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The Story

What on earth would motivate a group of Tampereen University business students to venture off into the barren wilderness of Moscow? Have you ever heard stories of how “bad” things really are in Russia? Crime, poverty, and other horror stories? Well, you can be assured that they are just that! Stories! (At least from what we saw.)

The real purpose of our trip was to develop a better understanding of the culture and business environment in this “unbearable” country . I can assure you that, to the visiting student or tourist, Moscow appears to be a friendly and somewhat safe place to visit. The propaganda generated by the media has certainly done what it was intended to do by warning Westerners away from this magical land in the east.

If there is any crime in Moscow, it is the prices they charge for beer! Who would have suspected there could be any place in the world that was as expensive as Finland for drinking in bars? On the street is another story. It is possible to buy a “safe” bottle of vodka from the corner kioski for the handsome price of 10 mks. Now your talking!

This week was made possible through a great little organization called AIESEC. AIESEC is a world-wide voluntary student exchange organization, operated by university students to develop better cultural understanding through seminars workshops, and ultimately internships or international work experiences. The local committe meets regularily in BOOMI valley to share ideas and develop an atmosphere of understanding for those students who can’t afford to do the travelling.

Back to Moscow. Students from Tampere and France were invited to spend a week in Moscow to learn the about Russian culture through a first hand experience. There is an expectation that they will be invited back to Finland to experience the life here. We rode the Tolstoi (overnight train) from Riihimäki to Moscow on the first of December. A welcoming party met us at the train station and we met with our hosts for the week.

In order to provide the authentic experience, each of us stayed with real families in real Russian homes for the week. This often meant eating food that wasn’t familiar, and adapting to their strange living conditions. Or are they really any different? Living room, kitchen, toilet, but no sauna? What kind of life is this? On the first evening our hosts provided us with what Finns like best. A drinking party. Of course everyone had a great time.

Activities during the week included visiting several museums, the Kremlin, Red Square, an enormous monistary and several so-called shopping centres. We ventured into a book shop to see how they operated the business. I may seem almost inconceivable that customers would stand in line to pick out what they wanted (carefully protected behind service counters,) then line up to get a payment voucher, and then to back into line to pick up their purchases from the “service counter” again. The whole systems seems to be vey clumsey and reminiscent of the days when they may have used “food stamps” to pay for things. In the west, we take for granted that we are able to go into shops and touch and feel things before taking the items to a central cash to pay for them. It is understandable then why street vendors are so successful selling things like lunch packs, sweaters and CD’s.

The most efficient and fastest way to navigate the city is through the extensive Metro system. I think that each of us commonly spent more than 4 hours a day exploring the huge underground stations. Just to make sure we didn’t miss any, at the end of the week our hosts provided us with a relay game to visit about 16 stations and collect trivial information about each. The train service was excellent, and provided clean, safe passage through well lit stations. Each platform has its own unique character and it may be worth a visit to Moscow just to visit them all.

Most important were the three company visits. We toured a chemical/pharmacueticals plant, a satellite communications station, and the largest oil company office in Russia. At each location, company officials talked about their place in the world economy and their prospects for the future. It is interesting to note that all appeared to very optimistic about the future of their companies now that each are independent of state control. Somehow it is hard to believe that such large companies as these could be privately owned in Russia, and making it on their own.

The RSCC satelite company owns and manages 14 satelites circling the earth. The company representative was proud to explain that they had custody of most of the television and telecommunications (phone) connections between western Russian and the western world. He also stated that the they provide open communications channels between the Kremlin and the White House. “Where is the KGB when you need them?”

The week not only gave us an invaluable insite into the culture and businesses of Russian, but gave us the opportunity to build freindships between ourselves and our new Russian friends.

My host was an 18 year old, 3rd year Economics student. He has his own flat 8 kms from the centre because he could afford it by working 3 hours per day. His job is with a bank, trading securities: stocks, bond, treasury bills, etc. I ask him why the bank would hire him when he was so young, and not yet finished his education. His answer was simple and believable. The banks want to hire people who have been trained in the newest “western” financial techniques, therefore anyone who has graduated more than two years ago have been train under the old “5 year plan system” of economics. It really makes you wonder, when the “sharpest” businessmen in Russia are probably in their early 20’s.

Cultural understanding comes with open communications, listening, and hearing the other person’s perspective on things. If the opportunity comes again, I will be the first to sign up for another great experience.

Written by Brian Wick, 96/97 Canadian Exchange Student

See also St. Petersburg Experience

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