Thursday, 15 January 2015

Moscow in the snow.

     So Inga and I had made the decision to stay in Moscow till the end of the holiday season and spend time with her sister Liana and Liana’s two teenage daughters. Moscow in the winter is like a bear, temperamental and unpredictable.  We arrived at the central Moscow Airport to minus 18 and blizzard like conditions. Coming from sunny Anapa, it was quite a shock as was our landing. It was the first time in my life, and hopefully my last, that I’ve been in a plane that fishtailed on landing. We aren’t just talking a wiggle in the junk either but a full on Dukes Of Hazzard fishtail on touchdown. I was certainly happy to have a Russian pilot on the controls that evening. Due to the storm our luggage took forever to reach the carousel and which exact carousel was in question as well. It changed several times with long blanks between changes. Finally, our stuff came down and we were on our way out of the now familiar airport.

    I often hear qualitative statements about cold. It’s a dry cold, or wet cold. I have never really understood those, so let me make up one of my own. It was a buddy ball liver cold, in that your balls recede up and snuggle with your liver. The scything gusts of the wind reminded you very quickly you need a toque on both your heads if your culture happens to follow the de-toguing practice. Yet the warmth of Apress’s Mercedes was just a quick jaunt across three lanes of traffic and so with anatomy returning to its usual place we made our way to Moscow.

The road has been updated and now you drive right by the mass of cooling towers for the nuclear power plant. Perhaps it is because I grew up with shows like The China Syndrome I find these silent energy sentinels a little foreboding. No one else seems to notice as the conversation is animated and in Russian mixed with Ossetian and I let my attention drift along with the falling snow marveling at the lack of cars in the ditch. Snow like this in the lower mainland all too frequently comes with the ditch decorated by various vehicles.  The trip out to what we would call the suburbs was much quicker on the new road and we arrived at my sister in laws house and to a much-needed meal.

Moscow is an incredible city both in size and culture. But perhaps what makes it most amazing is its History. The buildings contrast between Soviet-era block apartments and grand palaces and churches. The scale of some of these public spaces is hard to believe and the architecture breathtaking. The locals seem to pay them as much attention as they do the cooling towers I mentioned earlier. I guess you get used to what you have. The western influence on Moscow is easy to see in fashion and gadgets. More so in talking to locals about perceived value of some products. This kind of conversation has come around more frequently as a result of the economic sanctions imposed on the country and the connected falling Ruble.

    Russians just seem to believe Western products are better than Russian ones simply by virtue of being Western. A Dodge Colt is held above a Lada despite the Lada having definite build advantages and easy, cheap access to parts.  When I tell them I don’t see too many 1973 Colts driving around Vancouver yet I do see lots of Ladas from that time here, they see it oddly. They perceive I am saying we are rich hence no old cars and them as a people are not. It is only when I drag the conversations back to the original point of build quality and longevity of the product do they get my point. Yet despite this they still have a hard time with the concept. Advertising from the west, as well as marketing, is what I believe to be the difference. To say it is better or slicker is like comparing western ads from the sixties to those we will see at the next Super Bowl. Product marketing is not quite as bad but not up to the challenge either.  As an example, Aeroflot has a frequent flyer program that is better when compared with the ones in the west. However, their marketing of the product is so culturally locked and Russian language biased that they can’t hope to compete in the global market. Significant route changes and deals for award-point flights are sent to Russian speaking members, but not those that ticked the English box. Inga’s account gets significant communication in Russian, but my mailbox is empty. Even when they canceled the Toronto to Moscow direct flight in October they didn’t send out a notification to me. All, I see, are the save 2 percent on your next ticket purchase email that comes with my flight confirmation letter. Even this 2% that I've never used as it isn't mobile device friendly hits wrong with Western clients. Perceived value, loyalty recognition, and appreciation are very culturally biased and they have really missed the mark. Even their tier structure is based on a calendar year and not a year with them. So if you joined later in the year but flew 24 thousand miles, come January first you go back to zero with everyone else. The focus remaining large and general, rather than on the individual. Missing the point that discounts don’t attract Westerners to a frequent flyer programs individually focused service and commitment does. So despite having better service, much better food, and drinks, and the best route they had to cancel service from Toronto due to lack of passengers. No Aeroflot you lost the game out of the gate, culturally hamstrung like the Lada you can’t compete.

I don’t want these examples to look like I am bashing Aeroflot, Lada, or Russians! I am not saying they are bad, to be truthful they are better. I picked them to provide the example that while Russia may have a free market economy the global cultural differences are very vast. To compete in the world market, a company needs to get that.

