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My 1st Apartment in Russia

September 12, 2004

I used that subject line on purpose. No, I’m not going back to the U.S. At the time I wrote that, I was actually writing you from a train on my way from Moscow to Nizhny-Novgorod… MY NEW HOME. Yes, it’s very strange to say it, but Russia is my home now. Every now and then, I feel this wave of, I don’t know, shock, panic, amazement, that I’ve sent myself on this journey. At the same time, I feel a sense of purpose, excitement, and wonder at all of this. A lot has happened since I’ve arrived that have poked and prodded at all those feelings, so I’d like to give you an update, say hello, share my experiences, and then make every effort to convince you to stay in touch with me even though I am so far away.

I’ve written a LONG letter and it got to the point where I had to just rush this to completion without the polish that I wished to articulate. But enough was enough, so please be patient and hang with me as long as you can.

Let me give you the highlights first. Since my arrival, I have plunged head first into my job, working 12 or more hours a day. When I haven’t been working, I’ve usually been dealing with relocation issues or going to dinner with people. I’ve had no time for sightseeing at all, and any spare time I’ve had, I’ve basically collapsed. I’ stayed in a fantastic hotel, the Marriott Grand, eaten dinner with a multi-millionaire mafia figure, have been spared from three terrorist attacks, watched Intel destroy a distributor due to their unethical behavior, visited production lines where Russian computers are being built with “Intel Inside,” celebrated a birthday, bought my first Russian mobile phone, met with the largest consumer electronics retailer in the country, and learned so many interesting things about the Russian technology market… all in 18 days!

So where do I go from here? Maybe I’ll just start with impressions. In a nutshell, so far so good. Though the job has been quite stressful thus far, it’s proven to be as interesting and exciting as I’d hoped. The people I’ve met and will be working with have been incredibly warm and helpful. Even the weather has been beautiful. I feel comfortable here, I feel like I made the right decision, and I can’t wait to really get going.

The hardest part of all of this is that I have to learn my new job from scratch. Everything is moving so fast and I don’t have the knowledge or the instincts to know how to make important decisions and take the lead. I spend most days absorbing new information until my brain aches. In my last job, I just “knew” the right things to do in most cases, so there was a big comfort and safety in that situation. Now I’m sticking my neck out, everyone is looking at me, and I’m sitting there like a deer in the headlights. I’m going to need time to understand the politics and context of my environment, get to know MANY people, and learn to walk in a different pair of shoes.

If I really look at my situation, it can get quite overwhelming. Let’s see, I’ve left my home, my country, my family, my friends, my language, my comfortable job, and my life routine. Other than that, this should be a piece of cake! At the same time, I feel no regret and I take pride in earning this opportunity. I am incredibly blessed and I’m going to do everything I can to make the most out of this adventure.

Another feeling that I have to deal with is this temptation to think that this move is a temporary thing, and then in two years, I can get on with my life again. Wrong! This IS my life! I need to fully integrate myself into making this my home. I have to learn the language, join a health club, learn to prepare meals Russian style, adjust to the harsh winters, and buy Russian clothes. Another funny thing that I find myself dwelling on for some reason is the worry of having to find a place to get a haircut.

As you probably noticed, I mentioned that I had dinner with a mafia figure. I didn’t know it until afterward. Even though the guy is the owner of Intel’s largest OEM and a multi-millionaire, my naïve little brain didn’t put two-and-two together. My manager and I went to an incredible Italian restaurant in Moscow called Mario’s. We met the guy who spoke good English (every business person I’ve met that works with Intel speaks English) and sat down for an awesome dinner. He wanted to know all about me, repeatedly welcomed me to Russia, and seemed to be a genuinely nice guy. I had a great time, learned a lot about our business, and had a helluva good meal. As we were walking outside to the car, there were all these guys in suits standing around the parking lot giving me the staredown. It felt a bit intimidating, so I said to my manager, “Geez, this restaurant has a lot of security.” My manager then gently corrected me by saying that they were the bodyguards of the guy we had dinner with. Holy cripe, I couldn’t believe it. Always heard about it, now I got to see it firsthand.

I suppose, also, that many of you are wondering what I think about all the terror attacks that have occurred recently. Let me just say that it has been tragic and very scary. In Beslan, we watched a massacre occur. When I first heard about it, my gut told me that this was going to turn out badly. The Chechens and those like them in the Caucasus region are a rough group of people. I spoke with a Russian Intel employee that gave me some background on Chechnya. Just like everything else here, the Chechen history is a long and deep one. For centuries, Chechnya sat along an important silk route that linked East and West. Apparently, the primary occupation for a Chechen was not to be a tradesman or a farmer, but rather to be a bandit. As my Russian colleague stated, “They’ve never worked for a living.” Many Chechens simply thrived on raiding the caravans of merchants passing through their land. So from day one, these people have led an edgy life. Once the Soviet Union fell, they declared themselves independent and inevitably faced a confrontation with Russia. Two wars occurred in the 1990’s which Russia theoretically won, yet unrest remains. Chechens, or at least a particular strand of them, have proven to be a rebellious and primitive people and there’s probably no changing them.

