Russian Insights and Culture(s)

Three weeks ago, I’ve had the pleasure to discover Russia. This was my first travel to this beautiful country. This opportunity has been given to me by my client, Bonduelle : the General Manager for Russia was part of an 18-month leadership development program I run and he offered to welcome the last seminar there, first in Krasnodar and then in Moscow.

An emergent or an emerged country ?

As one of the four BRIC, Russia is often presented as an emergent country. You can sense everywhere the enormous dynamism of the country. Signs of wealth are obvious, sometimes ostentatious. The biggest surprise for me was to see these signs in the city of Krasnodar, in the South of the country. I hadn’t even heard the name of that city before my trip, and I discovered a 1-million habitants large urban zone, with so many trendy restaurants, hotels, cars… Far away from the image I had of a rural zone still living the heritage of kolkhozes. In Moscow, we got the opportunity to have a session at one of the main national TV company (STS), and also to meet representatives from large multinational corporations. Looking at the offices, you could not tell if you were in New York, London or Moscow. This is true in any country of the world, of course, since the globalized environment exists everywhere, but with all the images you carry from your childhood about the Soviet Union, the contrast was very sharp. In 20 years, Russia has lived a huge change. On the Red Place, what faces the Lenin’s mausoleum ? A beautiful Cartier’s store.

Immensity

Of course, it is impossible to embrace the complexity of a country like Russia in just six days ! And definitely one of the most important experience for me has been to discover the scale of this country. Two examples :

  • my client owns land where it produces vegetables for two plants near Krasnodar. This is an old kolkhoz of 6 000 ha (14 825 acre). Each piece of land was 2 km long and 400 m large. The kolkhoz was designed and equipped in the 50’s under Khrushchev and was still ready to operate (after some rehabilitation works, of course).
  • we also visited Auchan hypermarkets in Moscow. The store we visited had 120 checkouts and 25 000 shoppers/day. In 10 years, the French leading retail company has opened 50 hypermarkets in Russia, employing 26 000 people.

The size of the country gives to any entrepreneurial endeavour big opportunities, that you would dream of in Western economies. It also brings its own challenges, given the history of the country.

Piled historical layers

Before you enter into Russian territory, if you travel with Aeroflot, you are surprised by the persistance of the “hammer and sickle” symbol – both on the plane itself and on the uniform of crew members. In Moscow, you will find memories of the Soviet Union everywhere (not only in souvenir shops, with soviet inspired tee-shirts or keychains). This presence of Russian’s Communist past is strange at the beginning. But when you think that the fall of Soviet Empire is only 20 years old, it helps you understand how this society is in fact a patchwork of different historical layers. I have seen people crossing themselves in the street as soon as they see an old Byzantine church. You hear the pride of the Russians when they celebrate the 200th anniversary of the victory of the Czar against Napoleon’s invasion. You can discuss with people about what they lived in the Communist era. You also see how large multinational corporations employ very young people at executive levels (a way to avoid working with too ‘communist-minded’ brains ?). All theses pieces of Russian history and memory co-exist and form part of the magic of being there.

The power of cultures

This beautiful experience made me reflect a lot about culture(s). For a country like Russia, but for any type of social form (country, company, team,…), can we really talk of it as one unified field (to use the term in the way K. Lewin defines it : “the totality of coexisting facts, which are conceived of as mutually interdepedent”) ? Who conceives this interdependance between coexisting facts ? Is it just a cognitive individual process ? To what extent is it driven by large social “producers of culture” like writers, journalists, scientists, teachers, artists, politicians… ? To what extent does it belong to “local communities” producing everyday their cultural artifacts ? How do both really interact ? I have no answers to these questions, but I am quite sure that you’d better pay attention to culture(s) in your organization. Maybe my advice would be : never take your organization’s culture for granted. You are so part of it that you might be just blind about it. And it may include much more variety than what you usually describe as THE culture of your company.

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