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Breaking down Russian language barriers.

When an Anchorage enterprise produced Russian language instruction on videotape in Moscow, its partners learned lessons about doing business in the former Soviet Union.

Vicki Rivera of Anchorage laughs when she recounts how Survival Russian, the Russian language instruction video she and business partner Tom Austin made on location in Moscow, almost didn't survive. Her tale illustrates the hazards of doing business in that rapidly changing marketplace.

"We thought we were done; we had everything filmed and all the changes we needed were down on paper. But when we went to leave, we found that their idea of a deadline and ours weren't the same. We decided to let the Russian film crew ship the master tape to us in Anchorage," she explains.

But there was no way to transport the tape directly from Moscow to Anchorage without moving it by way of Magadan in Siberia. Someone in the film crew hatched the bright idea of taking the language tape to another American, who was staying in a reindeer village near the Finnish border, to have him bring it back.

The master tape eventually was transported the length of the then-Soviet Union a couple of times before Austin received it four months later. He says the fiasco doubled the length of time needed to produce the tape. "We figure the tape traveled about 12,000 to 15,000 miles to get here," Austin adds.

Austin and Rivera's video, Survival Russian, is designed for business travelers and tourists. Rivera narrates and Austin plays the part of an American businessman in typical situations at the airport, during customs clearance, and in hotels, stores and restaurants. The other parts are played by Russians. The partners chose Moscow as a filming location, over sites such as Magadan or Khabarovsk, because of its history-rich atmosphere.

The 54-minute video teaches the Russian language student the alphabet, how to count and how to tell time. Available at many Alaskan bookstores, it retails for $49.95.

Several business people who have watched the tape have found it useful. Dave Heatwole, formerly a liaison for Arco Alaska in the Soviet Union, says, "I wish I had had this video the first and second times I went to the Soviet Union, especially for the airport and customs. That can be very intimidating. Learning just a few words can help a lot."

John McClellan, vice president of international business development for Arctic Slope Regional Corp. in Anchorage, adds, "I was impressed with the amount of educational material on the video. It's usable not only for one viewing but repeat viewings. And a lot was shot on site in the Soviet Union, so it not only helps with the language, but familiarizes you with the actual locations."

Although people generally are intimidated by the Russian language, the efforts to learn at least conversational phrases pay dividends for business people. Austin says the Russians are impressed if someone who wants to do business with them takes the time and trouble to learn some of their language. He feels that poor teaching and poor teaching methods have kept people from learning the language. He created Survival Russian specifically to help correct those deficiencies.

Austin first studied Russian in Monterey, Calif., while in the U.S. Army and further polished his skills at the University of Washington. He estimates he has taught Russian to about 500 students as an instructor at the University of Anchorage Alaska and with his own company, Glasnost Communications. Founded two years ago, Glasnost provides translation services, Russian language instruction, and business services such as market research, partner search and bartering strategies.

Rivera's background is in media. She began her career in Washington state 10 years ago and worked for Pioneer Broadcasting and KIMO-13 in Anchorage. In 1989, she decided to start her own firm, Victoria Development Co., producing industrial films and projects. She says Survival Russian is a bit of a change for her.

The business partners met at a Rotary Club meeting. Their company's origins trace to when Rivera asked Austin for help in a Russian class she was taking. The two business people decided to join talents -- his skills in translating and teaching Russian and her expertise in marketing and advertising -- to develop the language video. Adopting the Russian term for victory, they named the company Pobyedea Video Partners.

The idea for the instructional video came to Austin while traveling in the Soviet Union with a group of 45 Americans, of which he was the only one who knew any Russian. Austin discovered there was nothing on the market like Survival Russian.

Says Rivera, "When we first sat down with the idea of the video, the numbers were pretty steep. At that point, we started thinking about how we could get someone in Russia to do the filming, editing and producing." She explains that although tourists could exchange $1 for 32 rubles, foreign businesses in joint ventures had to use a lower currency exchange rate of 1.8 rubles per dollar. Rubles earned then could be converted to dollars at auctions.

The two Americans avoided the money-handling procedures and expense by dealing with Rainbow, a Moscow cooperative with a licensed hard-currency bank account. Members of the cooperative operate in the gray area of the Soviet economy, using state equipment for private ventures while holding down full-time jobs with the government.

Austin says the arrangement permitted Pobyedea Video Partners to pay the film crew in dollars. "This allowed us to make the video for about a tenth of what it would have cost to do in Alaska, and it had the advantage of being actually shot in Russia with Russian citizens. And the people who worked for us got a lot more than if we had been forced to pay in rubles. It was a win-win situation," he adds.

Another advantage of using a Russian crew was minimizing problems with red tape. Says Rivera, "The Russians are experts at bypassing the system. We were filming at the Moscow airport, and we had permission from security, but some guy walked up and said we didn't have permission from operations to film there. We got it settled, and continued on with the filming."

Another difficulty cropped up while doing a scene in which Austin portrayed a businessman buying something in Gum, a large Moscow department store. When the photographic lights went on at the counter, people figured something was being put out for sale, and a crowd of shoppers rushed to the counter. They started elbowing Austin out of the way.

According to Rivera, doing business in the former Soviet Union poses formidable hurdles. "Things you take for granted here -- paper, copies, telephones -- are unobtainable there," she says. "For example, Moscow is a city of 9 million people and only 7,000 phone books were printed. And they don't include private numbers. The only way to get someone's telephone number is to ask them for it."

Rivera and Austin are researching their next project, a video of about Russian business and who's who in Soviet enterprises. The film also will explain cultural differences and how business arrangements such as joint ventures and partnerships work.

The former Soviet empire is changing quickly, according to Austin. "I go there every two months, and everything is more Western every time," he says. "Every third person is wearing blue jeans, and all the families have stereos and VCRs. In Magadan, there are a lot of used Nissan cars brought over from Japan."

Anyone considering doing business in the Commonwealth of Independent States and other republics should lay the groundwork now, Austin advises. He warns that Japanese, Koreans and Germans, who are either more farsighted or more risk-taking than Americans, are establishing offices throughout the former Soviet Union. Another sign of the changing times is the outdoor advertising by Japanese and Korean companies now prevalent in Moscow. As soon as a need comes up, a foreign entrepreneur is there to fill it, Austin says.

It's general wisdom that business people should learn as much as possible about another country's culture and language before seeking business there. Says Austin, "If a person is comfortable doing business in a foreign country, it will definitely affect the bottom line."
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Title Annotation:Pobyedea Video Partners' video tape, Survival Russian
Author:Gerhart, Clifford
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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