To be on time, or not to be

Daniel Brooks

In Russia, it’s best to expect the unexpected. Things in Russia can happen according to a set schedule, or not. If nothing unexpected happens, all is fine. On the other hand, if delayed, visitors to Russia should take matters in stride.  Here are a few suggestions about how to adjust to the Russian relationship with time and what to do should things lapse.

When setting up meetings in Russia it’s best to apply the old adage, trust but verify. As a general rule, setting up a meeting and doing it at an agreed time are often two different things. The timing for a meeting can be approximate. In Russia it’s often said, let’s meet on Thursday at mid-day but beforehand, we should call each other. This means the person will meet you at a time that needs to be verified in advance. ‘Mid-day’ might be anywhere from about noon to mid-afternoon, more or less. Make a phone call or send an SMS a few hours before the meeting on that day to finalise it. You can trust the meeting will happen, after you verify exactly when.

It should be emphasised that many Russians are prompt and on time. If someone sets an exact time for a meeting, be on time. Visitors from outside Russia mostly have a reputation of being punctual, something worth upholding, in my view.  If someone sets up a meeting at a certain time and confirms it, I arrive a few minutes beforehand. Can’t help it…raised this way. I bring my laptop along to do a bit of work or browse the internet while waiting. Sometimes I’ll get a nice cup of tea or coffee and chat with the person bringing it. Often, if the person I’m meeting finally shows up late, I might make everyone wait as I finish what I am doing. What goes around…

Often an entire set of meetings end up being delayed as the day goes by. It’s usually no big deal. This is a kind of freedom, not getting worked up into a lather because you are behind schedule. Just call ahead and blame the bad Moscow traffic. It’s the perfect culprit. Whoever is set up for the next meeting knows perfectly well that in Russia, delays happen. It’s a patient country.

Finding addresses in Moscow is a science of its own. Knowing how it works can help you avoid delays of your own. It’s often not enough to know the street address. The visitor needs to know the building number, the entrance number and the floor on which the office you are visiting is located. These details need to be obtained in advance by making phone calls and sending messages by SMS and email.

Many addresses in Moscow have several buildings attached to them, sprawled out over large distances. These buildings are called korpuses.  An address might be Krivoi Prospekt 56, korpus 5, meaning at least five separate buildings are at that address. These buildings can be well hidden and finding one often involves going through a gigantic maze. Technology helps. Google and Yandex Maps often show the building numbers. They are sometimes inaccurate. Call the person you are visiting to get exact instructions. The ones you receive might be vague. If they are, ask people wandering around outside to help you find your korpus. Some of them will send you in the wrong direction but eventually, someone will point you in the right one. Be patient and remember, whoever you are meeting will be understanding if you show up late. Don’t sweat it.

Many Russian entrances to buildings are blocked by gates or barriers, known by the German name in Russian as a “schlagbaum”. These are manned by guards who have absolute authority over letting you enter the grounds of a facility by car. Russian guards are without mercy if the arriving visitor doesn’t have an invitation or a pass. There are three ways to get past the schlagbaum. One is to sweet talk the guard. A skilled expert in Russian diplomacy can often treat the guard with respect and allow the schlagbaum to be lifted. A second way is to be impolite to the guard. This method is ineffective. You’ll probably end up having to park your car on the street somewhere and then face the guard again when trying to enter the facility on foot. The best way is to ask the company you are visiting in advance if they have a schlagbaum at the entrance to their building and arrange for the guards to get your license plate number before you arrive. That way you will sail through the schlagbaum like royalty.

Once you have found the building you are visiting, you’ll almost always need to get a propusk, or pass. A propusk is an important part of Russian life and to get into most offices, government facilities, schools and other buildings, you’ll need to get your hands on one. Some are passes that get you through a turnstile into the building. Others are a piece of paper that the company you are visiting will need to stamp. Most Russian buildings are manned by guards who will write down your name into a book by hand before when you are given a propusk and again, after you leave the building. Don’t lose the propusk or turnstile pass because you will have to turn it back in to the guard at the entrance on your way out.

I have always wondered what happens to all the log books that are filled out by hand in Russia. Perhaps they are in a big warehouse somewhere and someone is reviewing them. Many of these will identify someone named Dan Brooks who hasn’t turned in his pass when he leaves the premises. They are easily lost.

Sometimes visitors come to Russia from countries where there is a misguided belief in doing things on time (UK, Germany, Holland, etc.). I try to warn visitors in advance about the Russian relationship with time. A friend from the UK recently visited for two days and after I briefed him on Russia, he expected constant delays. It didn’t turn out that way.  On the first day of his visit, everyone we met was waiting for us, right on time. There were no delays at all. We wanted to cause a delay of our own, which we didn’t do. We didn’t know how to go about it. It was a bit of a letdown. On the second day, every meeting was well behind schedule, right up to dinner. This was liberating. We enjoyed the second day more than the first one.

Once I set up a meeting with between a coffee buyer named Kirill, myself and a Dutch visitor. We’d never met Kirill in person. We agreed to meet at a Georgian restaurant. When we arrived, I asked the restaurant manager if anyone named Kirill had booked a table and was directed to one laden with food and costly drinks. There was Kirill, sitting with his director of production, in a good mood. We began by making a toast to our new partnership. We didn’t talk business at first. Instead we spent a good half hour getting acquainted. We dispensed with handing out business cards and began our new friendship on a first name business. It turned out that we’d arrived on Kirill’s birthday. That called for a few more toasts.

As we were enjoying ourselves immensely, my mobile phone rang…it was Kirill who called to complain that he’d been sitting in the restaurant for a half hour, waiting. Where were we?  That’s how I learned we’d spent a half hour having dinner with the wrong Kirill who was a buyer of rebar for Russian atomic power plants, not the coffee buyer Kirill we’d hoped to meet. Rebar Kirill was expecting some suppliers that evening at his birthday dinner and he thought that’s who we were.  We’d spent a half hour with the wrong Kirill.

The coffee Kirill and I had a laugh about the mix-up. It ended up being a fantastic evening. Later on, we joined rebar Kirill for a nightcap who by then was three sheets to the wind. He told us it was one of the best birthdays he’d ever had.

My Dutch colleague wasn’t happy about the mix-up at all. He thought the lost half hour with the wrong Kirill was simply a waste of time.

Russia is not all that different from other countries where the relationship with time is relaxed.  Italy comes to mind. I had the privilege to live in Italy at one point in my life and at first, I was miserable about the way nothing seemed to happen on time. After about three months, I got the hang of it and after that, I almost enjoyed always being late. Italy was tremendous preparation for Russia. Whenever things happen behind schedule in Russia, I fondly remember Italy.

Keeping this in mind, my final suggestion is this one. To prepare for Russia, spend a week or two in Italy.

It can’t hurt.