More Social Change

The commercial considerations I raised yesterday clearly had an impact on individuals; Russian people have seen a lot and survived terrible weather and totalitarian governments, the upheaval of fast track capitalism was just the latest thing to come along in the mid 1990s.  Some people adapted very quickly, for others it took a little longer.

The strategy of the firm I worked for was to hire bright young people straight from University and to train them in-house in the ways of audit and tax advising.  I made surreal visits to the Finance Academy and Moscow State University to give ‘milk round’ type presentations, followed by one to one interviews in our offices.

I interviewed a lot of people.  I tried not to be overly swayed by the candidate’s facility with English, although at the time they were required to speak it.  Instead I tried to get them to speak to me, about anything.  At first, I did mental somersaults with glee if I could get them to say something, anything, other than, they thought they wanted to work for the firm because it would be interesting.

‘What do you think would be interesting about it?’

‘To work with a foreign firm would be interesting.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes,  it would be interesting.’

As time went by I developed a better array of questions, but the candidates also developed better answers; so much so that I sometimes wondered if some enterprising person had prepared a crib sheet for them.  I’d like to think so.

The Russian trainees’ salaries were quoted to them in US dollars, but were paid in Roubles as was required by law.  Every month, the trainee then had to be given time off one afternoon to go to the bank where they withdrew their salary in Roubles, converted it to US dollars and then either redeposited it in their US dollar bank account or kept it in cash.

There was fierce competition as to who could go to the bank first, as in a period of rapid Rouble devaluation, the real value of the salary could fall from one day to the next.

Having a salary paid by reference to a dollar amount was probably the most interesting thing about working for a foreign firm for many of my Russian colleagues.  Without access to US dollars, people who, in the Soviet era, enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle were sinking into poverty.

Access to this dollar salary for the young members of a family changed the power balance in many homes.  The parents, perhaps long serving civil servants or teachers earned barely nothing from their jobs, but did retain their rights to the family flat.  The children had the cash, but not enough to move out and get their own home as the cost of accommodation in Moscow was astronomical at the time.

My Russian teacher, Volodya, a lecturer in Russian as a foreign language at The People’s Friendship University, earned the money he needed to keep his family fed and clothed by teaching me, and others like me, at a dollar rate per hour, but could not afford to give up his university job, as to do so would lose him his apartment.

His relative affluence came from the happenstance that he had learned English as his second language and could therefore teach incoming expats.  He had learnt English at a time when it was very unlikely that he would ever have the opportunity to meet anyone who spoke it as their first language.  But then the Soviet education system taught all its students a foreign language, many of them not obvious choices; I saw CVs with Hindi and Africaans as second languages, although never had the opportunity to test them on it.

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