    One Russian company that did get this is YotaPhone. They released an Android based phone designed by Russians, incorporating Russian thinking, and released it on a Global scale. The biggest selling point is it has two displays. As a westerner, I think ok pretty gimmicky, back and front displays make it hard to put in a case, easy to break, and why? So I checked out the website a very long time ago and then they rolled out the ad campaign, and I got it. I got it two ways actually, from a westerner living in Russia and knowing access to power can sometimes be a challenge and from a form and function design point of view. Then this company took the phone to the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas! The average Russian doesn’t know much about CES and the phone isn’t even for sale in the USA yet, and they really can’t hope to make inroads into that market share if it was for sale! BRAND RECOGNITION is why and they got more than recognition the YotaPhone2 Won!

So not every Russian company is locked into this old way of thinking but like in Canada the bigger giants are slow to change and adapt to global world economy than the new ones.  Perhaps even one-day Russian tourists will just stand in line at airport check in, luggage and passport in hand, and not a plastic protector carrying a sheaf of papers. “This is the modern digital age." If the Russian economy wants to be more immune from outside influence, it needs to boost its’ marketing. I bought a YotaPhone 2  because it works better for my needs than an iPhone 6. My sister in law’s kids really were at a loss to why until they saw the ads and I explained it. RUSSIA YOU MAKE GREAT STUFF, you always have made excellent products. The western companies just got better at propaganda and marketing than you ever were.

    So aside from buying expensive Russian phones and discussing Global economic structures and differences I went on a picnic in the snow. If you have been following this blog for a while you, will know that BBQ’s and social time is huge in Russian culture. So is discussing significant issues but I’ve already done all of that for this blog. The weather is so unpredictable that our plans had to be very fluid and luckily life in Moscow allows for that.

Inga and her Sister Liana set to putting stuff together one morning and before I knew what exactly was going on Apress was at the door and we were loading the car. It was warmer this morning about –12 metric and the snow had covered everything not walked or driven on in a gorgeous blanket of silk. We drove about ten minutes to a large park and unloaded. Apress had invited three of his friends to meet the Canadian and join in a winter BBQ celebrating the holiday season.  The three guests had arrived early and had a BBQ going and vodka chilling in the abundant snow. I was greeted in the warm fashion and with hands shook and names attempted we set to enjoying the day. Toasts were enjoyed and with the meat cooking, we discussed life, the universe, and our world. With a smattering of English, a dash of Russian and a splash of Vodka we all eventually understood each other and when it got past hand gestures Inga was there to translate.

The friends Apress invited were all great guys and really went out of their way to make me feel welcome. They all said hello in English first and this show of respect was not missed by me. I returned the respect by speaking as much Russian as I could whenever I could during the day.  What I find really cool is everyone knows what to do at a gathering like this. Each person picks a job and without any direction sets to making food, laying out tables, and getting everything ready. No one has to ask what to do. Back home this task sometimes takes on the feeling of a board meeting and can be as equally enjoyable.  In Russia, people are used to these types of social gatherings and just as they ignore the stuff I’ve pointed out earlier really miss this luxury as well. Society here is actually designed to spend time with friends in public places and engage with each other something the West could really learn from.

    A trip to Moscow in the winter would not be complete without a visit to Red Square. Russia really goes all out for this time of celebration and it actually comments on the culture and character of these people that despite the challenges the focus is fun and inclusive, focusing on what they do have and all things positive. A breath of relief and fresh air actually. The fireworks were measured in tons and no doubt so was the vodka. People on the street shook stranger's hands and wished them Happy New Year. The lights and decorations are something that should really be on everyone’s bucket list as is seeing the Kremlin itself. To be honest, I am not a big church and Icon kind of person. But the sheer size, age, and drama of the structures and design is incredible. So is the history these buildings hold, it confirms the things I’ve come to know about the Russian people. They are warm and generous, and proud to a fault with every right to be so!

    So with this Blog I close the chapter in Russia. I have done all the research I needed to do to make the next book rich with people, places, and culture. Thank you, Rodina for being exactly what you are and nothing like I expected. Thanks to all my friends in Anapa, Vladikavkaz,  and Moscow for your warm and honest hospitality. Finally thank you to my Russian family, without whom none of this would have been remotely possible!

Next stop Thailand and Chiang Mai…..


  1. Inga looks great, as always and an interesting read. And should have kept one of the old work parkas! I remember when we moved back to Finland. Mom mentioned a while ago how it was a very cold winter. Nothing like having to go outside to visit the sauna to bathe or when I visited my relatives who still only had out-houses. People at work asking about you.

  2. My partner just showed me his bucket list for places to see and Moscow is on there. Last year we visited cities in five Central Europe countries and this year we are headed to Spain-Portugal-Morocco. Hope you'll be blogging from Thailand. Thanks!