Hardship Post

Daniel Brooks

At one point in time, a couple of decades ago, Russia was a hardship post. It was an irrefutable fact, challenged by few. Companies based outside of the country perceived Russia as infested with crime and overwhelmed with problems. Finding housing was dicey, living conditions were challenging.  Anyone living in the country, such as expat managers, needed to be additionally compensated. Smart managers in Russia maintained this belief. Meanwhile, Russia was a growing market. Power Point presentations the world over forecasted year after year of continuously profitable growth. Bringing in experienced people and helping them monetarily to overcome the hardships of life in Moscow was a business necessity. Employment contracts helping relieve the pain were written and signed. For a time, things actually got worse, especially in 1998. Those were the good old days. After that, Moscow increasingly became a more attractive place to live. Managers everywhere in Russia tried to stop anyone from finding out. It was a losing battle, like shoveling sand uphill.

One of the first things to be ruined were the airports. The original Sheremetievo 2 airport was a gem. It made an ideal first impression by making a bad one. It was a holdover from the 1970’s and had what looked like several hundred thousand brown cans in the ceiling. They illuminated the airport as little as humanly possible. It was a masterpiece of gloom. Parts of it still remain, for nostalgic people to enjoy. The lines at passport control were long and chaotic. Passport control checkpoints were few. Each passport was checked for a long time, dragging out the process for an eternity. Many people smoked, ruining the air. Customs would often stop people and ask them how much money they were bringing into the country. The amount of cash allowed into the country changed from time to time, causing fear. After walking out of the arrival hall at the airport, a jumble of cars would be jammed up in a darkened parking lot from hell. It was magnificent. To take a taxi, the fare had to be negotiated. Often the taxi drivers seemed fierce and didn’t know where they were going. It was the perfect beginning to convince visiting management that Russia was no place for cowards.

After leaving the airport, the road to the center was lined with kiosks, massive trucks spewing exhaust fumes and pot holes. Usually, there was a bad traffic jam. Prostitutes could occasionally be seen, if the manager of the Russian market was lucky, on the road to the center. This was shocking. Finally, after a long wait in horrible traffic, the visiting delegation of management from Europe would arrive at their hotel. It was an island of civilization that provided food, a decent cup of coffee, a lobby where cigars could be smoked and safety. The smart Russia manager would warn his visitors to stay in the hotel. Out there, in the dark beyond, danger lurked.

It paid to invite management from head office to Russia on a business trip in the dead of winter, ideally in February. This allowed a store visit, a tour of retail outlets in the coldest month of the year. Management could see the hard work done by the Russia manager during the previous year to achieve top notch distribution. The ice and snow were a bonus.Store visits in the 90’s and well into the 2000’s took place outdoors, in the elements. It was a cold undertaking. Most of retail in Russia was called the traditional trade and was comprised in large part of kiosks, small metal boxes propped up all over the country wherever possible, selling everything under the sun. Some kiosks were gathered together in grungy outdoor markets, called ‘rynoks’, where vast quantities of branded products were sold. These markets were inhabited by people who looked dodgy. They were important for distribution.  ‘Mom and pop’ retailers were part of the trade as well. Many stores were called ‘prodykty’, meaning ‘food’ and some still are today. They were often populated by cats and smelled like ‘vobla’, a salted, dried fish whose aroma is inviting to Russian beer drinkers but not many uninformed foreigners.  Shopping centers were non-existent in those years. In February, the weather would usually be at its coldest. The visiting delegation of top management could be taken to visit kiosks and outdoor markets in the freezing cold for several hours. It had to be done, especially because the sales team had worked so hard to set up the outlets visited on the store check. Store owners were warned in advance of the visiting delegation of European VIPs and were provided with incentives. This guaranteed the shops on the store check were full of the company’s product, positioned at eye level. Despite being warned of the cold, many visitors from head office arrived without the kind of clothing needed to stay warm. The local manager was dressed for antarctic conditions. Such visits were difficult. Life in Moscow was beyond any doubt a tremendous hardship.