Now the other problem is how Russia is dealing with Chechnya… and they’re dealing with them quite poorly, frankly speaking. Russia is very weak right now. They don’t have the resources to vanquish Chechnya, nor do they have the ability to invest in them and win their hearts and minds. There are endless stories of Russian troops invading Chechen villages and killing the men and raping the women. The Russian army is undisciplined, untrained, and ill-equipped. When you couple this abuse with a volatile enemy , you create a recipe for disaster. Chechens have nothing to lose and will stop at nothing to lash back, as you have seen. Then you add in their streak of independence and their militant Islam and you get a whole new level of terror and violence. I actually see less hope for this situation than I do the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The average Russian believes that another war is inevitable and I don’t think they mind it. They’re pretty pissed off now and it will be interesting to see how they react. I must add one last statement that I have drastically oversimplified this situation, so keep in mind these are the impressions I’ve gained from my readings and discussions with some Russians.

Though the Beslan massacre is obviously very frightening, it’s the previous two incidents that scared me more. In the same week, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in two different planes flying within Russia. Another suicide bomber blew herself up in front of a Moscow subway station. I was apparently a mile away when that one happened. These two incidents hit close to home since I take the subway a lot when in Moscow and it’s inevitable that I will need to fly within Russia for business. One of the planes that blew up was headed for Volgograd. I took that flight last year. With Russia’s notorious lack of effectiveness in security, these events don’t ease my mind. It’s no coincidence that I took the train to Nizhny-Novgorod.

So, it’s actually 48 hours later after the train trip to Nizhny and here I sit in my apartment. I was picked up at the station by my relocation service and was taken to meet the landlord in my apartment. He walked me through the place to make sure he had provided everything in the contract. He showed me how a few things worked and gave me a few tips on where to go to get food, etc. He also introduced me to the girl who is going to clean my place. It really started to feel like things were coming together. The apartment looks great. The satellite TV, stereo, entertainment center, couch, armoir, and various kitchen items were all in place and so I have to say I think I’m going to be quite comfortable. It’s very quiet here, everything is brand new, and there are a lot of nice little touches that make living here all that much better.

I have a lot of homemaking left to do, though. I brought over four large suitcases of things to tide me over while I await the shipment of the bulk of my stuff. I have plenty with which to get by for now, but I really want to get my bed, pictures, books, and other comforts of home moved in. I hope it won’t take much longer. Meanwhile, I sit in a very empty place that sounds like an echo chamber. I still need to go with the landlord to find the carpets that are going to go in the living room and master bedroom. I then have to buy all the knick knacks that you typically need. Today, I went to the store twice. There is a multi-story mall and supermarket right around the corner from here, so it’s very handy. It’s also quite nice and modern. Sure, it is overwhelmingly filled with Russian products, but there are just enough Western items or exact replicas of what we typically buy throughout the stores to give me comfort. There is also a sporting goods store across the street that was filled with Columbia Sportswear clothing, shoes, and gear. I have no idea if they’re authentic, though, since Russia is notorious for piracy. At least they look like the real thing!

There is also a very nice consumer electronics store upstairs that’s filled with computers, stereos, appliances, CD’s, and all the rest of it. There were long lines at the desk where you can apply for credit which I found quite interesting. We take credit completely for granted in the U.S. In Russia, it’s nearly non-existent, but you’re starting to see it picking up. Yes, credit can be a big trap, but it’s also the reason why the U.S. is so economically affluent. Could you imagine not being able to get a mortgage, make a car payment, or use a credit card? Well, Russians imagine that every day. The use of mortgages to purchase homes is in the single-digit percentages here. The mindset here is cash up front, or forget it. Until the financial markets enable Russia to borrow money and feel like their currency is stable, they will remain a few steps behind.

I live in the city center, so for Nizhny standards anyway, there’s a lot going on here. The city is either full of brand new buildings in one block or structures near collapse in the next. The view from my apartment, though panoramic, is quite ugly. There is a factory across the street that I cannot possibly see how it could be producing anything. Yet, just on the other side of it is the brand new mall I described earlier. It looks like the city is sincerely trying to invest in this immdediate area, because there are other new buildings and construction underway all over here. It’s great to see, but it’s also quite frustrating when you see how poor the quality of construction is here. My apartment is a perfect example. The complex is not even finished yet and there are already signs of the staircase cement crumbling and the brickwork breaking down. Pretty depressing.

Well, as I said in the beginning, I think I finally need to end this thing. I just proofread it and said, “Eh, I guess it’s good enough. Let it go, Dave.” So now is the time to make my last pitch for all of you to keep in touch with me. I think I’m going to stick with using my Intel e-mail address as my primary point of contact. I normally like to have separate addresses for personal and professional usage, but I don’t think I have a good alternative to use like I had with my former Comcast e-mail address. I worry about using a Russian service since I could easily see them tracking who I e-mail and trounce you with spam. I also hesitate to use Yahoo, Hotmail, etc. because I don’t want to get spam, either. Anyway, please send me e-mail, pictures, or anything that helps me feel connected to my former home.

I also encourage you to call me. And please don’t immediately rule it out. It isn’t that expensive! If you use 10-10-987, it’s only 10 cents a minute and is charged directly to your phone bill. That means if you talked to me for 30 minutes, you’ve spent $3.00. Sound reasonable? So give me a call!

Anyway, thanks for spending some time with me. I’ll try to keep you up to date on things as I can. I’ll be very busy, but I will always want to keep in touch. Take care. I miss you. Don’t forget me!

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