By Sharon Tennison
The relations between the two nuclear superpowers, Russia and the U.S., deteriorated so rapidly during the Ukraine build-up to war in 2014 that it seemed to us critical to try to rebuild citizen diplomacy again –– even though this attempt feels like David and Goliath with the slingshot.
Our 22 Americans from 15 states (and one from South Africa) came together to travel to Russia May 30 through June 15. Our goal? To learn how Russian citizens perceive the situations in Ukraine, Crimea and the Washington-based economic sanctions they are now under. We wanted to get clarifying information from them, to share our views with them, and to examine how to begin new efforts to break through the existing barriers between our two countries.
Our non-traditional travel had no tour guides, no tour buses, no palaces, no concerts, no normal rounds of canned meetings. Fortunately CCI has sufficient connections across Russia to organize meetings with ordinary Russian business people, journalists, professionals, university students and yes, Russia’s venerated TV anchor over the past 40 years, Vladimir Pozner with whom we spent an evening in Moscow.
No other country has been so persistently maligned in US mainstream media (MSM) over the past decade as has Russia; this demonization has been initiated by a thin segment of Washington’s current policy makers and America’s compliant MSM. It is said to have started in 2000 when Yeltsin turned over the reigns of the “new” Russia to then unknown Vladimir Putin. I was told by a State Department diplomat that on that very day when it was announced that VV Putin would likely be Russia’s next president, “The knives were drawn.” Actually I think it was even earlier in 1990, when Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Brzezinski, et al, came up with “The Wolfowitz Doctrine.”
At that time, a fragment of Washington’s power structure declared that the Cold War was over, that America was the victor––and a policy was set forth to prevent any country including the former USSR, from getting strong enough to challenge America’s superiority in the future (Google the Wolfowitz Doctrine). Another strategy soon emerged––”Full Spectrum Dominance;” that is, whatever power it takes to maintain superiority over land, air, water, subsoil, and outer space on the planet. To some, this meant total security for Americans in the future; to others, it meant sinister plotting to do whatever necessary to maintain America’s power and hegemony (Google Full Spectrum Dominance).
With the emergence of Vladimir Putin in 2000, a serious effort began to coalesce around Russia to hem her in. Subtly, and not so subtly, Russia found itself being criticized for doing the normal reforms and state-building necessary to put Russia back on its feet after communism and the disastrous 1990s. Those of us intimately involved with the collapse of the USSR and its impact on 150 million Russian people were bewildered by why Washington’s policymakers were deliberately taking a hostile stance to the “New” Russia.” A pattern emerged from 2001 on. We continued to try to make sense of it until the demonization of Russia and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, became such virulent attacks that we had to question the intentions and psychology of the Washington’s perpetrators. Psychologically healthy human beings don’t continuously attack, demean, bully, and sanction other people––or whole nations. The 2014 Sochi Olympic events were the capstone––an all-out effort occurred to blackball Russia’s attempt to show the world a healthy and new Russia. Sochi was a monumental success which could not be discounted.
On to our Travel in Today’s Russia:
On May 31 we arrived Moscow, now 12 million people––our schedule was packed with simultaneous meetings with journalists, entrepreneurs, think tank leaders, US corporate persons and university faculty and students. We traveled the miles from N to S, E to W, on the famed Moscow Metro system with the help of delightful students and travelers who knew the system. Our travelers were stunned by the range of meetings they attended, some three or four of them going out in multiple directions to discuss the issues that divide our two countries. We found total openness, honesty and multiple points of view. Most Muscovites were impressed by the new Russia emerging over the past 15 years––and some were quite vocal about their gripes regarding Putin and the governing system. Our student helpers were from the relatively new Moscow School of Economic and Political Sciences. One of the last meetings, and one that all of the delegation attended, was at their academic institution. The room held about 50 people with long tables on all four sides, with all communicants facing each other. Russians on the left and Americans on the right. Young professor Alexander Abashkin, began with a few informal remarks, gave the floor to me, after which we all quickly introduced ourselves and began asking informal questions of each other, one person having the floor at a time. It was civil, revealing and powerful––there was no party line from either side of the table. We began to deal with solutions for the current political standoff — proposing possibilities for future people-to-people exchanges with both sides being responsible for their own travel money and providing pro bono support for any future activities. As for CCI, we will approach our US lists as we gear up to repeat some of our earlier programs which broke down barriers between our two countries in the 1980s and 1990s. You may want to participate or to contribute to one of the program possibilities.
