I’ll tell you as much as I can without violating any NDAs.
Between 2015 and 2018, I supplemented my humble freelance journalism income by consulting with technology startups based throughout Russia. Already a lifelong technology addict, I had cut my teeth in previous years as a newsroom journalist covering emergent technology topics. My stories cut a diverse arc within the tech news arena, including who a driverless car should kill when a crash is unavoidable, how artificial intelligence could end religion, and how virtual reality porn is made. There were more than a few blockchain and cryptocurrency stories along the way.
I had my editor’s blessing to fly to Russia in 2013 to attend the week-long International Conference On Quantum Technologies. Without any previous experience or knowledge of this part of the world, I was exposed to world-class entrepreneurs and technologists from day one. ICQT was a platform for researchers to present the hard science that would one day drive the real-world science-fiction inventions of all your Star Trek-flavored dreams — unbreakable codes, quantum computers, MRIs the size of an iPhone, and so on.
The event brought leading scientists from all around Russia, the US, and the rest of the world. My imagination was captured, and I seized interview time with all these deep thinkers. The more I wrote about Russian science and business, the more opportunity there was to return to the country in the years that followed, venturing deeper within it. I couldn’t tell you exactly how my paid communications consulting began, but it definitely started casually — calling out mistakes on a press release, teaching a CEO a strong idiom to use in his next presentation, and so on. I presented myself to these business leaders as a kind of “secret English weapon.”
As I built trusting relationships with Russian entrepreneurs, they let me in on what it’s like to run a business from the biggest country in the world. Here’s what I learned as a freelancer for Russian blockchain companies.
I learned that Russian businesses face serious international publicity challenges.
I’m a little obsessed with how normal it is for businesses based in this prideful country to make any excuse to avoid being called “Russian.” Entrepreneurs in Russia will commonly set up shell companies in Estonia, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere. If a company has employees in an office in Moscow but a bank account in the Netherlands, it’s probably going to call itself Dutch.
I find it completely disingenuous, but this calculation is understood: identifying as Russian on the world’s business stage is too easily perceived as a liability by customers or investors. However game-changing a product might be, there are simply too many negative stereotypes to manage about “Russian hackers” or “election meddlers.” Instead of doing the hard work of changing the narrative in public, it makes better business sense to dodge the question of a Russian company’s nationality entirely.
I learned that Russian businesses excel at execution.
Russia beat America into outer space in 1957, trained dolphins for naval military applications in the 1990s, and boasts robust efforts in artificial intelligence today. By the time an American entrepreneur is talking about a new product idea, a Russian entrepreneur is on his or her second prototype. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is famously linked to the phrase “move fast and break things” (he’s updated it since), but I suggest the Russians embodied this first.
My best theory is that this mindset is a distinctly positive remnant from the Soviet Union. Though this period of history is linked to lots of suffering and political turmoil, it was also a time of radical construction. The Soviets conceived of and completed large, ambitious projects across military, public infrastructure, and general construction spheres, and you can still see many of them today. The drive to build something is common in Russia.
I recall editing a number of (admittedly self-aggrandizing) press releases and blog posts in which a company praised itself for beating anticipated project timelines.
I learned a lot of Russian.
I don’t mean to present myself as some kind of fluent language professional — not by a long shot. But as I spent time in Russia and interfaced with Russian people around the world, my mind began gravitating toward a compelling what-if question: what if I took this language seriously? What if I started speaking it?
Author and linguist Steven Pinker famously referred to language as “the stuff of thought.” If this tool was good enough to drive the thought process for 166 million native Russian speakers, it was surely good enough for me too.
I had a little bit of formal classroom instruction on how Russian works, but for the most part, I learned to speak this language the way a punk rocker learns to play guitar: I generated language until I found what worked. Nowadays I speak this language at a level that I’ve previously described as “party trick Russian.” I can order food, negotiate cab fare, and otherwise present myself as the most interesting foreigner at a Russian dinner party.
And for any touchy conversations I had with Russian clients (like why to use “a” instead of “the,” or vice versa), it surely eased friction there to have those conversations in Russian.
I also learned that I don’t want to freelance for Russian blockchain companies anymore.
Maybe I was tired of helping Russian businesses represent themselves as non-Russian. Maybe I grew tired of the workaholic attitude that was so pervasive among my friends and clients. But I’m not happy to go back to work for startups in this part of the world, blockchain or otherwise.
I love a certain Russian idiom you might use to describe an overbearing boss. To put it in literal English, you’d say “he’s drinking all my blood.” I was running out of blood by 2018, so I started looking for other work. Nowadays I work for the American marketing company Front Lines Media. The substance of my work is virtually identical — I wield Google Docs like a surgeon wielding a scalpel, and I fancy myself capable of solving deep communication problems.
I am richer in mind, character, and relationships for my Russian work experience, but let me put a raw disclosure in writing: I’m more comfortable today knowing that my new colleagues speak the same language that I do.