Big Red Russia


The historically unpredictable way of life in Russia, the dizzying traffic, and the formidable language barrier proved to only be a minor inconvenience to the relentless first year Cornell Johnson survivors.

by Max Spivak 07’ MBA 14’ MILR 15’

On May 17th, a group of twelve first-year students from the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management arrived in Moscow for the annual Russia Trek led by Professor Elena Iankova. After months of planning, the much-anticipated visit to the emerging market country, the “R” in BRIC, was set to begin. The schedule was packed with so many cultural and business activities that even the tour operator was skeptical of success. The historically unpredictable way of life in Russia, the dizzying traffic, and the formidable language barrier proved to only be a minor inconvenience to the relentless first year business school survivors. Johnson students embraced the culture – the people, the vodka, the food, the sites, the nightlife – and successfully navigated the business meetings to truly understand business and life in Russia.

Annual Russia Trek group photo

In her final essay, Tricia Panaguiton MBA ‘14 wrote “As we toured the European inspired streets of St. Petersburg, our tour guide’s immediate response to any unforeseen circumstance or delay was naturally, ‘well… here in Russia, life is unpredictable’.” This started for the group on Day 1, as Angela Bao MBA ‘14 witnessed her Russian friend bribe a police officer to get out of a speeding violation. This always was and sometimes still is the way of life in Russia.

Russia has changed significantly since the fall of communism in the early 90s. However, as several students pointed out, the glory days of Russia as a communist superpower remain. The seven magnificent “sister buildings” of Russia, which include the Hilton-rebranded hotel the group stayed in, were built during the Stalin era yet are still adorned by the red star at the top. The group discussed this phenomenon with McKinsey and the partner explained that this not an architectural statement, it is the country’s patriotism and reminder of past glory.

The communist-era suppression was still very evident in the people we met in Russia. From the waiters to the dignitaries – Russians exhibited unique personalities. Dry humor, direct unflitered responses, and constant seriousness marked many of the personalities of people we met during work and business interactions.

The professors at the Higher School of Economics addressed our cultural observations and theorized that change will take at least 5 generations. Business change, at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg, is evident. Luxury cars, expensive stores, fine restaurants, huge conglomerates and packed subways show that Russian business is flourishing. Our visits to VTB Capital (Investment Banking), Baring Vostok (Private Equity), Gazprom Export (Gas), and Glance (Fashion) show that private, public, large and small business exist and most importantly, flourish. During our meeting with the CEO of Chrysler Russia, we discussed company strategy and realized how excited companies are about the future of the Russian market.

Russians are known for not always working hard, but always for playing hard. The students did both. Despite the outings and late Moscow nights, the professionalism of Johnson was evident. Like the Russians, we presevered and recounted the glory days of the previous night.

The trip to Russia opened up our eyes to a very important economic player in the world. We dispelled many preconceptions but confirmed many as well – I do think we all agree that whether your are a career seeker, investor, or travel enthusiast – Russia is worth a look.