Lessons I Learned in Russia

Nancy Corbett
Written by Nancy Corbett

I’m not an alarmist, but I’ve lived in Russia. It was in the early 1990s, just after the country had opened up to the west and the wider world. I was in Moscow when Yeltsin ordered the military to shell the parliament building. I even heard war raging in nearby Georgia after taking a two-day, 1,500-mile train ride from Moscow to Sochi.

Unlike many foreigners, or expats as we were called, my ex and I did not live in relative comfort in the center of Moscow but instead in one of the furthest communities south, one of the last stops on the gray metro line. We didn’t shop where foreigners shopped. We didn’t eat where expats ate. We lived, more or less, like Russians.

We lived in one of the enormous, ugly, Soviet-style, high-rise apartment complexes on the city’s outskirts – Chertanovskaya – in a 15-by-15 foot, one-room flat. I had never studied Russian in school but within a few days of my arrival, I understood the Cyrillic alphabet enough that I could find my subway stop and make out words like “restaurant” which looks like “pectopah” in Russian.

I assimilated very quickly, not wanting to stand out as an American in a culture where Americans were still a novelty. It turned out that my perceptions of Russians were as distorted as their perceptions of Americans. We each had been served up propaganda for decades.

The truth quickly became clear: the Russian people were beautiful souls but the governments that had ruled them for centuries, be it tsars or communists, were ruthless. Russians are a people who have been continually subdued, submerged, only breaking to the surface for quick breaths of air, experiencing short-lived freedom between regimes.

Since I didn’t speak the language at all at first, I found odd jobs. I had zero experience teaching exercise classes but there I was in a city of 12 million teaching aerobics – all the rage then in Russia – at several foreign-owned hotels. I eventually even headed up a health club for an Austrian-owned hotel.

I learned that while Russians were at heart hard workers, there was an evident hierarchy in place. If you looked the other way, you could incur favors. The health club topped the three-star hotel in the center of Moscow. My staff was constantly giving free massages to Russian mafia and other higher ups. Sometimes I would come in and there would be groups of people who I’d never seen before, someone providing the space for favors.

It was a system that had been in place for centuries. This was a culture that didn’t play by the rules; they played in spite of them. They found ways around everything. If there was a loophole, they had already navigated through it a multitude of times and they knew where the glitches were and how to sidestep any unforeseen issues.

For four short months, I had an Italian boss who at one time was the general manager of the resort hotel of Las Hadas in Manzanillo, Mexico, where Bo Derek was filmed in the movie “10.” He was straightforward and fair. In his first weeks at the hotel, he called the staff together and said he would give everyone three months and after that if they were doing good work, they would stay. If not, it would be a fast departure.

For a culture built on “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” this was a new game plan. Who you are, who you are related to and what you can do for someone else, that’s what keeps the wheels in motion in Russia. So this 90-day proclamation by the Italian boss was shocking for Russians, somewhat difficult for them to even swallow at face value.

True to his word, my boss fired some people when the grace period ended, including a woman who had a husband or knew someone high up in the Russian parliament. The next day as I trudged to work in the snow, my Russian colleagues relayed the news: our Italian boss had been asked to leave the country within 48 hours. He had bucked the Soviet/Russian system and paid the price.

It was chilling.

And yet it was in line with everything I had learned while living in Russia.

When we were pulled over by Russian traffic cops in our white Niva, a Russian off-road vehicle, for some minor traffic violation, like turning right on a red light which is taboo in Russia, we learned to play the game or suffer the consequences. As I recall, they were never rude or overbearing or even that greedy. They simply expected a little something in return for not writing you a ticket. It was usually as simple as an exchange of a few water bottles for a friendly nod to send you on your way.

After all, traffic violations are minor in a land where for much of their history, Russians have watched as neighbors and friends disappeared in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again.

After a language lesson one day, my beloved Russian teacher told me, over a cup of tea, that as a girl in 1953 she had cried when Stalin died. Tucked away in their family’s five-room flat, not far from Red Square, there once hung a standard issue photo of Stalin. She remembered that as tears trickled down her face, her mother snapped and said, “Why are you crying? Don’t you ever cry over him again. Don’t you know what he has done? Why do you think our friends and our family have been disappearing?”

As a young teen, my Russian teacher was shocked. That was the end of the conversation. There was no further explanation. They never talked about it again, until years later when it was safe to do so. These were the days when homes were bugged and the KGB knew the movements of everything from beetles to ants. If a person said anything not in line with the current government or even looked the wrong way, they might never be heard from again.

There were no questions asked because if you asked questions, you too would disappear or worse, your family and friends would vanish. Russia has long been a “shut up, do what you’re told” kind of nation, “or else…” And Russians have long succumbed to this coercion.

So that’s why, when I hear the White House chief strategist wielding his power in a menacing way, such as by telling the American press corps to “shut up,” I do a double take and try to remember which country it is that I live in. Is this America or is this Russia?

Unlike Russia, we have a 225-year history of free speech. We have the right to speak freely, protest and march peacefully when we don’t agree with the seated government. We, unlike Russians, have a voice.

My only hope, as I watch with disbelief as laws are dismantled, rights are abridged, and as everyone from judges to company executives is coerced via Twitter, is that this indeed is not Russia. We are a country of immigrants who came to America, fleeing intolerance and oppression. Some of our families came with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the hope that they could make a life here in America.

We are a nation of gritty individuals, who while sometimes asleep at the wheel, will awaken as we see a corrosive force underfoot.

Russians have come to accept browbeatings by their leaders and loss of freedoms. Not because they like it, but because they’ve lived under oppressive tsars and rulers, paranoiac communists, and now Putin, for hundreds and hundreds of years.

But it’s not in the American DNA to stand down, to look the other way, to ignore what’s playing out before our very eyes.

We must speak up for ourselves, for our neighbors, for those who don’t have the voice to speak.

The world is counting on it, on us.

About the author

Nancy Corbett

Nancy Corbett

Nancy, a corporate public relations professional by day, navigates motherhood, some days better than others, under the aging 1930s roof of a teenager, a husband 14 years her senior, two hound dogs and her own midlife perimenopausal madness.

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