Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Western Gambit Paying Off for Turkey Scholar

MTChernobrovkina sees Western ties as natural for Russian firms.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Maria Chernobrovkina could be said to have played a Turkish gambit to reach her current position. Sacrificing an oriental languages degree as "youthful indulgence in exotica," the new head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce switched course for the West early in life.

As a student, Chernobrovkina majored in Turkish, with some Arabic and Persian, at St. Petersburg State University. Despite specializing in English at a language-intensive high school, she sought a more adventurous subject for her university studies.

"At that point, Turkish was seen as really exotic," Chernobrovkina said. "Few people traveled to Turkey at the start of the '90s and little was known in Russia about the country."

"I had to travel around the Turkish countryside, gathering national folklore in the villages for my dissertation, which I still hold as one of my biggest achievements," she said.

Her research topic eventually became local businesses in Russia's Northwest, as Chernobrovkina came to work at the U.S. Commercial Service in St. Petersburg. Though she shrugs her shoulders as if to suggest that it just turned out that way, the switch from Turkish delight to Western commerce was no accident.

"After university [from 1991 to 1995], I worked as a tour guide and interpreter," she said. "Most of the groups were English-speaking, and there were lots of opportunities for interpreting at business meetings that involved American companies.

"I did not really try to find employment with a Turkish company. Working with Eastern businesses is a very specific thing, and I am not sure if I felt completely comfortable with it," Chernobrovkina said, citing her sex as one possible reason.

Although stressing the need for balance, Chernobrovkina sees it as quite natural for Russia to have closer ties to Western, and particularly American, business. Trading with the Far East or the Middle East involves doing more thorough sociological homework, she said.

"You need to understand and respect the culture of Eastern countries first before doing business with their companies," she said. "I think that Russians are very good at adapting; they can work with both the East and the West ... [but] the mentality of Americans and Europeans already stands much closer."

While working as an interpreter at business meetings, Chernobrovkina felt an urge to contribute to the dialogues, "to have an opportunity to say something."

In 1995, she began working at the American Business Center at the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg. Three years later, she transferred to the U.S. Commercial Service, which provides support for American firms on the Russian market, conducts research and encourages more American companies to work in Russia.

Chernobrovkina immediately took to her new line of work.

"At the U.S. Commercial Service, there was a great balance between meeting new people and conducting analytical research on the domestic markets," she said. "I met with a lot of Russian companies, and the attitudes toward America and American business were open and enthusiastic."

In answer to the infamous theory that the service's work can somehow be classified as commercial spying, Chernobrovkina nods patiently, as if listening to a joke that was not funny the first time.

"If a U.S. firm wants to enter the Russian market, it will need -- for example -- to look for a distributor, or some other business partners," she said. "Naturally, the commercial service would research the distributors operating locally, and provide the U.S. firm with at least a range of four or five options.

"It's not spying in any sense. It's business."

Working at the service allowed Chernobrovkina to form close ties with a number of American and other foreign companies in the region, a process she recollects as warm, highly interactive and stimulating.

One of the Russian companies then looking for U.S. partners was St. Petersburg-based Inform Services, formerly Inform Business Computer. The firm traveled as part of a Russian IT delegation led by Chernobrovkina to the Comdex technology fair in Las Vegas in 1998.

"Maria had a great combination of womanly qualities, an excellent mind and a honed business ability," said Gleb Shelomentsev, head of Inform Services. "She adapted to things quickly. It was obvious that it felt natural for her to look for new areas, new boundaries all the time."

So when a change arrived after almost a decade with the U.S. Consulate, it was like "a harmonious transfer," Chernobrovkina said.

"For me, this was a logical progression. When I worked at the commercial service, I helped companies enter the Russian market and then handed them over to AmCham," she said. "Now I'm on the other side of the same coin, working with AmCham to assist companies in adapting to this market."

John Schwarz, the president of Baltic Cranberry, has known many heads of AmCham in St. Petersburg. He sees Chernobrovkina as a good choice to continue the chamber's traditions.

"She'll have a baptism of fire as on any new job," Schwarz said, "but she's well qualified. She'll do well."

Commerce is about dialogue and understanding. Chernobrovkina notes that a dialogue with authorities, especially with the customs and intellectual property rights committees, is key to resolving the anxieties American firms have about the Russian market.

Sometimes, companies do not even realize that such a dialogue with officials is possible, she said. Making businesses aware of AmCham's ability to help establish contact is one goal Chernobrovkina has set for herself.

"Despite any worries foreign business has, Russia is just too big a market to miss out on," she said. "Foreign companies know that they must come here."