What I learned as Director of an NGO in Moscow

Excerpt from Chapter Four, “Transition Year 1997-98, Consultancies” in Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s

In the context of my various consultancies serving manufacturers, logistics companies and other businesses getting started or expanding their operations in Russia, my seeking and performing consultancy for the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) by assuming the obligations of director of their Moscow office may seem odd. Indeed, within the IREX organization there were those who thought this was nothing more than a cynical ploy to top up my income while I was looking for my next full-time position with a blue chip international company. However, my motivation was no less idealistic …and ill-informed… as was that of most of the IREX executives I met at their Washington headquarters.

First, I had a sentimental attachment to IREX going back to my year as a Fulbright scholar in Moscow and St Petersburg during the academic year 1971-72. At the time, administering the exchange program for senior scholars and doctoral students like myself on behalf of the United States side in a bilateral state-to-state convention was the whole of IREX’s activities. To my experience, they did this very well. They also had responsibility for hosting the Soviet scholars sent to the USA on these exchanges. IREX was then based in Princeton, New Jersey and had an academic, old school tie culture.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of such exchanges proliferated and the monopoly of IREX over academic programs was irrevocably broken.  At the same time, we saw the launch of a great many USIA and USAID programs to help the Russian people prepare for the market economy and smooth their transition to a vital civil society. IREX competed with other NGOs for appointment as administrator of these programs. It had in its favor its Moscow office and experienced expat and local staff.

Reading through the literature I was given prior to signing on with IREX, I could feel great pride in becoming part of this benevolent American mission. As regards my own role, this was defined less in the short contract, which obliged me to visit the office daily and said not much more, but in an oral understanding with the director of IREX, Dan Matuszewski, whom I knew fairly well from the past. I was expected to spend my time mainly on liaison with US embassy and consulate officers to keep them abreast of our activities and to explore possible common interest for additional activities. Secondly, there was the hope that I could help find sponsors for some of the IREX work from among the American business community in Moscow with whom I was in touch at the highest levels. The actual day to day management of the office would be negligible, because the various programs carried out on the premises, such as organizing seminars for journalists, had their well-trained managers in place well before my arrival and had little to do with one another.

In fact there were some very pleasant occasions during my time serving IREX. I think in particular of a dinner event at which I found myself seated next to the newly installed Minister of Culture Natalia Dementieva, who had till recently been the director of the museum of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg rather than some ministry functionary. We engaged in a far-reaching conversation. Or the time I spent with the Cultural Attache of the US consulate in St Petersburg, with whom we discussed creating a possible program to help train directors of Russian cultural institutions to better navigate the domestic market in search of sponsorship. These moments are described in the diaries of Part II in some detail.

And, to be perfectly frank, my vanity was served well by the appreciation that American diplomatic personnel showed for my fluency in Russian when I spoke extemporaneously at public events. This was something I did not feel among my business colleagues

However, there was unexpected unpleasantness that also came with the IREX office and had its origins in precisely who goes into NGOs in general, as opposed to business careers. I saw all too many of my new colleagues were by nature “opposition minded.”  That is to say, they had an instilled distaste for elites – American elites and….Russian elites.  However, like it or not, from my experience you do not go far by disdaining elites, least of all in a country with a predisposition to authoritarianism like Russia.

The feeling of “underground” at IREX Moscow was encouraged by the shambolic condition of the office premises and furnishings. These were needlessly “Soviet” in appearance, at the very time when even Russian private companies were putting in cosmetic improvements to look more appealing.

My colleagues, both in Moscow and in IREX headquarters, lacked professionalism as managers, which is not the least surprising for people coming to administration from an academic milieu. This was the first time since my difficulties at Mustang Bekleidungswerke that I was being drawn into psycho-dramas. For anyone who wonders about that, I refer them to the brief note I received from the HR Director in Washington, presented in Part Two, confirming that life in IREX was never “dull,” meaning that open personal spats and hair-pulling were the routine.

Finally, I am obliged to mention a decisive factor in my decision to resign from my IREX appointment well before my next job in business came on line: I had reason to believe that the office was being used as a base for CIA missions, particularly to the former republics of the Soviet Union at the periphery. There was just too much traffic to the Caucasus through our premises. And so with a heavy heart it was I who brought down the curtain on my IREX adventure. That was my first and last posting with an NGO.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up is now in print and available on all national websites of Amazon.com, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble.  “Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s” will go to press in one month]