Ideologies? Or Just Friends?

I grew up in the Cold War. I know it looks like ancient politics now. But it was real for us.

We knew the world could be destroyed by nuclear weapons. That undercurrent ran beneath daily life. Two countries with tons of nukes hated each other. I lived in one of them. It’s not that we thought about it every day. But some months or years the tension would cycle up. By the time I was in high school, the prospect of nuclear war seemed very real. Even scarier was the thought of a land invasion.

I grew up in an international city. My 6th grade classroom was like the United Nations. From childhood, I was interested in other cultures. I felt called to work in diplomatic relations, so when I got into college, that’s what I pursued. In the early 80s it was a given that I would learn Russian language and study Soviet politics.

I attended a lot of workshops and conferences with guest visitors from the Soviet Union. Nobody knew who they could trust. Everyone was sizing each other up. I thought I knew how to be diplomatic and ask the right questions. I remember getting very uncomfortable when my fellow American students would go into inflammatory mode when interviewing a Soviet visitor.

I traveled to the USSR as a college student. I thought I would get to know the culture better, see behind the Iron Curtain so to speak. But we were kept under such controlled circumstances that it was hard to meet anyone except people approved by the Party. The few others we met were the ones who interacted with foreigners under the radar, and it was all about money. Before long we were buying items for them in hard currency stores where they weren’t allowed to buy things, using money they made on the black market. None of it seemed real. Everything I learned was one form of disinformation or another.

It wasn’t till the Cold War had ended that I had the privilege to go back to Russia and teach at a university. I lived with a family and shared every part of life with them. Spent time enjoying life with my neighbors. Played with neighborhood kids.

During those years, I got to know my university students and loved their personalities, laughed with them, encouraged them, dreamed their dreams. Ended up in the hospital when I got bit by a rabid dog, and became internationally vocal about healthcare needs in the new Russian Republic. Helped college students start and lead a series of community round table conversations on issues at the intersection of their new constitutional rights and the struggles of daily life. And traveled to places that had only just opened to Americans.

I lived on a local wage and found daily life challenging. I had to take a second job teaching English. I was grateful my local family fed me. I was not in the same situation as my Russian friends, because I had health insurance, a US passport, and an open one-way ticket to New York. But when it came to daily life, it was hard and I was often alone.

That made me all the more grateful for the friendships that came into my life. Those were precious people I’ll never forget. I felt like I had known them forever. They meant the world to me. In those years, they became my friends, family, neighbors. They were my life.

I rejoiced when they rejoiced, I cried when they cried. Missed my train one night so I could stay with a distraught family whose daughter had disappeared. (She eventually came home and was okay, but had gotten some bad news that was difficult to handle.) Spent hours on the phone trying to find a medical organization that could give medicine to a friend who was going blind. (I was not successful.)

I remember one night in Russia, sitting in someone’s living room with a group of my closest friends. I looked from person to person, how well I knew them, and how much each person meant to me, just for who they were. I didn’t see nationality. Just saw my friends.

And I realized, dear God, at any time in my growing up years, my country might have launched a weapon that would have killed them, the very people sitting in this room, my friends who had become so important to me.

It wasn’t an international relations textbook anymore. It wasn’t the evening news. Nor was it a conference with visiting dignitaries and heated arguments.

It was as simple as the room we were sitting in. These were my friends. Through my tears I thanked God no one had launched a nuke. Not because I was afraid to die. Not because I didn’t respect security measures and the difficult decisions government leaders have to make. But more because I couldn’t imagine a world that wouldn’t have my friends in it.

I have no desire to make a political observation in all of this. That wasn’t what came to my mind at that time. It was more this: Friends are precious. And real. Take care of them. Appreciate and value them.

Ideologies are shortcuts that help us avoid the messy, valuable work of getting to know real people. Don’t miss that.

Be open to realize that people who are different from you could just as easily become a close friend. Before you judge someone or dismiss them, consider what your world might be like if that person were a good friend.

Most people don’t want to blow up the world. They’re trying to get through the day just like you are. They love the people they’re close to just like you do.

Can you see that real person through all the rhetoric, through all the hype?

Can you see the world through the eyes of someone you don’t know, someone who could just as easily be your friend?

Letter Home from Russia (April 17, 1998)

It’s early on a chilly spring morning in Moscow, and I’m being carried across the tarmac at Domodedovo Airport by our country director and a fellow visiting lecturer. We’ve just returned from the Civic Education Project (CEP) Russia student conference in Tyumen. A mishap on the last night of the conference caused a ligament injury in my leg, leaving me temporarily unable to walk. This is strangely familiar, I think. Four months earlier I was similarly carried away from the CEP Ukraine student conference in L’viv. A mishap on the last night of the conference left me with two broken toes!

