There are two realities in Russia. The formal and the informal reality. In over a quarter century of Russian life I have had ample exposure to both realities, and whereas the formal Russian reality never failed to leave me with mixed feelings, I have come to unequivocally love the informal Russian reality.
The formal reality is the reality of the state, of control, and bureaucracy, of papers, stamps, signatures, and procedures, and of many other things that I, as a guest in Russia, am not expected to speak about. It is the reality that daily drives my elegant and sophisticated business partner to use language, that she, unfortunately, never allows me to use in her presence. The informal Russian reality on the other hand, is the reality of the boundless energy, creative possibilities, surprising opportunities, and genuine humanity that, even after 27 years, make it impossible for me to leave this place.
The “Russian Hustle” is what I call this informal reality. And no, in case you are checking the Oxford English Dictionary, I do not mean “hustle” in the original negative, illegal sense. I mean “hustle” in the positive American sense of working harder, smarter, and faster than anyone else, with energy, creativity, and a sense of urgency, to overcome challenges and reach your goals.
I mean the “hustle” of Abraham Lincoln who, allegedly, said that: “Good things come to those who wait, but only the things left over by those who hustle”.
The “Russian Hustle” is what I hear about when I talk to the taxi driver who owned and lost a business bigger than mine, but whose spirit is not broken and who now side-hustles in his car. I see the “Russian Hustle” when I look at one of my mentees, a corporate lawyer who decided to follow her dream and is now hustling to get an art-gallery off the ground.
The “Russian Hustle” is what leaves me breathless when I try to keep up with my X-country ski trainer who, as a mother of two small kids, runs a ski club out of her apartment and, between trainings and toys, manages to get me huge discounts on my ski gear with the various suppliers she does business with. The “Russian Hustle” is what keeps me healthy when I can text my doctor at any time of day and night when I have a hypochondriac question.
The “Russian Hustle” is what keeps my friend’s dog, Kasper, ridiculously cute and well-behaved, when she can consult with her dog-trainer whenever a question arises, no matter whether it is the weekday or the weekend. The “Russian Hustle” is when I manage to get out of a police car and avoid arrest because I crack a few jokes that make the police officers decide that I am a “normalniy muzhik” (an ok guy) and let me go.
The “Russian Hustle” is a two-way street. When I see that my X-country ski trainer goes out of her way to get me the best pair of skis with a huge discount and that she is ready to train me early morning or late at night whenever it fits my schedule, it also means that I am loyal to her and refer my friends to her. The doctor knows that, thanks to her constant care and attention, I will always first come to her when I really have a health issue. The dog trainer knows she will continue to have an income when she cannot come in person and is forced to give trainings through skype.
The “Russian Hustle” is a give-and-take exchange. You may now ask yourself what it was the police officer received when he let me go. Well, we have been friends for over three years now and I regularly visit him at the precinct to share some tea, biscuits, and life philosophies when his night shift starts; making him probably the only police officer in Russia who receives voluntary visits from a foreigner.
The “Russian Hustle” is not for bean counters, because it has no boundaries, no office hours and no “time’s up buddy”. The “Russian Hustle” is not for scammers and cheats because the two-way traffic of the “Russian Hustle” is based on trust and loyalty. The “Russian Hustle” is based on the understanding that ‘we are in this Russian boat together’ and only together we can safely row it to shore. The “Russian Hustle” is what enables a Russian to withstand great hardship and come out of any trouble with a head held high.