Feature

Russia: Champagne and suicides

Natalia Stepanuk, the founder of IQ Marketing, Moscow, reveals the paradoxes of the Russian psyche and way of life, and how they engender extreme passions.

We are bigger than any other country in the world. Don't imagine that I am boasting about Russia's size. We're bigger because we don't fit into any outsiders' understanding.

Nowhere else in the world will you see a Bugatti in the same parking lot as a Zhiguli (the Soviet copy of a 1965 Fiat). No Frenchman can make sense of how we could remain the world's largest consumer of Champagne - even during the 1812 war. You can easily buy a bottle of Moet & Chandon at a roadside stand anywhere out in the boondocks.

We are the biggest market in the world for Chopards and Bentleys, and also for suicides. We lead the world in cosmetics sales, but also for heart attacks and strokes.

Ikea sells better here than anywhere else, but we continue living in Soviet-style communal flats.

More than anyone else in the world, we love and value our family, but the volume of life insurance policies taken out per person is lower than that in Paraguay.

Here, there are the world's hippest clubs and the world's most God-awful public toilets.

Asiatic and European, horrible and beautiful, cruel and sentimental, authoritarian and unrestrained ... the point is not the contrast, but how madly unbalanced and diametrically opposed the poles of this scale are.

If you've never been to Russia, you really have no concept of the term "nightmare" and you can't imagine what real "luxury" might be. You may as well also remain in the dark about the true definition of "lavish" or "scary".

Of course, the reason for all this lies in our history and also the fact that our minds have been totally blown for the past 16 years.

Why are we so loved and so hated in Europe? Because we're greedy. We want to sample everything under the sun, we want to try everything on, buy everything and bring it all home. We didn't have that opportunity for 70 years. Now we crave it. We're crazy about consumer abundance.

We've already taken on $60 billion-worth of consumer credit debt, and Russia is second only to India as the fastest-growing retail market. Having mastered the highest defence technologies and conquered space, we are now learning new subjects in an accelerated way: digital and home technology; private investment; private transport and tourism.

In tandem with this, we urgently need to acquire new professions, to learn how to make decisions, build businesses and become competitive. Fortunately, we were taught very well in school. However, we now need to soak up as much knowledge as it took advanced capitalist societies more than 100 years to accumulate.

Only here can you find such a mix of approaches and styles in advertising. Here, there isn't even a popular consensus on the most important questions of the day, like how to target an audience. Should it be viewed as a pack of "vegetables" or as a society of individuals? Objectively or subjectively? America crossed this dilemma about 40 years ago, but, here, politicians and brands still haven't figured out where they stand, preferring to tramp down an age-old path - the 500-year-old repressive history of Russian paternalism in which "Everything has been decided for you, my friend. You need that. Go buy (or vote)."

Why are the best and the brightest in marketing, branding, advertising and design now fighting to work here? Obviously, because this is where the money is, and not only petrodollars.

But beyond financial opportunities, Russia is without question one of the greatest cultural and sociological paradoxes of the 21st century. To do more than just make money here - to work here - you have to be a highly passionate person.

Passionate (Russian: passionarny) in the sense of the Russian historian Lev Gumilev, is to have the desire and the ability to change the world around you, being ready to make sacrifice for the sake of an ideal. Then it's possible to influence not only the consumer frenzy, but more important things.

You can teach an entire country how to think, finally, about the future, and introduce it to pensions. You can make it normal to translate "love" into taking out life insurance to protect those around you whom you care about. You can build a pharmaceutical brand against the backdrop of the country's dire health statistics and give people the chance to look to prevention rather than medication.

In this profession, be prepared that your heart will sometimes cry out to you to quit everything and head for a small town in the Caucuses to save children from being drafted into terrorist schools. Or to think up a way to help homeowners, deceived by unscrupulous house builders, to get their apartments in the end.

There is no alternative in Russia: you absolutely have to be passionate. The balance between beauty and ugliness is too easy to tip ...

DOS AND DON'TS IN RUSSIA

Superstitions

- Don't shake hands under a door entrance.

- Don't light a cigarette from a candle during dinner (or a sailor on the high seas dies).

- Don't whistle indoors (it blows your luck and money away).

Social conventions

- Corporate gifts are well received, usually at the end of a meeting.

- Dress conservatively, bearing the season in mind.

- Young Russian women's fondness for short skirts, plunging necklines or see-through blouses over lace bras - even in the office - should not be taken as anything other than a fashion statement.

- Smoking is acceptable unless clearly stated otherwise. Many offices are non-smoking, but few restaurants. Look to see if ashtrays are provided in a meeting room.

- Tipping:10 per cent is adequate;15 per cent is very generous, and you should have had exemplary service.

Photography

- It is prohibited to take photographs of any military installations and establishments of strategic importance. This applies to airports, and even photographing supermarkets requires that you get special permission.

- Taking photographs of your business hosts and colleagues at meetings, dinners and social occasions is appreciated, especially if you send them the jpegs afterwards.

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