Organization, As It Were: Business in Russia

by emory989

There’s a hilarious cracker-barrel wisdom comedy called День Радио (Radio Day, named after a holiday celebrating the Soviet-version of history inventor of the radio, Alexander Popov), which as far as I can tell, is essentially a send-up of doing business in Russia. The production team of a fictional Russian radio station, Radio, As It Were, desperately try to pull together a theme for a 10 hour fundraising (read: publicity) marathon after discovering three minutes before the live broadcast that their direct competitor is running exactly the same banal theme. Combing the newspapers, they discover that a ferry full of zoo animals has been stranded in the Sea of Japan and is awaiting rescue , and decide to fudge the story a bit to fit their purposes – “Rescue the rare animals menagerie of Dr. Schvartsengold, distinguished Professor of Science!”, complete with an interview from an endangered animals expert in the person of their alcoholic sound producer, and Brigitte Bardot – courtesy of a taped introductory French lesson. In the clip below, however, they realize that the jig is up, since the marathon has been so successful that the Russian military is sending a battleship to rescue the rare animals ferry. At this point, of course, there’s nothing to be done – and so the director of the station decides to enlist his entire team in the search for a button that he may have lost in the office, saying “Can we find the button? Purely theoretically, yes, we can find the button; as for the Ministry of Defense, there’s absolutely nothing we can do. Conclusion? Look for the button!!”

I had probably watched this movie 15 times and lived in Russia for two years before I realized that precisely this moment was a microcosm of business and organization in Russia. Last minute decisions, double-duty shifts, a not-quite-there application of capitalism, a half-absorbed Western culture and its conflict with the remnants of the Soviet philistine hegemony (imagine if the Tea Party had been in control of the country for 70 years and was only beginning to cede airtime for Kenny Chesney and Blake Shelton to anything north of Memphis!) all culminate in the pompous announcement (which later turns out to be a political fiction) that the Navy has been dispatched to save the rare animals.

The point here is not to do an exegesis of the film, however. The point is organization in Russia. About a week ago, apposite to the perfectly mundane task of buying some goldfish, I fell into a perfectly Russian situation. I had been very excited by the discovery of a rough approximation of Yelp! (in Russia, there is not yet an app for that, but the pioneers of innovation, small-timer rip offs of the major Western products, are becoming available), and decided to use it to find the nearest pet store. Coordinates entered, I set off. Upon reaching the spot indicated to be 5 Division Street by the app, I noticed with no little consternation that the large, unfriendly brick building, which quite clearly contained no pet-store, was marked on the corner to one of a rain-pipe “Karl Leibknecht Street 17”, and to the other side “5” – this being Division Street, the address would apparently be correct. To sooth my distress at the double address, I checked my map:

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The app, as you can see, is quite convinced that the building is 5 Division Street, no matter what the map itself may have to say about that. However, with the naive eyes of a Westerner, the map would not appear to be trustworthy either:  across Division Street from No. 17 is No. 10, which appears to be joined with number 19 and share a courtyard with No. 38. I was not to be fooled, however; I am an Experienced Expat, and have long ago learned that Russian addresses are not to be bound by linearity or even parity: it is perfectly okay for 24 to be on the same side of the street as 17. Better to ask for directions. The woman in the newspaper kiosk next to 17 Liebknecht/5 Division, unfortunately, was not local, and I was forced to drop into a nuts retailer next door. The nuts ladies told me that although they didn’t know where 5 Division was, there could be a pet store in Sparta, the new mall on Division Street (on this map, No. 24). Hopeful, I walked in to the building to check it out, and after awhile, was able to find the pet store. However, not without wondering at the mall itself, which is the point of this anecdote. Shooting from the hip (or “from the cunt” in the Russian vernacular) is the modus operandi, satirized in Radio Day and on clear display here as well. Construction on the then-sports complex began 10 years ago, but having not actually financed the expenditures, the government stopped construction and let the building sit for several years. A few years ago, a local millionaire decided to buy up the property and open it as a mall. Unfortunately, he didn’t calculate his finances either, and it seems that none of the small and mid-size business the space is aimed at can afford the prices. Two thirds of the space is empty, and even a number of those companies which have rented space aren’t moving in any time soon – no theaters or gyms are being set up:

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This is not intended to badmouth Russia, however. I’m more interested in the effect the system has on the way people think. If you imagine that you grew up in a place where the ideal of “a responsible adult” included people who would build multi-million dollar shopping malls without having figured out how to get a profit out of them, and in which there appeared to be multiple systems of organization haphazardly superimposed onto one another and the older ones clearly denoting the threadbare places of the modern system, how would you relate to planning? To government? To your own responsibilities? Affairs might proceed in a superficially similar manner, but if I imagine the exasperation I felt (and, I think, any Westerner would feel) upon encountering such a situation, I have to think that a Russian has developed some kind of coping mechanism to resolve the cognitive dissonance struck by the human need to impose order on the world and the pale success that need has realized in their immediate surroundings.

Have you ever noticed threadbare places in the systems you rely on that seem to work differently in other countries? Do these observations affect your dogmas about the way the world works?