Leaving the conferences injured is nothing compared to the logistical nightmare of getting there, a procedure that consists of five easy steps … easy, that is, outside of a John Cleese comedy skit:

(1) Collect photocopies of student IDs and passports in time to buy tickets. Anyone who thinks this is simple either works in a place where photocopiers are taken for granted or is unfamiliar with university students’ understanding of the word “deadline.”

(2)(a) Proceed to the airline ticket agency. Wait in line one hour. Discover that, for reasons known neither to you nor to the agent, you must go to a different agency, on the other side of town, which closes in half an hour. If you wait until tomorrow, the rules will change again. Flag down a car to take you across town; but don’t tell the driver you’re in a hurry, or you’ll soon discover that the shortest line between two points lies across parking lots, back alleys, backyards, parks and frozen ponds. Arrive at the other agency, only to have them reject your photocopied documents for poor toner quality.

Or

(2)(b) Proceed to the railroad ticket agency. Ask the administrator which window to go to. Wait in line one hour, until that clerk sends you back to the original window. This is not done on a whim. The rules simply change by the hour. Wait in line one hour and arrive at the front of the line just as the window is closing for “obyed” (lunch break). Wait for “obyed” to end. Get sent to a different window which has just closed for “teknicheskii pereryv” (technical break).

When you finally make contact with a clerk who agrees to hear (in the passive sense) your request for tickets, the exchange will end with the clerk doing one or more of the following: telling you these tickets cannot be purchased today, for reasons known neither to you nor to the clerk; insisting that your visa is not properly stamped, registered and/or extended and that you are here illegally; bringing to your attention the poor quality of the photocopied documents and perhaps refusing one or more of them; saying you can’t purchase tickets with photocopied documents (but, you can); insisting you can’t buy tickets for other people (but, you can); complaining that the students’ passport photos (taken years ago) don’t match their ID photos (taken only months ago); claiming that you don’t look like your passport photo, to which you respond that this is what dealing with the railroad bureaucracy has done to your appearance; screaming at you and throwing all the photocopies in your face; and/or (it happens sometimes) processing your tickets.

(3) Help one of your students make brief, last-minute changes to her conference paper. Discover that a virus has wiped out the entire document. The only hard copy has editing marks all over it because a printer has not been available for weeks. It took your student days to type this paper. It’s the night before departure. You will be retyping it.

(4) Struggle to the airport or train station at 4:00 a.m. over mounds of snow frozen at -30 F.

(5) Arrive at the conference. Discover that your luggage was lost in transit – at least this is better than discovering a student was lost in transit.

Given the nightmare of getting to the previous two conferences and the memories of being carted painfully away, am I looking forward to the international student conference in Budapest? Absolutely! If asked to name the highlight of my first year as a CEP lecturer, I would answer, “The CEP student conferences.” If asked to name the highlight of my academic career thus far, I would answer, “The CEP student conferences.”

I cannot imagine a more rewarding academic moment than reading the final draft of a paper written in English by a Russian student and realizing that this paper meets the standards of articles published in academic journals; supervising a student engaged in primary research on a cutting-edge topic in a transitional polity; listening to students calmly yet vigorously debate contentious issues concerning their countries’ immediate futures; watching a Russian meet a Belarussian or a Moldovan for the first time; helping a student at a cocktail party successfully network for international career opportunities; seeing a Kazak student ask a US embassy official to dance at a conference disco; watching a Russian student discover halfway through her oral presentation that she can speak English confidently in public; listening to a student change gears in the middle of her presentation to reflect on her conversations with other students at the conference and on how their comments and discussion made her think of a new approach to her topic; watching a student hyperventilate when she learns her paper was selected for Budapest; or attending a first-class, highly professional academic event, organized through hard work under conditions of tremendous adversity, during a momentous period in a nation’s history.

After being attacked by dogs, falling out of a train, falling through a snow-covered steam grate, hitting my head several times on car doors, having a flying screwdriver (launched accidentally by a drunk plumber) graze my head, being body-slammed by another lecturer falling down steps and landing on top of me, sustaining the two conference injuries, and in general feeling like Martin Short in the movie, Pure Luck, injuries barely faze me anymore. And after crossing Siberia, the Russian Far East, China and Mongolia by train over the winter break, dealing with the transportation bureaucracy also seems second nature. But I won’t ever think of CEP student conferences as just ordinary academic events. They are nothing short of miracles.

With my Russian students at the CEP International Student Conference, Budapest, Hungary, April 1998.