An Ode to Russian Democracy (or how I got hooked on Emerging Markets)

Watching the re-re-election of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president, I can’t help but join the reminiscing.

I became conscious of the phrase “Emerging Markets” sometime in the 1990s. I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase, but it was certainly on my radar by Clinton’s re-election. I was a 23-year old financial systems engineer in New York and had been assigned to London to manage a client relationship with the Emerging Markets “division” of the investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston. The big news of the moment in my universe was that the Thai government had just unpegged its currency, the baht, from the U.S. Dollar, thereby lighting the fuse for the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.

And after two months in London, Credit Suisse’s managers decided that actually where they really need my help was in their Moscow office, where CSFB was then among the most active Western financial institutions in Russia. So off I went. Mind you, Russia still had another nine months or so before its economic difficulties. Its post-Cold War economy at that point still only knew one direction: up. And it wasn’t long before I noticed a couple things about day-to-day life there:

  1. For the average man on the street, McDonald’s offered one of the more dependable meals available at a remotely affordable price.
  2. The Hungry Duck was indeed a very special kind of place.
  3. With the notable exception of the Hungry Duck, most of the nightlife I was coming across otherwise had a dress code that required men to wear a business suit.
  4. The cashpoint ATM machines not only asked you to choose between English and Russian, but also whether you wanted your currency in Rubles or US Dollars.
  5. At an outdoor produce market near the Novoarbatsky bridge, the price of grapefruit was 100,000 rubles. Whether that was per grapefruit or per kilo I am unsure, but at the time this was the equivalent of about US$17.

After my first month, I was out alone one Friday night looking for new nightlife and found myself in front of a nightclub that aside from the customary dress code for men, also had a cover charge of 20 American dollars, stated clearly in Russian and English on a sign above the bouncer’s giant bald head. A group of locals in front of me tried to pay in rubles and the bouncer wouldn’t allow them in. They slinked off annoyed, I stepped up, paid the man a twenty and walked in.

I still had on the business suit I had worn to the office earlier that day, and yet I had the sensation of being slightly underdressed. At the bar, it seemed they were willing to take rubles or dollars as payment and I don’t recall the price of a Baltika being significantly different from what I had paid for a beer in London. I stood at the bar nursing my first beer for maybe half an hour when a couple took up the seats beside me. The man appeared to be about 10 years older than me but possessed a certain swagger that suggested he had already lived many more lives. The woman with him was younger, probably my age, and looked absolutely stunning. We nodded hello at each other as they sat and they spent most of that first drink engrossed in conversation.

At some point their conversation came to a lull and I took the opportunity to attempt practicing what Russian I had managed to learn by then. I don’t remember what I was trying to say to them—it doesn’t matter. The two of them politely entertained my rudimentary attempts at a kindergarten-level conversation for about five minutes before the man finally stopped me.

“My friend,” he said, smiling and putting his hand on my shoulder, “where are you from?” His English was light years ahead of my Russian.

“New York,” I said.

His eyes widened, he smiled a big smile and replied, “Ah yes, the city that never sleeps.”

“Actually,” I said, “I think Moscow is the city that never sleeps.”

And he and his stunning gorgeous supermodel girlfriend threw their heads back and laughed. From there, they asked me what I was doing in Moscow, how I liked it, how long I was staying, where I was staying…in short, the typical sort of question barrage any hospitable native is prone to ask of any visitor in any number of countries. Maybe it was the alcohol, but I remember having the impression they weren’t just trying to be polite, but that they really seemed to take a genuine interest in me. And then the evening took a turn for—in my world, at least—the not-so-typical.

“My friend,” he said, “what is your name?”

“Ulysses.”

“Ulysses? Like the Greek…” and he paused to make a flourishing gesture with his hand, “like…like the Greek sailor, the Greek warrior?”

I nodded. “Yes, the Greek sailor, the Greek warrior,” I said.

“My friend, it is an honor to meet you,” he said, and shook my hand. “My name is Oleg. This is my girlfriend Tatiana. I cannot tell you how proud you make me. You are here visiting my country, you are learning my language, and this makes me so very happy. Listen. Let me buy you a drink. I insist. What do you like? Do you like Cognac?”

I paused, unsure of where this was going but willing to continue just to find out. “I do like Cognac,” I said, and smiled as though Cognac was my favorite drink in the world.

“Brilliant. Excellent.” He called over the bartender and pointed to an unopened bottle of Hennessy on the top shelf behind the bar. The bartender retrieved the bottle and three snifters and set them in front of us. Oleg said something to the bartender, then reached into his jacket breast pocket and withdrew a two-inch think stack of American hundred dollar bills held together by a clip. He counted off 10 bills, handed them to the bartender and put the rest back in his pocket.

Several hours later, Oleg and Tatiana’s driver brought his car to a stop in front of my hotel. Outside, the sky was beginning to turn to light. I thanked Oleg and Tatiana for the evening, they wished me luck and we hugged goodbye. And then Oleg said something I have never forgotten, and given all that has happened in the world since 1997, in retrospect sounds both quaint and absurd. Nevertheless, I still hear his voice:

“My friend. We are not so different, you and me. What is different is where we come from. You come from a place of laws. I come from a place of rules. Each place has good and bad. You just have to decide which is better for you.”

5 responses to “An Ode to Russian Democracy (or how I got hooked on Emerging Markets)

  1. Sally Gindel Brink

    Love the blog.

    Question about this blog, what do you think Oleg meant when he said, “You come from a place of laws. I come from a place of rules. Each place has good and bad. You just have to decide which is better for you.” They seem very similar to me; so I am wondering if there was something in the conversation during the night where he explained the difference?
    If our laws were based on Ethics, that I would understand. Perhaps that he what he meant?
    Keep writing…love it….

    • Perhaps that is what he meant. To me, the clearest difference between laws and rules is that laws are enforceable by state-backed fiat; rules are not necessarily as such. Each should carry a punishment as a consequence of transgression, but the degree of punishment is going to differ, owing to the very real difference between sitting in a penalty box and having opposing fans dump beer on your head versus going to prison and managing the attendant distractions that tend to accompany that situation. Sports have rules, games have rules, certain theories and practices turn into rules, and some rules eventually become laws. But not all rules are enforceable by law.
      Of course, this was 15 years ago. If Oleg is still alive, I’d be very curious about what he might have to say today.

  2. Pingback: The Revolution Will Be Merchandised: In Memory of the Hungry Duck

  3. Sotiris Angelakis

    Hi there Ulysses. Fantastic job on this blog. Thought you might find the following interesting. http://www.emergingmarkets.me/2013/01/overseas-private-investment-corporation-opic-will-invest-40-million-to-support-smes-in-russias-provinces/

    • Sotiris, thanks for stopping by. Interesting note on OPIC’s move into Russia, particularly considering some of the rumors I’ve been hearing of OPIC’s imminent dismantling. It will be interesting to see where this venture is once the fiscal cliff negotiations in Washington are settled…

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