This week I will be in Moscow doing a day on ‘Leading Diversity’ as part of a leadership programme for Boehringer Ingelheim- one of the top twenty international pharmaceutical companies. I have been fortunate enough to have been to Russia on several occasions for TomorrowToday and it is place I always find challenging. I love going there.
I say ‘challenging’ as I have always found a degree of ‘menace’ – something that never allows you to feel completely relaxed. There was the time the taxi I was in was pulled over and the driver shaken-down by the police; there was the time that I had to pay a $1000 ‘fine’ (bribe) just before boarding my flight to leave in what was clearly another shakedown. I had no choice and it was no time to take the moral high ground. I was just glad to escape the interrogation room and process that was befitting of any B-grade movie. There was the occasion I was in Moscow at the time of violent riots that left cars burnt and people dead; there was the time I got lost in the Moscow subway and had an official chase me when I asked for help. (I guess some explanation is required on this one!)
I was to meet my friend, Igor, and the only way to navigate the subway then was to count stations as none of the signage was in English. Russia uses the Cyrillic alphabet that makes it hard to recognise for anyone unfamiliar with the letters. Anyway, I miscounted; tried to auto-correct, and ended up getting really lost! Finding someone to help proved difficult in rush hour madness and although I targeted younger people in the hope of finding someone who could understand English, my efforts proved fruitless. Then I spotted this official sitting in a small booth type structure at the foot of the escalator. Enthusiastically, making sure to don a friendly smile, I tapped on his window and asked for directions. His response was somewhat startling to say the least! He bellowed something that didn’t sound like, “Welcome to Moscow! How can I assist you?” and came charging out the ‘office’ like a wounded bull elephant intent on maiming. I quickly abandoned any hope of diplomatic negotiation and on pure instinct turned and ran for my life. He pursued me for some distance but clearly sitting in his coup day after day hadn’t done his athletic prowess much good. It was a curious scene I’m sure but one that left the regular commuters unfazed.
I later found out that his job was to keep an eye on the crowded escalator and being a job that must have required undivided focus and concentration, had a large sign on his booth warning against asking for directions (clearly I wasn’t the first) but the problem was…it was in Russian. Just when I was considering a future as a busker in the subway (I would have starved) help arrived in the form of Igor.
As I was saying, trips to Russia always seem to pose opportunity and threat in equal measure. The people are wonderful. Not obviously friendly or outwardly welcoming but beneath this somewhat austere exterior, sits a deep sense of hospitality. I recall my host on the first occasion that I did work there, warning me that if the participants thought I was wasting their time, they would be quick to let me know! In winter it is a harsh place to be and much of the city creeks under the parade of old cars, systems and a façade that seems in need of updating. But all this merely adds to the charm, the mystique and the thrill that is Moscow.
My first visit to Red Square coincided with sunset and standing in this famed place was mesmerizing. I understood why it is called Red Square as the brickwork glowed under the setting sun. Then there is the ritual around the banya (Russian bathhouse or sauna) – something that could occupy an essay all on its own! Another time perhaps as I certainly have some stories about this that include running outside into the freezing night and thick snow, in nothing other than a towel and hugging a tree! And I might add – I was completely sober at the time! But as I said, that is another story for another occasion.
I was once told that ‘tourists take pictures but pilgrims collect stories’. I have tried to travel as a pilgrim ever since. I have no doubt that this week will once again yield further stories. It is something I look forward to.
Good advice that – travel as a pilgrim. In fact, in dealing with the challenge of leading diversity I will be using ‘story’ or narrative as the means whereby we can get to grips with the challenge of diversity: learning how to move from being different from each other to being different for each other.
Go on then, travel as a pilgrim and instead of taking pictures, collect stories. You won’t be sorry you did!