I once spent a drunken evening with the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky who died mysteriously in London recently. Berezovsky had fled Russia many years ago and feared for his life during his exile. The former mathematics professor had made billions of dollars when the Soviet empire collapsed and state assets moved into private hands opaquely. I met him at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a year or two after he fled Moscow.
This is how I remember the key part of that long dinner. After many, many drinks, Berezovsky said in Russian-accented English, “"Bruce, I pay taxes to those who protect me and the government doesn’t protect me. So I pay taxes to those who can.”
Framing and Reframing are essential Creative Competencies in my book and Boris’ startling words were among the strongest to cause me to begin thinking about the concept. Why? Like everyone else, I had always thought of Russia after the fall of communism as a corrupt place where the KGB, Russian Mafia and ruthless political players ruled. That was my narrative frame of Russia after communism.
Boris presented me with a simpler yet deeper and more sophisticated story. That narrative frame for Russia was one of a power-vacuum opening with the collapse of the state and Boris, like so many other businessmen, paid protection money to whomever could provide security. He would pay taxes to the government if it could provide safety but since it couldn’t, he paid “taxes” to tough guys in and out of government who could. Nothing more, nothing less. It was a story devoid of morality or moral lessons–just practicality.
Boris’ frame of Russian business life was so startling different from mine that it always stayed with me. It informed my analysis of creativity and my book on it. Knowing the narrative frame of the people we engage is vitally important to understanding the meaning of their culture and their place in it.