Russia Notes 2014

17 November 2014

On our way from a rainy London to an icy Moscow, where the temperatures will not rise above freezing for the duration of our visit this week. Later, hearty dinner at Jagannath, the first/only vegetarian restaurant in Moscow, then a short walk in the freezing cold.

18 November 2014

Hotel Kyznetskiyi Inn, Moscow – Indira and I arrived in Moscow yesterday and were met at the airport and delivered to our hotel by our host for the next few days, Victoria. After checking in, we discovered a charming vegetarian café – apparently the first/only in the city – where we enjoyed a hearty meal and delicious sweets (both rather more inspired by India than Russia). Our rather stylish hotel, which is decked in marble, furnished with gilded chairs and swathed in theatrical drapes, is unfortunately also located right next to a nightclub. Needless to say, it was ‘all about that base’ and we were kept awake by a dull throbbing soundtrack until the early hours.

Today, we had a sumptuous architectural & cultural eye-feast at the Kremlin, Cathedral Square, Lenin’s tomb and the Pushkin gallery. At 10 am, somewhat bleary eyed from the 3-hour time difference with London, not to mention a general lack of sleep, we were met by Victoria at the hotel and set off on foot to see the Kremlin. It is a vast complex and it is hard not to be impressed by the cathedrals with their scalloped roofs, bell towers and golden domes (or in the case of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, its smartie-box coloured turrets looking like something out of a fantasy candy-world.

The visit to Lenin’s tomb was slightly surreal; he looks more like a Madame Tussauds wax work than the real remains of a national hero and global icon. We stopped at the local, exclusive shopping centre and I had a hot chocolate, which, I must add, was like melted chocolate with no more than a drop of milk, so thick and rich it was. Then we walked the 3 km or so to the Pushkin Museum and Gallery, and discovered that not only did it have nothing on Pushkin, it had no Russian art either. So we whisked around the Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian display halls and paused briefly in the European section to admire some beautiful Rembrandt portraits (of an old man and an old woman).

Victoria then took her leave and we had a scrumptious late lunch at The Academy restaurant – cream of broccoli soup and spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and basil for me. I then had a quick peek in the adjacent cathedral (spectacular, yet a bit same-old same-old), after which we strolled back to the hotel, as the setting sun turned golden turrets brilliant and factory smoke pink against the fading sky.

We stopped on the way (mainly to thaw out) at the Magnolia café – a bakery with an assorted array of treats (Indira had a beetroot red ‘velvet’ cheesecake; I a much less adventurous cinnamon biscuit). Final stop at an international bookshop, where we bought a beautiful hand-sized edition of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (for Veneta) and an illustrated collection of Pushkin’s fairytales.

19 November 2014

Another sleep-deprived night of base-beat torture. In the morning, we were met by Alexey Kostin, who I have only previously met virtually as Russia’s contributor to The World Guide to CSR. In fact, it was Alexey who recommended me as a keynote speaker for tomorrow’s conference. After a coffee, we took the subway (which seems perfectly efficient, albeit rather noisy) to visit the art gallery of Zurab Tsereteli.

What a revelation! We were blown away by the variety, vividness, energy and scale (micro and macro) of his paintings and sculptures. I loved how so many of his art works depict ‘ordinary’ people, although he is no stranger to celebrity sculptures (Putin, Charlie Chaplin, Princess Diana, Van Gogh, Mother Teresa, etc.).

I kept shaking my head in awe at the volume of work, the audacity of ambition and the incredible diversity of styles, themes and subjects. He is a true artist – a creative spirit who could express himself in virtually any medium, should he choose to do so. Afterwards, we travelled to the Venetsia restaurant for an excellent lunch, before returning to the hotel (and a quieter room, we hope).

Alexey’s perspectives on Russia and CSR were most interesting and informative. It is clear he fears for the impacts of the present Ukraine crisis, although does not believe Putin is entirely to blame. CSR, it seems, has stalled, with companies adopting a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude. Meanwhile, with plentiful resources and a strong oil and gas industry, environmental issues like climate change stand little chance of making it onto the agenda.

Although multinationals keep pace with developments like GRI reporting, it seems the appetite and pressure for transforming business to be more sustainable is negligible. I have a feeling Russia will need to discover its own path towards creating integrated value, perhaps through corporate governance or state sponsored social responsibility.

There is already a strong paternalistic tradition of philanthropy, but this is unlikely to do much more than treat the symptoms of our socio-economic ills, rather than the cause. Somehow, the situation here appears similar to how I image the operating context and approach of Rockefeller in the ‘robber baron’ 1800s in the USA. Of course, tomorrow’s conference may dispel this as a myth.

In the evening, we met Fabrice Mathieu, head of sustainability for Royal Canin, for drinks at the Space Bar at the top of the Swiss Hotel, with 360 degree panoramic views of the city.

20 November 2014

Looking forward to giving the keynote speech on Making a Difference through Social Responsibility at the MGIMO International Forum in Moscow. Later, excellent insights by Indira on social enterprise on the positive economics panel.

21 November 2014

En route Moscow to London. A misty, frosty morning (-8 degrees C) as we leave Moscow behind on a delayed flight home. Yesterday’s conference was more typical of an academic colloquium than a commercial seminar, with an over-packed agenda, much pontificating and little real discussion or audience participation. It presented a mixed picture of the state of CSR in Russia, with some clearly stuck in philanthropy mode and others excited about social enterprise.

If there was a common theme, it was a pervasive sense of crisis and relative impotence in the face of a less than positive outlook. My presentation and Indira’s panel contribution were both well received, and there is a good chance we will be invited back. However, I was left reflecting that ‘strategies for resilience’ may be a more helpful topic in future than ‘making a difference’ or ‘positive economics’.

Despite the warmth and hospitality of our hosts and Alexey, I could help feeling an insidious bleakness, whether from the dearth of trees in the city, the concrete block architecture, the stark winter landscapes, or the pessimism shadowing a shrinking economy facing multiple crises, I cannot be sure.

Nevertheless, it was wonderful to share this experience of Russia with Indira. Not only are we creating a rich mosaic of shared memories, but we are also starting to shape a collaborative and complementary work offering. Ahead, we have Ecuador and very likely Sri Lanka together.



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