RD Interview: Researcher and social scientist Tatiana Indina explains the finer points of Russian business culture and gives advice on how to get along with Russian partners.

Businessmen in front of the map of Russia. Photo: Kommersant

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said in 1939, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Although decades have passed since then, his vision of Russia still rings true when it comes to understanding Russian behavior in many areas, especially when it comes to doing business. Just consider the number of high-profile partnerships between Russian and Western energy companies that have fallen by the wayside.

Even as Russia has embraced Western-style capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago, many in Europe and North America still view Russian business culture as very difficult to understand. With that in mind, Russia Direct recently sat down and talked with researcher and social scientist Tatiana Indina, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center in 2014-2015 and the recent author of “CEO 2.0 – Becoming the Leader of the Next Generation.”

In the interview below, Indina explains the differences between Russian and Western business culture and gives valuable tips on how to deal with Russian business partners.

Russia Direct: What is the most difficult lesson for an American or Westerner when doing business with Russians?

Tatiana Indina: These days doing business with Russia is becoming especially challenging. Not just because of complex geopolitical reasons and economic sanctions but mostly because of the low awareness about “the rules of the game” in Russian business culture. Today, Russian businesses have to deal with a lot of stereotypes about Russia, and the “information wars” contribute to that negative image in the international arena.

Undoubtedly, to be successful in negotiating and establishing relations with Russian business partners, one needs to know their core values and to understand the unique Russian psychology.

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RD: Like the fact that Russians don’t smile?

T.I.: Yes, but not just that. For example, it’s also the low predictability of actions, reactions and behavior in general. Sometimes it is hard to understand Russians because of their high emotionality. In many cases, business and its outcome depends on personal relationships or some external circumstances that are hard to predict.

There is one very important metaphor - and a major one in Russian fairy tales – the metaphor of a miracle. In all Russian fairy tales, a miracle always saves the main heroes. In other words, there is no connection between one’s efforts and the final results.

RD: Apart from these difficulties, what are the other major specifics of the Russian mentality that affect business culture and make Russia different from other countries?

T.I.: As in every other culture, Russian business behavior patterns depend on the country’s system of core values. So, what are those core values for Russia?

Value number one would be collectivism. Russian culture is very collective and there is no concept of privacy. This is why business relations are always built on personal relationships.

Thus, Russians often mix their business and personal relationships, as trust is of the highest value. This also explains why Russians often like to hire their friends and relatives to work together. Good business relationships in Russia are always personal.

Tatiana Indina during the interview with Russia Direct in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Ruslan Faizulin

Another important trait is that Russians are quite emotional. Business partners in Russia can be more critical and honest, not playing mind games. They will say straight to your face everything they think. If they don’t like you, you will immediately know it.

RD: In the West it is considered quite rude. What is behind that?

T.I.: Russians value everything real, true, honest. They can fight and argue with you at the beginning just to understand who you really are and what you stand for. You need to demonstrate your real personality, what you really mean and want.

When dealing with Russia, one should also remember that Russians have an imperial identity. They are very patriotic and proud of their historic and cultural heritage, e.g. the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II and their heroic ancestors, as well as Russian arts and science. A piece of good advice would be to know those things, treat them respectfully and demonstrate your appreciations and awareness of Russia’s great history and culture.

RD: What about Russia’s geographical location in both Europe and Asia? Does it affect Russia’s business culture?

T.I.: Of course. Due to that, Russian culture is quite conservative in its values. Being located in Eurasia, Russia has borrowed a lot from the Asian mentality. For example, polarized gender roles, hierarchy in management, strong respect for authority and family values and the important role of traditions.

One of the dimensions of highly patriarchal Russian culture is their respect for strong leadership. The authority of a leader is powerful and untouchable.

Another peculiarity of the Russian mentality is a primary emphasis on the present rather than the future. Russian managers often do not set long-term goals. This would be an irrational strategy for them as the future in Russia is unpredictable.

It makes Russian business people mostly oriented on getting profits as soon as possible. When negotiating with Russians, one should demonstrate the real value of the present moment.

RD: What are other major differences between Russian and Western business etiquette?

T.I.: Even today, when most of Russian companies have already adopted all international standards, business etiquette in Russia in many ways remains very gender oriented. Women enjoy receiving compliments and are used to other gestures from men, such as passing them their coats, helping them carry heavy bags, or paying a bill in a restaurant.

Gender differences are also quite visible in the dress code. Russian women tend to dress more feminine and sexy in the office, as compared to Western women.

Gender-oriented holidays, such as International Women’s Day (March 8) and Defender of the Fatherland Day (February 23) are a big deal in the corporate culture.

Russian culture is very much based around the giving of gifts. It is a tradition to exchange gifts with your business partners on every occasion.

Another big difference is that many times Western partners are shocked by Russians missing or even ignoring the deadlines or being late on business meetings. Punctuality is not the strongest trait of Russians. In this sense Russian culture is similar to Oriental cultures.

RD: What are the specifics of the Russian style of business management? Are Russian managers and employees different from the West?

