Back From the (Former) USSR
My job allows for amazing experiences, such as a press tour of the aluminum plants of Russian Aluminium (Rusal) in southern Siberia in early June (see “Siberian Giant”, p.18). Despite the Ukrainian surname (acquired from my husband George), I had never been in the Eastern Bloc, and it was mind-bending.
Growing up during the Cold War, I had all kinds of preconceptions of Russia that were shattered by the tour. I was amazed that people now openly complain about governing leaders, even in print. In my spare time, I wandered freely; no one stopped me. I took photographs of everything.
Other things were closer to what I expected. The cars were small, and for the most part ugly, dented and rusty. Public washrooms were sometimes difficult to understand, or incredibly basic. The “company line” that was told to us through passive-faced interpreters was at times too bizarre to believe.
The public art and architecture of Soviet days is still the norm in Siberia. Apartment buildings are dull concrete, unembellished. The mosaics on buildings are portrayals of the noble worker, soldier, etc., and statues of V. Lenin still dot the countryside.
On the other hand, new Russian Orthodox churches are being built, with funding from companies like Rusal. People wear crucifixes proudly, and even Russian president Vladimir Putin is seen at public worship … a long cry from the former actively atheistic regime.
The economic forces in Russia have been changing from centrally planned to market-driven since the regime change in 1991, but people are still largely governed by their upbringing, education and habits.
Russian companies like Rusal are deliberately moving toward the free market, using much the same “corporate-speak” that we hear from Canadian companies, but they are coming from an entirely different direction and with their own set of preconceptions. Westerners who want to do business in the new Russia will have to understand and respect what the Russian partners bring to the table.