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The Science of Winning – Lessons From Russian Military History
Nowadays it is trendy to compare business with military strategy: from Sun Tzu to Klausewitz, the book world has recently seen a wave of titles dedicated to the work and teachings of talented military men of the past. While I don’t think doing business in Russia is exactly like a battle, there are still some lessons a foreign investor can take from Russia’s military strategy to better understand their partners and achieve success in their businesses on Russian soil.
There are two men in Russian military history who stand out for their successful strategies. They are Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov, who miraculously saved his troops by leading them over a snowy Alpine pass in the late 18th century, and Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who saved Russia from Napoleon by the most controversial of means. While both men were talented Russian generals of their time, they both used information differently and followed very different strategies.
Suvorov is known for his surprise attacks and refusal to allow his troops to retreat. Weak and frail from birth, he trained his body and mind through the hardships of a soldier’s life. He became known for his spirit, firm will and comprehensive knowledge of military science. But Suvorov left conventional knowledge in the dust by breaking all the rules time and time again – and winning. He fought on behalf of Catherine the Great, defeated the Turkish army in the Russo-Turkish Wars and was victorious against the Prussian army.
In 1799, Suvorov was called out of retirement by Emperor Paul I to lead the Russian and Austrian armies to the aid of Italy when French troops invaded. When he found himself in an alpine valley surrounded by enemy troops on all sides, he didn’t do what was expected and didn’t surrender the right way. Rather, he turned on his heel and led his small contingent of men up the snowy and treacherous mountain pass with their guns, horses, and equipment. Not only did he save his fighting army, but he was also able to inflict serious blows on the French troops attacking them from above. When he came down from the Alps, the Italians proclaimed him their new hero.
Suvorov put his principles on paper in his book “The Science of Victory”, they include:
“To surprise is to win.”
“Shoot infrequently, but correctly.”
“Win not by quantity, but by mastery.”
In contrast, Kutuzov won the war with Napoleon by allowing the enemy to capture Moscow and retreat deep into Russia, where the harsh Russian winter and guerrilla warfare helped him to a crushing victory. He faced enormous pressure with Napoleon’s army sitting on his doorstep right outside the capital. He had just lost thousands of troops in a devastating draw at Borodino and thought that re-engaging Napoleon would risk the rest of the Russian army and nation. So he took the most daring step imaginable: he sacrificed the jewel, Moscow. Its citizens burned their own city before Napoleon’s entry, and Napoleon was forced to continue the pursuit of the Russian army as winter fell. Kutuzov, without money, overpower or armament, used his creativity and the most basic resource: the Russian winter. Napoleon eventually retreated after losing his army and Kutuzov returned as a hero.
Some of these principles are reflected in how Russians act in the business world. They are often impulsive and trust their instincts. They will surprise you by going into a long-term business deal with a hunch and against all odds that it will actually work out. They might sacrifice one aspect of the company that they’ve said all along was necessary in order to move forward with the next venture. With limited resources, they could find an off-the-shelf solution that would be better than the most elaborate western money can buy. Just as the Russian nature ran counter to the conventional conservative military science dominated by Western Europe in the 18th century, it will also at times run counter to the sensibilities of Western businessmen. I would encourage you to pause before you leap to shake some sense into your Russian partner when they suggest something you weren’t prepared for. You might have hit a gold mine: you might be working with Suvorov or Kutuzov right now.
Read more about doing business in Russia in my new book – “Riding the Russian Technology Boom” – at: http://www.russia.futuretext.com
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