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Want to be Want to be
by Valerie Sartor
2019-07-09 08:58:05
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"Russians want to be pretty," said Nastya, a young, elegant woman who wanted private English tutoring from me. She was indeed pretty: as a very petite silver blonde woman with a small, perfect nose, high catlike cheekbones and deeply set almond eyes the color of blueberries. "No one knows whether we are European or Asian," she continued, "but I discovered that Europeans love us, at least they did before the sanctions, because we Russians love to go on holiday to buy brand names. We shop and spend money to look good. We buy high-end clothing and jewelry and cosmetics. So do the Chinese." 

sibe01_400I nodded, and thought about the hordes of voracious Chinese I had seen swarming European tourist cities, grabbing things indiscriminately, and then pictured Nastya and a pair of her friends delicately fingering an expensive silk scarf. If I were a clerk, whom I would want to wait on, I wondered. 

"Russian and Chinese may both shop but their habits and behavior are different," I commented.

"Definitely," she replied. "We don't argue about price. We just buy. And all Russian women, rich or poor, take much care to make sure that what is purchased looks correct." 

Russians have long been considered as a hybrid of West and East. The people themselves see their country and culture as a special, unique mixture that cannot be categorized. The homeland has a magical quality to Russians, and they are enormously proud of occupying the largest area in the world. Many people in Irkutsk have told me that they expect to reunite all the 'lost lands' (former Soviet territories) again with mother Russia in the next two decades. Like the Chinese, Russians seem to feel that 'bigger is better.' 

The oddities of Russian culture and behavior have mystified guests and scholars for centuries. But today I wanted to know something about contemporary Russian culture, and I wondered what Nastya would teach me about culture as I taught her about English.

On our first lesson she had told me that she and her husband owned seven franchises of the American pizza chain, Papa John's. "I don't eat it much myself, I don't want to get fat," she confided, "but it sure is growing more and more popular in Russia."

"Why?" I asked.

"First, it is fast, and easy. Second, it is not expensive. And third: pizza represents modernity, it comes from outside and people like to think that they are cosmopolitan," Nastya said with a slight smile. She then explained how she had lived in the USA as a teenager and told me that she ate her way through the high school year. "I gained 14 kilos, I was fat! And I will never let that happen to me again. It’s terrible to fight the fat. But these pizza franchise allow me and my husband to live well, I am so much more better off than I was as a child, so I think of pizza as my magical food, like the golden egg of the goose, you know?" 

Her business is still flourishing despite the sanctions. Certainly, these regulations have caused small food franchises to seek out new sources. "We used to get our Parmesan from Italy; now we can't. We use Lithuanian cheese. Its good, but its not Italian...and flour, we have searched for another flour as well. I notice these culinary shifts, my customers, they don't seem to care," Nastya said. 

She added that the sanctions hurt small businesses, not individuals or politicians. "It is a franchise like mine that suffers...I wonder if that was the goal of making these sanctions?" she asked, looking at me directly. I said I was no politician but that I agreed with her, and described how Russian TV had shown tourist destinations in Finland, Poland, and parts of Europe, all closing down, because the "Russians had not arrived to spend their hard earned cash." Both Russian businesses and non-Russian businesses catering to Russian tourists have had a very bad year due to the sanctions. 

As we looked over a text I had prepared, I asked Nastya to describe her customers, and to use the newly introduced vocabulary. One word we touched upon was customer service - a novel concept to Soviet socialist, and now, post-Soviet mindsets.

To my surprise, Nastya explained that her franchise managers had been trained in customer service. "When people complain on our website, we call them up. They usually are startled by our concern. Sometimes we even give them a free Pepsi or small pizza, if, for example, we were at fault," she said. 

Yet most Russians have no concept of selling something politely or employing any form of customer service. In fact, they are downright surly at times. When I walk into most any shop in Russia, I expect the clerk to ignore me, scowl, or say something rude. For example, a few weeks ago I wanted to purchase a pillow, so I entered a small linen store. The clerk, an obese thirty something woman wearing emerald green eye shadow, was reeking of a cheap perfume, she was wearing a multicolored polyester dress that made me dizzy looking at her. The woman snarled at me after I asked the price of a pillow. "Can't you read? It's 400 Roubles. And don't touch it!" she said, turning back to her tattered magazine. I walked out of the shop, eager to leave, and bought the same pillow from a Tajik vendor in the open market. He at least let me hold the pillow before I purchased it. Even better, he smiled at me when taking my money, flashing a mouthful of gold-capped teeth.

We discussed various aspects of customer service. I said to Nastya that the idea of someone calling up and giving a customer an apology if the pizza were late or cold or whatever simply doesn't exist in Russia. "It's an outrageous capitalistic notion," I quipped.

"You're right," Nastya replied, "I had one lady actually cry a little when I called her, she was so moved. She said to me before I hung up: "Maybe there's still hope for the motherland."


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walter2015-03-26 15:17:12
Very interesting article. I knew that sanctions were causing some stresses over there but not know how it affected small businesses. I also was fascinated by the contrast in how the Chinese and Russians shop.
Very well written and informative!

Mike Trusty2015-03-26 17:28:21
I love her articles, she is such a good writer!

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