After working as a stringer for three years, I was promoted to Moscow bureau chief of BusinessWeek in 1996. I was thrilled with the promotion and the recognition, and I was given the full expat package with a free apartment, car and driver, and home leave three times a year. One other important benefit was that McGraw- Hill, the owner of BusinessWeek, offered a “tax equalization” benefit. In other words, the company paid most of my Russian taxes. I owned an apartment in Washington, D.C., and decided to rent it out rather than selling it. I rented it out furnished, and the first tenant stayed for two years.
It worked out well. After that, I needed an agent to help me, as I couldn’t manage the place from so far away and with the unreliable communication within Russia. I paid an agent, who found someone who paid less in rent and ended up a deadbeat! Sometimes it’s better to do things yourself, but sometimes you can’t and therefore must recognize the risks. Another seemingly simple task I couldn’t do from so far away was pay my own American bills. The mail to and from Russia was very unreliable and glacially slow. Electronic banking was barely available in the United States in the early nineties because the Internet was in its infancy. I simply trusted my mother to handle my checkbook and pay my bills.
It’s fascinating to me now as I look back. Today, we take for granted the ease of electronic banking and our ability to access U.S. dollars and local currencies around the world through ATM machines. But the only way I could get my hands on my “paycheck”— I was paid in U.S. dollars directly deposited into my U.S. bank account—was to write a check at the American Express office in Moscow. The ruble was not stable then, and one of the most important non-negotiables for me was to be paid in U.S. dollars. Luckily for me, American Express had an office in central Moscow.