How to Stay Sober Drinking Vodka and Other Tricks for Business Travelers in Russia
Let’s just say traveling to Russia on business is not for the faint of heart. The challenge might already start at home when you have to acquire a visa at the Russian embassy. And as you can easily find out here, the Russian authorities are pretty strict when it comes to adhering to the rules. There are also some security issues awaiting you and you should know about the cultural differences you will encounter at your meetings — some of which we are spelling out in this episode of our series about business travel.
Don’t End up in Jail
Once you’ve obtained your visa and successfully made your way into the country, make sure you register your visa and your immigration card with your sponsor. Most hotels do this for you upon check in. You should always have your passport and your hotel registration card on you. Police can basically stop you at any time and if you can’t provide the required documents, you might end up in jail. Without your phone or any other means to contact the outside world, it may be not just a few hours, but, possibly, many days until worried co-workers will be able to locate you and bail you out.
What to Expect in Business Meetings
Once you’ve made it to your meeting unharmed, you should have another person introduce you if possible. Your hello should be accompanied by a handshake. You shouldn’t start out with personal questions for your counterpart, which might otherwise be an element of your small talk. Having said that, Russians are known to have a lot of affection for children, showing pictures of your own around maybe a good way to connect on a personal level. Generally speaking, make sure to delegate enough time. Meetings often start late and take much longer than initially planned. If you want to get things done, it is essential that you deal with decision-makers directly, otherwise things will be handed up the chain of command, which might take forever. Finally, make sure you have quick access to a lawyer you trust before you sign contracts. Russian laws change constantly and you want to make sure you stay on top of it.
If a business dinner is part of your day, take a few steps to be prepared. There is a good chance, for example, that you will have to toast with vodka, not just once or twice but often. There is this legendary story of a delegation of German politicians getting ready to meet their Russian hosts by eating a whole can of sardines each — and drinking the oil they were marinated in for good measure. Why? Because all the oil in the stomach will break part of the alcohol down and it is going to take longer for you to get drunk. But remember, it’s an urban legend, try it at your own risk and prepare to feel sick later.
Here is a bit of personal advice. The amount of alcohol Russians drink in one sitting can be lethal for anyone who is not used to consuming vast quantities of hard liquor. I know people who can drink a whole bottle of vodka at a time, and this can kill a person.
This is what Russians call the “art of drinking”, meaning the ability to consume huge amounts of alcohol and live to tell the story. Most Americans will likely be unprepared for this, and things can turn dangerous. My advice (seriously) would be to drink that much a couple of times in your own country in a safe environment to understand how your body will react to it (try five shots of vodka over the evening, and see what happens), but start small.
Russia, and especially its capital Moscow, is expensive. In fact, Bloomberg Businessweek ranks the city among the most expensive ones in the world. That museums, opera houses, and other places have special rates for foreigners doesn’t help. You also will need more cash in your pockets that you are used to from home to begin with because credit cards are not as widely accepted. And while you will find ATM’s, don’t expect them to dispense cash at all times.
Traffic, especially in Moscow, can be horrendous. Making it out of the city to the suburbs in evening rush hour can easily take three hours. Getting around town by subway is much quicker and a lot cheaper to boot. There is one little hurdle though: The signage in Moscow’s subway is in Cyrillic. Savvy travelers get a subway map at the airport. That way they’ll have a fair chance to figure out directions and which subway line to take.
Unfortunately, Russia is one of the most dangerous countries for foreigners. Which, by the way, is often reflected in their salaries in the form of a premium. So you might have the opportunity to earn a pretty penny in the country, you just need to find a way to hold onto it. One rule to follow is to always negotiate destination and price with your cab driver before you set foot in the car. No exceptions. Otherwise you might end up like the foreigner who was forced to pay $1,000 for a half-hour taxi ride. The best way to deal with the problem might actually be to have your local business partner arrange transportation for you.