Negotiating With Russians

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Over several decades of working with, and observing Russia, I have come across some key human and social factors that bear on virtually any negotiation. Where people live and the historical and other forces that are shaping them give a guide to where they are going.

First, and most obviously, size: Russia is big. It covers about an eighth of the world's land surface. It has more kilometers of borders -- nearly 58,000, on both land and sea -- than any other nation on earth. Laid out in one line its borders would circle the earth one and a half times.

Russia has a remarkably small population for its size: just over 140 million people. It is only the ninth largest country in the world in terms of population. Two consequences of this stand out: the fear that Russia must protect itself from the potential greedy encroachments of other more populous nations hungry for its resources and its land; and the feeling that Russia is still a pioneering nation in which man battles against the implacable foe that is nature to wrest a living.

Nature is not a benign, under-control force. It is wild and elemental. Russians living in Siberia, east of the Ural Mountains, find themselves in man-made island cities adrift in an ocean of land, experiencing some of the harshest climatic changes on the planet.

The effects of the huge changes forced upon Russia when 70 years of Communist experiment collapsed in ruin, are still profoundly affecting Russia's peoples. The changes can only be measured in generations. Not surprisingly, there is a major cultural divide between those who grew up and found their careers in the USSR where things were dull but certain, and those who are growing up in the new Russia, which is anything but dull but also anything but certain.

World War II continues to figure hugely in Russians' popular consciousness -- as it should, given the colossal sacrifices made by Russians and other peoples of the Soviet empire. Whatever the politics, people suffered dreadfully, and the impacts, notably on demographics, are still with Russia today. It is an important indicator of how Russians see their nation that Victory Day (9 May) is celebrated as far-and-away the most important Russian national holiday. Nor should it be forgotten that Russia won against the odds -- something any foreign negotiator would do well to remember.

The restoration of religion in Russia since the Soviet collapse is a true wonder of the age. The restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church brings back to Russia the heart and essence of its culture. At the same time, Russia remains a country tolerant of religion. Notably, it can be regarded also as a Muslim country -- 20 percent of its population belongs to this faith.

Social change is continuing at speed. What is happening in society is a vital process. A new social contract is emerging. There are, inevitably and sadly, losers as well as winners: the country does not have time for tears. But there is already a significant, increasingly confident middle class, of well-educated and aspirational people, with middle-class values. Many have had to make the transition from make-believe Soviet government employment ("we pretend to pay you, you pretend to work") to the real-world business economy. Flexibility of mind, and of hand, is notable in the biographies of those who have climbed to success in the new Russia.

And, finally, contact with the outside world is contributing to change by bringing in a veritable torrent of new experiences and exposure to different ways of living and different ways of doing things. All this is so recent: "future shock" is here and now. Only since 1991 have all Russians had the right to travel freely beyond Russian borders. Familiarity with foreign cultures and foreign languages for those who went to school before the collapse of the USSR is still quite limited.

As a guest in Russia for several years now, I know that it is impossible to take knowledge of outside customs and practices for granted. But you can't get them across by preaching and looking down at Russians because they don't know. You have to demonstrate in your person and behavior, preferably with a degree of subtly and humility, how things should be done. I have found that Russians soak up new knowledge like sponges, adapt the parts of that knowledge useful to them, sometimes in surprising ways, and move on quickly to new learning. It's an impressive process to watch.