Magazine article Russian Life

An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

Magazine article Russian Life

An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

Article excerpt

One day, at the very end of the nineteenth century, three trim gentlemen stepped out of the first-class carriage and onto the station platform in the ancient Russian town of Serpukhov, located just a bit less than 60 miles south of Moscow. The gentlemen glanced around, appreciated the three-story railway station building, and, finding nothing more of note, proceeded to a very important meeting. Later, it would become known that two of the gentlemen were representatives of the American company Singer, Mr. Georg Neidlinger and Mr. Frederick Brown, and the third was the U.S. Consul in Moscow, Mr. Smith.

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The year 1899, when this scene occurred, was a time when ladies had just abandoned the bustles that caused them so much trouble when walking, the first automobile had been imported to Petersburg, and rural doctors had begun to spout revolutionary ideas when they made their rounds of typhus- and cholera-plagued villages. The vast Russian world had begun to stir, very slowly, into motion, urged on by the hum and thunder of change.

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Singer's enterprise in Russia was part of this change, and by the 1890s the scope of the company's operations was truly ambitious. Its distributors and stores could be found in dozens of Russian cities, selling not only sewing machines (on payment plans) but also various paraphernalia emblazoned with the firm's logo. In 1896, "Manufacturing Company Singer" became a Russian corporation; its postcards, sent to every corner of the country, pictured a Russian beauty in a kokoshnik * operating the foreign technological marvel with the caption, "THE REAL sewing machine." The Russian market looked just as good as Europe, except that transporting machines to Russia had proven unprofitable. After initial hesitation, the company's management decided to manufacture its machines inside Russia, and soon had the approval of the Ministry of Finances. All it needed now was a site for its factory.

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And so it was that the three afore-mentioned gentlemen arrived in Serpukhov. It was not, of course, Serpukhov's rich history or the beauty of the town's countless churches that attracted the American businessmen to this storied fortress-city, the capital's main defense from the South. It was because, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Serpukhov had been known as a major textile center. Linen and silk weaving, and later wool and cotton mills were the main sources of local wealth. Serpukhov took pride in the great diversity of fabrics and variety of colors its mills produced--a sentiment that explains why this ancient Russian city's crest of arms featured the exotic peacock with its colorful tail fanned wide.

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The Americans had a brilliant idea: add the production of sewing machines, needles and threads to the town's already well established weaving and fabric-printing industries and thereby turn the old city into Russia's textile capital, The wily Serpukhov merchants, however, had no intention of sharing their well-controlled turf with potential competitors, and the only answer to the Americans was "no." "No, no, and no," they could almost hear the prideful peacock crowing after them as they retreated.

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The gentlemen, when they returned to the station and took their seats on the train, had much to think about. Serpukhov appeared to be the perfect spot for their factory and they had no idea where they might find a similarly suitable location. On top of its other attractions, Serpukhov offered direct access to the metropolitan centers of fashion by virtue of its location on the Kursk rail line, with direct service to both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Nothing could be more convenient, both for trade and manufacturing, than to build a factory right alongside the railroad.

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The Americans discussed the experience of dealing with the recalcitrant Serpukhov merchants, lusted after the land that rolled toward the horizon outside their first-class carriage window, and finally concluded that they needed to find a place that was exactly like Serpukhov, only a little different--with room to maneuver. …

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