aspirin or tooth brushes in its few stores. We soon learned that expecting our students to share any information—from a reliable printing shop to the name of an English teacher—was doomed. They balked at the notion that they should help a friend, let alone a stranger. They also asked why Americans smiled so much, finding this basic human gesture incomprehensible. And the idea of attempting to connect with strangers was outright frightening. It involved eye contact! Who could imagine what disaster a stranger might bring upon you?
It did not take long for me to grasp what had happened to the Russian nation on a deeper lever. Under a regime that glorified children turning in their parents to the authorities, where neighbors in hellish communal apartments spied on one another, where life’s basic needs were in such short supply that stealing had become the norm, Russians had been conditioned into deep distrust. For seventy years, stripped of not just the right to practice religion, but denude of the social and moral values that we refer to as Judeo-Christians, Russians were unprepared for democracy that respected the rights of others, that set boundaries between the individual and the collective, that held random kindness in high regard, or that viewed cooperation as the route for strength. Russians had become adept at navigating the system without ever negotiating truce between individuals. Taking a cue from the corruption that invaded every Soviet institution, where apparatchiks openly enjoyed preferred treatment and flaunted their leather shoes and Rolex watches, the Russian masses emulated the only methods proven to work. Thus, the curator of a geological museum invited me to her cramped apartment, and over a table laden with Russian delicacies and vodka, proceeded to offer me a business partnership in which we would privately sell the museum’s semi-precious stones and rare geological rocks to American museums.
Privatization meant that formerly state-run large and small manufacturing plants gave ownership vouchers to all employees wholly unprepared to operate these ventures. In a coat factory where I was training a small, newly elevated team, I explained the math of pricing a coat: the cost of materials, the number of hours it took to create it (based upon the seamstress’s hourly salary, including benefits,) and the relative fixed cost of running the place. The suggested price I arrived at was by far lower than the thousands of dollars these women had expected me to pay for a coat. When I expressed to the interpreter that I was not buying one, she explained the team’s dismay: what other reason had propelled me to accept their invitation? It dawned on me that these women had never imagined volunteerism. Why would anyone do something for strangers without expecting to gain something out of it?
I also realized that while our children in the USA learned the basics of market economy when setting up their lemonade stand, negotiating allowances, and later working in fast-food chains that taught them customer service, adult Russians were strangers to the simplest market concepts. At a brush-manufacturing plant, for which the state had paid the bills, provided the raw materials, and then “bought” the finished product at a price it had set, the manager now placed the entire sum of utilities and building maintenance into the price tag of the first item to be sold. That first household brush was priced at the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars. Since no one was buying it, the factory was stuck….
One night, after our group had paid the local tour agent—one of our organizers—for tickets to a ballet performance at the famous Bolshoi Ballet, we were taken to an unadorned building whose sign in Cyrillic script we could not read. My impression of being in the wrong place was sealed when the dancers came on stage. Although they were talented, we were clearly at a ballet school performance. After being pressed, the enterprising tour agent claimed that “it was the same thing,” and acted indignant when we explained that not only she had committed fraud, but also jeopardized her business’s future by developing a bad reputation. Bad reputation? The stupid Americans had handed her whatever cash she had asked for! Now confronted, she was unremorseful about raking so much money into her pocket in a single evening. “You wanted ballet, I gave you ballet.”
In spite of these experiences, there were women who admired what we did, who appreciated our gifts of lipsticks, condoms, and Tylenol in Ziploc bags. There were so many women desperate to provide for their children in a country where the majority of households were run by women because men often drank, beat their wives, and died of alcoholism at the average age of 57. I had never met as many bridge engineers as I encountered in one day in Moscow or as many female doctors as I met in one day in St. Petersburg. Yet bewildered by the fast-changing society, these highly educated women were isolated by the absence of a give-and-take social contract that could be fully relied upon, and now lost after the state-run child care and meager medical services had been pulled from under them, leaving their children hungrier and sicker than even before.
These brave women motivated me to accept an invitation by the US Information Agency (USIA, the agency that sent experts to all parts of the world) to return to Russia merely six months later. Among other topics, I was assigned to conduct workshops about truth in advertising and ethical business practices, and was given a budget for the translation of material. Ironically, my Russian coordinator took the money for the translation, but it went up in smoke even before we left JFK (NY) airport, my material never translated.
I landed in Moscow in October 1993, two hours after the uprising against President Boris Yeltsin had erupted. While our bus turned away from a bridge where peasants waved pitchforks and sickles, our Russian handlers insisted that we had misunderstood what we saw. As we watched from a conference building’s windows the burning Russian parliament, our handlers pulled us away into windowless classrooms. As we received frantic phone calls from home detailing CNN broadcasts, our handlers called it Western propaganda. As we were subject to curfew, our handlers “forgot” their English to answer why the hotel was surrounded by soldiers. As I told the group that I had heard tanks rolling down our street, our eavesdropping handlers accused me of enticing disobedience and set me loose to be chased by the Russian militia so that my only choice was to escape Russia.
Even as the country fought for democracy, these English-speaking translators and facilitators, who must have read English literature and magazines, were incapable of releasing their tight-fisted grip on their charges, to stop controlling the flow of information—or even of thought—and to permit us to speak freely among ourselves. Moreover, they were not embarrassed by their obvious lies. After a lifetime of bankrupt ideology and empty slogans, insincerity had long become the norm; no one believed anything anyway.
Russians still harbored the souls of embittered, subjugated people, a dispirited nation that had known no freedom, privacy or choices. They were unprepared for democracy, freedom of the press, personal choices, market economy, and assumptions about transactions—be it social, economical, cultural or legal—that shared the common concept of decency, if not rule of law. The regime that bloomed after the fall of Communism embraced the same mindset of its predecessor, using the former KGB under a new cloak, revering bureaucrats-turned-oligarchs, and exploiting brutal tactics to silence criticism and opposition. Not unlike the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years, Russians needed time to shed the old mentality of the oppressed until the younger generation raised in a much more open world would be prepared to claim what is rightly theirs.
That younger generation is now taking to the streets in protest.
On November 3rd, 1993 at 2:48 PM, three weeks after escaping Russia, Talia Carner started her fiction-writing career.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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