I went to Russia with YEO recently. My experience can be summed up with the simple maxim: we have a lot, we will eventually get it right.
And you know, that’s a pretty healthy way to look at Russia. But I’m ahead of myself already. Here’s a little back story first: YEO set up the trip, so other Presidents and founders of businesses could go learn about the culture and business of the place. I had some business to do in Europe and in Novgorod, so it worked out for me. I did my research reading recommendations from former Minister of Culture and Putin buddy Gleb Uspensky and a great turn of the century letter writer: August de Custine. Of the latter, I was sold on his “letter from Russia” when I saw the following endorsement “All you will ever need to know about Russia”- George F. Kennan. It did not disappoint.
From the time I got to St. Petersburg I was smitten: first, they love Americans. The kids try to speak the language, the doormen all want to have dollars (there is no difference between dollars and rubles- except the “status” premium), and every bar and club stands at attention when you walk in. They also love entrepreneurs, and adore money. My kinda place. Everyone has a day job, and most everyone has an idea to start a business (you can see my attraction now). I checked in to the Hotel Astoria, another gem in the Rocco Forte crown. They took good care of me.
My guide was the bright and well- connected Ekaterina Voskaya. For someone with little time or patience, Katarina in the perfect choice. First, dad is military. Mom restored the Pushkin palace. And her husband has the highway paving concession in the area. She gets you to the front of the line, you might say. We were able to see the Hermitage (Rubens on the left, Caravaggio on the right, Kandinsky over there, Renoir yonder, hey do you like Vermeer? What about Rembrandt?). I felt like a kid at a giant flea market for masterpieces. Then it was the cathedrals: icons are one dimension because Orthodox believe nothing should be more prevalent than the beauty of Christ. Reminded me of Peru, where they hang no canvas. Hey, rules are rules.
Other highlights included shopping on the cheap. You haven’t really been shopping in Russia until you have a general’s daughter in tow. I knocked of a military supply store with her help and have enough outlandish garb and metals to join the KGB, Paratroopers, or the Royal Navy. Funny story, you can’t pay cash. You have to first buy the voucher for the metal, then move to the other window and redeem it. Again, everyone in Russia is in business, including enlisted men that would rather have cash than metals. Hey, more stuff for me! Total cost of ~25 unique gifts for friends and family: $25.
We did catch Pushkin Palace (Catherine was some operator- basically married and murdered her way to the top). The crowning moment was the amber room, an ornate turn of the century salon done entirely in amber. Not easy to make, probably hell to maintain. We also raced over to see the Peterhof, PTG’s country pad. He so loved the water, he integrated the bay of Finland right into his living room- well almost.
After that whirlwind, it was on to the airport and to Moscow. If you want to live confusion, try navigating the security lines and gates for a tight flight when all the signs are in Cyrillic. And the people are not the homogenized tour guides you see on the inbound flights. Again, it’s good to be an American in Russia, I made it through. Otchen-Priatno!
Moscow wants to be Vegas, only more spread out.
The city is serviced by five airports, none less than an hour from the center of the city- if there is one. This in a country with 10 time zones and a zillion people. Look at it on a map. China looks a bit small, actually. My theory about abundant natural resources was driven home by the YEO presenter, Sol Gittleman from Tufts, who was great by the way. It’s about the resources baby! More precisely, the oil. Russia has so many people, so many minerals, so much land, and so much oil all they really have to do is not make any huge mistakes (like 100 years of Communism, for example) and they are going to come out fine. If you don’t like something there, wait a minute, there another one right behind it. This in a culture that is now so eager to please, and so in tune with business (it is still the Wild West, they don’t all play fair, mind you).
What I really enjoyed about the Moscow trip were the people, both the Russians we spent our days with (learning what their culture, lives, food and desires were) and the YEO friends that accompanied me to the Kremlin, the Bolshoi, the Pushkin Club, the Metropole, and the bana. The conversations were stimulating, and the sites were made ever more interesting because of them. By the way, that final stop was a cultural experience for the ages. Ask me one day to tell the story of two YEO’ers in a Moscow bana with no Russian language skills and even less clothing. We escaped with our lives, and most of our clothes, but they are probably still talking about us.
Looking back from the tail section of BA Flight 1141 to Heathrow, I think that the Russians are like our closest kin in Europe. Brash, chock full of resources, smart, and not the least bit afraid to take what is theirs. I expect in 25 years, they will still be on the center stage of the world.