Do you want to trade with Russia? Learn from Napoleon.



Fools learn on their own mistakes, cleverer ones would learn from others. Russians are proud to celebrate 200 years of their victory over French Napoleon in what Russians call The Patriotic War. The Borodino battle in early September 1812 had predetermined the outcome of the war and indeed Napoleon’s fate in general. He had to leave the country followed by the Russian army up to the borders of the Empire, lost most of his army and then actually lost his power. So what mistakes did he make that ruined his success-to-be story in Russia? What could you learn from his experience and make better in order to succeed?

Make your research and invest enough time and resources in proper preparation. Napoleon clearly underestimated not only the patriotic spirit of Russians and their resilience nurtured by centuries of living in tough climate conditions but the climate itself. Look at the Russian economy in the context, check as many details as possible, even though these will be quite scarce and not always easy to find. The Russian market data base is only in the process of being created. Make sure you check information in your language as well as in Russian – this will give you a broader and more objective picture.

Never assume that if you won Moscow you got success in the whole country. Russia is the largest country in the world spread over eleven time zones. And this is one of few cases, when the size does matter. Napoleon got grip over Moscow and spent a wonderful month in the burnt to ground city, yet he had to withdraw.

Russian regions live their own lives. There is a common joke saying that there is no life outside Moscow, and its roots lie in the fact that life in Moscow so much differs from that one anywhere else. Another joke says that the only problem of St Petersburg is that it is surrounded by Russia. Very snobbish, I know, but again, it can indicate the depth of differences between the country’s regions. There are two good pieces of news though. Firstly, you will never get bored in Russia. You will learn new every day, most importantly you will learn to expect unexpected. Secondly, on the practical level, some experts claim, that if you succeed outside Moscow you are most likely to succeed in some other CIS countries should you wish to expand there too.

Speak the language. Noble Russians indeed spoke mostly French all over 19th century, but it did not quite help Napoleon’s soldiers to succeed in Russia as communication with local residents was rather difficult. Forty thousand Russians fled the army, once in France, and integrated very well into the French community. Russians are quick and eager learners (which is good news when it comes to hiring local staff!), but that works slightly more to their advantage than yours when they speak your language and you do not understand theirs, doesn’t it?

Be ready to stay there long and build relationships, make local allies. Again, Napoleon fell victim of his poor research. Should he have learnt the history of 17th century, he would have known the story of the Russian peasant Ivan Susanin who had volunteered to help the Poles to find the young Russian tsar, who then lived in his village 340km from Moscow, then guided them to the wildest woods and left there in the midst of a severe Russian winter (well, they killed him then, but suffered huge losses themselves too). 400 years later you’d still better have a Russian partner or mentor, however please-please choose carefully recognising and appreciating their motives, cultural differences and background and gradually build open – business and personal, as these are rather interdependent in Russia – relations based on mutual trust. This will pay off.

Oh, and the last, but by no means the least, come to Russia with peace, but not war.

(PS: Of course, I am over-generalising, and these rules would not apply to every single situation, Russians are different as they are all individuals with their own background, upbringing, character—– and inspirations.)

Ignaty Dyakov, MD of Russia Local Ltd business consultancy, professional linguist and the author of the Russian language textbook for business people “Rasskaz-Sensatsiya” (

Russia Local Ltd offer consulting, Russian language tuition, translation services (from all major world languages to Russian), accompanied visits to Russia, and partner matching service. They also run “Doing Business in Russia” and “Selling to Russian customers” training courses in the UK and Europe. The company is a member of the Federation of Small Businesses, Russo-British Chamber of Commerce and the UK Advisory Network by UKTI and works with the Make It Global project.

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