Dimitri Vaffin went to the university in Prem, a Russian city that was closed to foreigners until 1986. About that time, I was in college in New England, majoring in political science, televised sports and beer.
Sandy-haired and eager, Vaffin wants to know all about Wal-Marts. How big are they? Is there anything you can't buy there? Is Cincinnati big enough to have one?
Vaffin, who works in customer business development for Procter & Gamble Co. in Russia, isn't openly envious or anything. He and other Russians just need to know.
That's one of my main impressions of Russia after a three-day trip there in early September. Young Russians are literally racing to soak up the rest of the world. They wear western clothes, they buy western products. The women sport those trendy little glasses in vogue in the U.S., and men show off the same brand names you might see in big cities here.
They even shop at Ikea. When the hip furniture retailer opened in Moscow, hundreds stood in line for hours for a chance to buy.
The purpose of my trip was to follow P&G, Vaffin's employer and one of the biggest companies in the world. I admit, most of the Russians I met already work for P&G, so their future is a little brighter than Russians who aren't as well off. Outside Moscow, particularly in the remote areas to the east toward Siberia, it's probably less optimistic, even grim.
If you ever get too sure of your place in the universe, travel to the developing world. You quickly get over your four-bedroom house in the suburbs, the simplicity of your kids' latest softball or soccer game and your gripes with your boss.
During my stay in Moscow, I sat in the front room of a two-room apartment of a Russian nurse and listened to her talk about her life. Olga Kashenkova professes not to worry much about her daily life. She and her husband have enough money, they have a comfortable apartment, a car, a dacha outside Moscow. They don't stress out over weekly bills.
But to me, here's the thing: Kashenkova's apartment could fit in the basement of most Cincinnati houses.
P&G marketing exec Alena Kudryashova knows about Cincinnati. She spent a year in Cincinnati on P&G's "broadening assignment."
Kudryashova talked less about her company assignment than about her teenage daughter. During a year in Indian Hill schools, her daughter found the lessons - particularly science and math - relatively easy. But the year was worthwhile, Kudryashova said, for another reason: In America, adults value teenagers and empower them to make their own decisions.
That's one of many lessons not taught in Russia until recently, but one that Russians are learning.
It's one of many changes in the world's biggest country, all bubbling to the surface in one unstoppable rush. It's a powerful force, carrying ordinary Russians with it.
Good for them.
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