T.I.: To describe the specifics of current Russian management, I would use three metaphors that have cultural and historic roots. Even today, surprisingly, they determine the business behavior of Russian employees and managers.

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The first metaphor is called the metaphor of the “Harvest.” Ancient Slavic tribes were very dependent on agriculture and farming. At the same time, the climate in Russia is very cold and unpredictable, which does not guarantee a good harvest no matter how much effort you put into planting the seeds.

This led to the development of a very strange concept of fatalism in Russian business culture: People tend not to connect the efforts with the final results and the amount of work with remuneration. Therefore, it’s a challenge sometimes to connect personal with corporate motivation. People tend to forget about the results of their work or the deadlines or they hope the work will have results without their effort.

It also created a negative tendency – to delegate responsibility. It consists of such smaller traits as expectation of a better time and conditions for your work, search for objective reasons when results are lacking, irrational belief that the work, once started, will somehow finish itself or will be done by someone else.

RD: Are we coming back to the concept of a miracle?

T.I.: Exactly. As I mentioned before, the concept of a “miracle,” when something happens beyond your will or your efforts, can often be seen in Russian management’s and employees’ irrational belief that everything is going to be OK no matter what is happening now.

That being said, a good part of Russian management mentality, I believe, is a high level of crisis mobilization. Whenever it is a crisis, Russians tend to unite under pressure and mobilize. They will deliver impressive results under very tight deadlines or stressful circumstances.

RD: OK, and what is the second metaphor that you would use to describe the Russian style of business management?

T.I.: This would be a metaphor of a “Path.” Russia is the biggest country in the world with enormous territory. In Russian fairy tales, whenever a hero hits a road, his path is very long, adventurous and unpredictable.

You never know what the future will bring and where the path will ultimately lead. As a result of this historical Russian belief that there is no final destination, Russian employees today can demonstrate concentration on the process rather than on the final goal. They can focus on some detail of the process they like more or on something they think is more important, forgetting about the original goal. Often in the process, the original goal can be lost and a new one can be found.

Therefore, the recommendation for Western managers would be to establish stronger control and demonstrate stronger leadership, sometimes even a more autocratic style of management with Russian employees.

The third metaphor that affects the Russian management style would be the metaphor of a “Struggle.”

In the past, the large size of ancient Slavic tribes allowed them to fight with their smaller neighbors. Even today they keep in their mentality this idea that you have to be suspicious of your neighbors. There is an irrational tendency to find an external enemy to blame for your own failures and problems. Russians sometimes tend to be a little bit aggressive to strangers and they tend to explain it by outsiders’ having unfriendly intentions towards them.

At the same time, Russian aggressiveness is a good thing.

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RD: Can you, please, give an example of it being positive?

T.I.: Sure. You will notice that Russian audiences can be more critical and challenging; they can ask you more questions or give you more skeptical treatment but it does not mean they do not like you. On the contrary, that means they actually do like you. It means they want to know better what you are delivering to them.

This, I would say, is a form of mental exercise to be critical for Russians (the same is about Russians’ self-criticism). If you get a critical comment from your Russian business partner, it means you caught his attention and he wants more. Therefore, it is a positive thing.

RD: Based on what you’ve just said, what would be your key tips for successful business negotiations with Russian partners?

T.I.: Tip number one: demonstrate strong leadership, be real, be honest, and be cool. Demonstrate that you are ready to stand up for your values and that you are ready to fight if needed.

Another piece of advice is to be friendly and try to invest a lot of time and efforts in building good personal relationship with your Russian business partner. Meet personally often, party together, let your partners know what kind of person you are. Tell them about your life and your family, establish personal connections, and build trust. Be less formal and make friends. Go with them to a dacha (summer house), banya (steam sauna), or eat shashlyki (grilled meats similar to shish kabobs) with them.

The next important thing to remember is to focus on the present. Whenever you make an offer or deal, demonstrate the benefits of it in the present. Do not speak about the distant future.

Another tip is to show respect to Russian traditions, to the nation’s great historic and cultural heritage. You could learn some Russian or demonstrate some knowledge of history and literature.

Also, be generous. You could invite your Russian business partners to a fancy restaurant and pay for everything. Russians love big gestures. Keep in mind that they are a very gift-giving culture.

Do not be afraid to argue if something goes wrong. Try to be constructive but don’t avoid an argument because this is the way to become closer with your Russian business partners.

And if something goes wrong or not the way that you expect, just relax and take it easy. Remember: a miracle will happen and everything will be OK. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.

RD: Well, but can we say that Russian business culture has evolved over the last 15 years or did it not undergo any fundamental changes at all?

T.I.: Well, I would say that today Russian business companies have accepted and embraced all the international standards of business etiquette. They are very well aware of international trends, they read a lot, they are connected online, and they use social media. These traits make them quite strong competitors for many Western companies.

So, I would say that today’s Russian business culture is not that old anecdotal business culture in which you go and drink vodka with your business partner until 4 a.m. to sign a contract.

Russian business partners are well aware of the internationally accepted rules of the game but yet, you still cannot exclude surprises as a result of their imperial ego and the passionate Russian nature, both of which often affects business deals.