March 22, 2013

Russia complicated, independent


---- — It might seem crazy to visit Russia in the middle of winter, yet the goal of the recent McGill University Hot Cities Tour was to see the “real” Russia, even if it meant getting lost in Moscow at minus-2 degrees Fahrenheit.

This was my second experience on the tour, and when the time came to choose the next destination, Russia was at the top of our list. As a member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa/Singapore) emerging nations, it is seen as a place of great opportunity, we wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I wrote a column in the Press-Republican around this time last year about my trip to South Africa. I encouraged my fellow upstate New Yorkers to travel and meet new people. 

This time, I encourage them even more.

South Africa and Russia offer eye-opening experiences and intellectual stimulation. These countries are actually quite similar in that there is a consensus that they don’t need “us.” They want to do things on their own and are quite capable.

In South Africa, I was told, “Why would I want to go to the U.S. or Canada?” In Russia, it was: “We don’t need the West.”

While I find it empowering that these countries can stand on their own two feet, it’s disheartening that working together seems unnecessary to them.


The goal of the Hot Cities Tour is to show students — 37 this time — how business is done in these emerging economies, to get out of the classroom and out of our comfort zones.

Our tour began in Moscow, where we visited Jamilco, IBM, Saatchi & Saatchi, the Moscow Times, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Norton Rose, Christian Dior and Skolkovo Business School, among others.

We learned how these organizations cater to the Russian market and how they must adapt their business strategies.

One executive told us that Russia is a “lousy place to do business but a great place to make money.” 

He also said there are no rights in Russia but rather a “series of permissions.”

It is interesting that it is rare to see Russians smiling, if ever. They find smiling in public an odd behavior.


We later visited St. Petersburg, where we enjoyed our fair share of culture at places like the State Hermitage Museum and Mariinsky Theater.

St. Petersburg is absolutely beautiful — it is the Venice of the North, with its numerous canals weaving in and out of the city. It is an amalgamation of German, French and Italian architecture, a mixture of influences and opulence on a grand scale.

The final component of our trip, like last year, was to raise money for a charitable foundation. Kitzeh Children’s Community in Kaluga was selected this year. It is a community two hours from Moscow, where orphaned and abandoned children are given a second chance away from state-run facilities and the temptations of a big city.

Every child we met appeared to be happy and thriving. It is gratifying to be able to give back to an organization that is successfully achieving its mission.

We hope to raise $20,000 by the end of March. For more information and to donate, visit


Russians are strong people who look for strong leaders, as we can clearly see throughout history.

A shocking BBC report recently stated on the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death that around half of Russians felt Stalin was a “positive figure” for the country. This view can be somewhat understood because many reports, and many Russians to whom we spoke, indicated that there is no official state view of Stalin. The facts get lost.

When I think back to what I learned in middle and high school in Plattsburgh, I remember seeing an image of Stalin sitting with Roosevelt and Churchill, depicting him as an integral ally in World War II. I don’t remember hearing about the Gulags.

Russia is a complicated place. My trip only scratched the surface, and I can’t pretend that I left truly understanding the land or the people.

Yes, there is opportunity in Russia, if you are willing to seek it out. We were told that it would be smart to have good accountants and good lawyers when doing business there.

My advice: Have thick skin, and don’t smile on the metro.

Lauren Merkel, a Plattsburgh native, is in her final year of the MBA program at McGill University in Montreal. She will graduate this May with a degree in global strategy and leadership. She received her Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Richmond in 2008.