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Want To Trade With Russia? Learn From Napoleon

Written by Ignaty Dyakov Wednesday, 25 September 2013.

Russia are proud to celebrate 200 years of their victory over Napoleon in what Russians call The Patriotic War. The Borodino battle in early September 1812 had predetermined the outcome of the war and indeed Napoleon's fate in general.

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So what mistakes did Napoleon make that ruined his success-to-be story in Russia? What can other nations trying to work with Russia learn from his experience in order to succeed?

Do your research and invest enough time and resources into proper preparation. Napoleon clearly underestimated not only the patriotic spirit of Russians and their resilience nurtured by centuries of living in tough climate conditions, but the climate itself. Also, look at the Russian economy in the context, check as many details as possible, even though these will be quite scarce and will not always be easy to find. The Russian market database is only in the process of being created. Make sure you check information in your language as well as in Russian - this will give you a broader and more objective picture.

Never assume that if you conquer Moscow you have achieved success throughout the whole country. Russia is the largest country in the world spread over eleven time zones. Napoleon got a grip over Moscow and spent a wonderful month in the burnt to ground city, yet he had to withdraw.

Culture differs region to region. There is a common joke that says there is no life outside of Moscow, and its roots lie in the fact that life in Moscow differs so much from the one everywhere else. Another joke says that the only problem St Petersburg has is that it is surrounded by Russia. Very snobbish, I know, but again, it can indicate the depth of differences between the country's regions.

There are two good pieces of news though. Firstly, you will never get bored in Russia. You will learn something new every day, and most importantly you will learn how to expect the unexpected. Secondly, on a practical level, some experts claim that if you succeed outside of Moscow you are most likely to succeed in some other CIS countries should you wish to expand there too.

Try to speak the language. Noble Russians spoke mostly French during the 19th century, but it didn't help Napoleon's soldiers to succeed as they still needed to communicate with local residents, which was rather difficult. Forty thousand Russians fled the army once in France and integrated very well with the French community. Russians are quick and eager learners (which is good news when it comes to hiring local staff!), but that works slightly more to their advantage than yours when they speak your language and you do not understand theirs, doesn't it?

Be ready to stay there to build relationships and make local allies. Again, Napoleon fell victim to poor research. Should he have learnt the history of the 17th century, he would have known the story of the Russian peasant Ivan Susanin who had volunteered to help the Poles to find the young Russian Tsar, who then lived in his village 340km from Moscow, then guided them to the wildest woods and left them there in the midst of a severe Russian winter. The lesson to take from this 400 years later is that although it is bettter to have a Russian partner or mentor, do choose carefully and recognise and appreciate their motives, cultural differences and background. Gradually build open business that is personal, as these are usually rather interdependent in Russia and relationships outside of business are always based on mutual trust. This will pay off.

Oh, and last, but by no means least, come to Russia with peace, not war!

(PS: Of course, I am over-generalising, and these rules do not apply to every single situation. Russians are different as they are all individuals with their own background, upbringing, character and inspirations, :))

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About the Author

Ignaty Dyakov

Russia born Ignaty Dyakov resides in London and runs Russia Local Ltd, the linguistic consultancy helping international businesses expand in Russia and facilitating their relations with Russian customers and partners. Russia Local is part of the UK Advisory Network by UKTI.

Ignaty’s passion is business and sales training with a focus on Russia and is regularly invited to talk about business opportunities in Russia on BBC Radio 5 Live, The Voice of Russia or Thomson Reuters. He is confident that SMEs have much power in the global economy and encourages them to export more.

Ignaty is also a practising Russian language teacher (MPhil in Linguistics) and the author of “Rasskaz-Sensatsiya,” an unconventional Russian language textbook aimed at business people.

His work has been recognised by a number of awards from the Russian government and president, Russian and British foundations.

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