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Ofis Space May 18, 2007
Politics Inside the Russian Ofis
By Nancy Deal Browse author

So you've been working in a Russian office for some time now. It's not so bad that you'd consider quitting (yet), but you're getting sick and tired of some of the bullshit. You always seem to get passed overeven though you're doing more work than anyone else. No one listens to your ideas and no one ate the cookies you brought in as your post-vacation duties demanded. Is this because of discrimination against rotten, know-nothing foreigners? Well, yes. A little. After all, the way you wear different outfits to work every day of the week and compulsively turn off the air conditioner all the time really freaks out some of your Russian coworkers. But mostly it's because you probably don't fully understand the dynamics of power at the Russian workplacethe office politics, if you will. This involves a complex set of unspoken rules that, much like Russian federal legislation may seem nonsensical.

You may have thought that you were cooperating uniquely and effectively, but sometimes that's just not enough. There are certain cultural mores that you, as an ignorant foreigner, simply have no way of grasping. These primarily involve status, and the ways in which you should behave in order to get what you want. For all foreigners, this involves (usually) faking some Russian behavior. For most expats, it means getting ready to grovel.

As we all know, Mother Russia and her Soviet predecessor were and are amazingly progressive when it comes to equality of the sexes and feminism. At the workplace, that is. Women may be high-performance shockworkers, but they are still the weaker sex and fragile little creatures that require sheltering and belittling. This is why the only way for a woman to negotiate anything with superiors in the office is to feign fragility and stupidity, up to and including the shedding of tears. This may seem beneath some Western women who are not used to having to resort to baby talk in order to get a coworker to do something. This is, however, the way things get done. You may as well just get used to it. Use a very high voice, flutter your eyelashes and act coquettishly. Giggle and coo at nothing. Or, depending on the situation, you may opt to make yourself look grey and fatigued, as though approaching your boss is absolutely the last resort. You have davleniye. You've tried everything else, but, poor flower, you couldn't do it yourself, so can your boss please get someone else to do it? Pretty please? It doesn't matter if your intended target is a man or a womanyou may be surprised how effective this is when you finally try it.

The situation for men is somewhat different. Russian men generally apply the Three B's: boast, bullshit and bluff, occasionally combined with some stomping and/or strutting. This involves speaking authoritatively about something you know absolutely nothing about, in an attempt to impress everyone within earshot. Subjects range from nationalistic sentiment (Russians invented mayonnaise, and the dollar is going to crash any day now), folk science facts (did you know that viruses die in extreme cold?), and the real reason why water is shut off for three weeks in the summer. International affairs will also sometimes be covered, especially anti-Western news stories. Be aware that this is a very time-consuming, risky method. Arguing is a national sport in Russia and no Russian can resist a debate. Starting a discussion is akin to whipping out your white duel glove, and whether you are correct or misguided about whatever topic you decide to bullshit about, someone will either call your bluff or put out their own. You will then have to argue it to the end, nonstop, which may requires several days and numerous bottles of vodka. In the end, no one wins. But now you have some status in the workplace.

Foreigners can use the Three B's, but there are two other approaches for expat males, most of which involve proactive, preemptive status-building measures. Similar to what women are subjected tobut much more manlythe first option involves a lot of acting. You'll have to make it clear that you have a deep admiration for everything Russian. Quote 20-year-old movies and wow your coworkers with a few key slang phrases and words. You'll get major brownie points if you can work in obscure references to Kin-dza-dza, the one Russian movie that is pretty much completely inaccessible to foreigners. You'll also want to voice as much anti-American sentiment as possible. I mean, after all, you're in Russia because everything here is so superior, right? Such smooth and level sidewalks, such outstanding customer service, such excellent snow removal services in the wintertime, such refreshing cold water for three weeks in the summer. So make sure they know you understand that Russia really is going to regain its superpower status, no matter where the U.S. puts its missile defense systems. Listen intently and wide-eyed when they speak of the myth that is the Russian soul, and never, ever point out that the lines at McDonald's are much, much longer in Moscow than they are anywhere in the U.S.

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