After the European management has gone on visits to outdoor markets in the ice and snow, the time would come to take a rest at the hotel and then go out to dinner for food and drink. It never works to only emphasize hardships. At dinner, it paid to suggest that management have shots of vodka. Having a few Russians come to dinner never hurt. They could be counted on to provide inspiring toasts and some good jokes. Several toasts later and it was time to remind everyone about the potential for exponential growth in sales and profits, in a difficult market indeed, with the help of the beleaguered manager of the Russian market

If the local manager was lucky, head office management would suggest taking a walk after dinner. Unlike Americans, the Europeans are big on walks. The thing to do, at a late hour, was to go down to Red Square after having consumed several vodkas. This never failed to induce enthusiasm about the Russian market. The wind could be counted on to whip past St. Basils Cathedral and Lenin’s Tomb. It was as cold as the north pole.

Gradually, over the years, several factors caused Russia to lose its luster as a hardship post. One unfortunate trend was the appearance of a new airport, Domodedovo. Well lit, efficient and equipped with a large number of passport control points, it made an excellent first impression rather than a horrible one, as Sheremetievo 2 airport had accomplished so well. Since then it’s gotten worse with Sheremietovo airport being much improved as well. Such airports have since appeared all over Russia, replacing the dingy and dark ones built in the Soviet era. Nowadays, Russia gets compliments when management touches down after flights from abroad. There goes the neighbourhood.Another sad development was the removal of most of Russia’s kiosks and outdoor markets and the appearance of modern stores in shopping centers with parking lots. These days it’s possible to do a store check without setting foot in the cold weather for more than a minute or two. The new retail outlets are gradually replacing the traditional trade. There are a few markets and mom and pop stores left, complete with cats and vobla, but they don’t play an important role in distribution. There is no need to visit them any longer. Moscow’s retail outlets are modern and more or less well organized. Excellent coffee is nearby. No longer is there any conceivable reason for management to walk around in the bitter cold.

Moscow especially has been cleaned up considerably. It feels safe and in most parts of the city, it is. The lighting has greatly improved in many areas with Christmas lights staying up well past the new year holidays. Visiting management who come to Moscow in February might see these lights and think Moscow is a fun place, rather than being a gloomy and dangerous one. Local managers would be advised to steer them into gloomier parts of the city which are luckily in no short supply today.

I’m afraid that the new generation of managers is in danger of losing the essential skills to claim hardship benefits. Many, highly qualified managers are now Russians. This is not in the least bit surprising. However, instead of pointing out how difficult life in Russia can be, my feeling is that they openly admit they don’t mind living here at all. I’ve talked to some who bring in their management in the summer, when it is nice and warm in the country.  Other managers are from Eastern Europe. They are quickly able to settle in comfortably in Russia. Some say they prefer it here. There goes the neighborhood.

Some perceptions never end. To this day, some visitors come to Moscow believing dangerous types are lurking around the next bend. Others are unconcerned about the Russian winter. My own colleagues from a German company visit Moscow every year in February to participate in a trade show. They come lightly dressed and insist on walking from the hotel to the trade show, taking about a half hour. For the last two years, the weather in Moscow was well below 20 degrees Celsius during the show. Everyone went home with bad colds. The jokes about Germans in the Russian winter told themselves.

Other improvements have ruined things. Housing is better and it’s not difficult to find a place to live. Health and dental care are widely available. Moscow has a proliferation of good hotels unlike before, when they were few in number. The roads have mostly been fixed up. The ladies on the streets are mostly gone from public view. It was more or less safe before, now it feels safe. Great restaurants are on every corner. It’s possible to get a decent cup of coffee almost everywhere, something that wasn’t always true.

People the world over, including managers at the head office, now know what managers in Russia have known all along. While Moscow is not Valhalla, is not a bad place to live. However, hope dies last. Perhaps the economy and government will collapse once again like it did in 1992 and 1998. The entire political structure might go through a complete change. New currency can be designed and printed. Then, the country can recover. This thought provides hope that Russia could become a hardship post again, just like the old days.

Daniel Brooks, copyright, 2 December 2018