Unlike the politicians, Russian and American businesses are able to look past politics
The author is the CEO and co-founder of Arkadium, which provides interactive content to well-known brands and publishers
If you’ve been following the news lately, you would assume that US-Russian relations are at their lowest point since the 1980s. Each morning seems to bring a new headline about the escalating tension between Washington and Moscow.
Recent stories have included allegations that the Russian intelligence agencies were behinds hacks of New York Times reporters and the Democratic National Committee—under the implied direction of Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin.
These are legitimate concerns. But, Washington/Moscow relations cannot and should not be substituted for U.S./Russia relations. What these stories miss is the positive experience of thousands of U.S./Russian cultural institutions and businesses like mine that link our countries every day. Through technology, constant communication, determination to understand and respect our strengths and differences, and the friendships we have formed, we run counter to the soundbites.
A life-long New Yorker, my company employs 28 people in Manhattan and 63 people in Krasnodar, a city approximately three hours from Sochi in the south west of Russia. I hear Russian spoken in my New York office every day and English is taught to and spoken by every one of our employees in Krasnodar. I have found that the financial and cultural synergies of being a U.S./Russian company have brought us significant benefits, and we are not the only ones.
Sergei Millian, president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce – established in 2006 in Atlanta – estimates there are more than 10,000 such businesses in our two countries, employing up to 3 million people.
The US Census Bureau reports that the combined value of U.S./Russian imports and exports was almost $25 billion in 2015, up from less than $10 billion in 2000. But Dan Russell, president of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, based in Washington, DC – a trade organization whose membership includes the largest corporations in the country – says these numbers under-count the true value of exports from American multi-nationals. “These figures only represent things manufactured in the U.S.,” he said. “So, for example, any iPhones sent to Russia count as a Chinese export.”
While business relations between the two powers began to warm up following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, technology has perhaps played the most significant role in the thaw. In my business we interact over video conference daily, and I can tell you that it’s almost impossible to demonize someone who you look in the eyes every single day. By seeing each other we become so much more than simple extensions of our governments.
But it’s not just business that benefits from healthy relations between our countries.
Organizations like the Russian American Foundation – created in 1997 to promote cultural exchange – support a raft of valuable initiatives, from Bolshoi Ballet Academy classes in the U.S. this summer, to sports and educational exchanges. Programs like these give me great optimism for an ongoing, healthy relationship between our two nations.
Yet there’s still plenty of work to be done. Many American companies are unwilling to ask LGBT employees to travel to a country that has some of the most anti-gay laws in Europe, and the constant escalation of political rhetoric adds another level of uncertainty to the already difficult job of running a business.
This was underscored for my company in particular when the Russian Federation annexed Crimea, where we had an office, in 2014 and the U.S. State Department responded with sanctions. As a result, we were forced to relocate 55 members of our team, and their families 250 miles away – hardly your average day at the office. While it was an incredibly difficult time for our business, we persevered, and less than two years later, we‘ve increased revenue and profitability and are hiring aggressively in both the U.S. and Russia.
I attribute our success in the face of adversity to the qualities shared by the Russian and American people: talent, fierce determination to succeed, and the ability to continue moving forward regardless of circumstance.
Many Americans who interact with Russians in their regular lives understand that the political posturing between Washington and Moscow is completely removed from the positive, everyday reality of cultural and business cooperation.
Our leaders may be rattling their sabers at each other, but many of their citizens are cooperating, building understanding and creating friendships that couldn’t have even been conceived of 30 years ago. Let’s not backslide into the counter-productive thinking of the Cold War. With a combined population of almost half-a-billion citizens, there’s just too much at stake.