Our last evening in Moscow was spent with Vladimir Pozner, an old friend since the 1980s. We interrogated him on current issues and got straight answers, including those not shared by the current Putin government. Our videographer captured the extraordinary discussion we had with Pozner. It will be available as a Youtube. We will send you the URL after we get home and edit the footage. As this is written, we citizen diplomats are on an overnight train from Moscow and traveling into the heart of Russia. The next stop will be Volgograd, the battleground that turned the tide of WWII. We are on one of the tens of thousands of new train tracks and new economy trains, thanks to the efforts of one Vladimir Yukanin, the first president of Russia’s new railroad industry. I ponder the days when I sat with him on a small board in 1987 when we were trying to start a small children’s private art school in Leningrad; also a lunch with him in 1991 in a small new private restaurant in the Petrogradski District; afterward he arranged for CCI to have a free small office in the Smolney; and then in 1993 listened to his pain, with head in his hands, about the devastatingly sordid changes in Russia’s tragic 1990s. This cultured young man at the time was lamenting that he and his wife moved their television out due to the predominance of America’s B grade movies which they couldn’t allow their children to watch. Never would I have guessed this thoughtful young man would someday revamp the largest train system in the world––and I would be riding on his trains in awe. Even train lavatories have metamorphosed into attractive, efficient and pristine-clean rooms at the end of each car.
It’s 6 am, we are approaching Volgograd within the next couple of hours. I arose at 4 am to take in the scenery outside our train windows. This is such a verdant countryside, vast stretches of forests, so full of foliage they looked to be stuffed with solid green trees along side the tracks. I’m struck by the tiny ancient towns we are passing through, formerly broken down Soviet buildings––now showing newly added repair and paint on everything in site. Structures sport new coats of color not seen in the Soviet days. I’m fascinated by their use of the most simple of available products to create beauty. For instance, many carefully designed circular flower beds made of what appear to be old cut-in-half tires. They are painted a slightly different but corresponding color from the main buildings, with the effect being scalloped circular beds of blooming annuals, each about 15 feet in diameter. Why describe something this simple? It’s just one small example of thousands of details I’m noticing which are telling me that “Beauty is Back” in today’s Russia. The garish appearances from the last couple of decades are giving way to a new sense of harmony and color––even in outposts like these that the train is passing through.
Railroad tracks in most cities are usually the ugliest of places, but not so in Russia today. Shiny trains pull up in the cities, young women and men in sharp fitted uniforms with hats step out and welcome guests. Gone are the sour-faced elderly ladies who looked suspiciously over our tickets and passports. Even the small train stops are obviously cared for. We just passed a small Orthodox church with the four cupolas and one central one looking as though they have been recently renovated with pure gold. Surely not, but it appeared so. Off in the distance as we pull away from the town are the two and three-story new homes, none of them alike. Obviously tract homes haven’t come to Russia yet. These are the homes of entrepreneurs, including bureaucrats no doubt, the latter unfortunately having made their livings off of the entrepreneurs in the 1990s and 2000s. Even nondescript outlying regions like these have developed a new face. At the train stops, the traditional babushkas usually selling foods to train occupants from their baskets are not there! The old bent shoulders are being replaced with rural people who are young, slender, shoulders back––they walk at a different pace than their fathers, mothers and grandparents. Their clothing is similar to average Americans (since the Chinese are making most of what both peoples’ wear today).
Now back to the seemingly endless miles of landscapes with cultivated farm lands in between thick green forests. Volgograd is now about an hour away.
So, yes, to this veteran watcher of all remnants in this country, it is clear that beauty is back; much of the older generation has died off, and a new Russia is being born here. Over the past decade I’ve been able to finally see the blossoming of their deep respect for their rich Russian culture––its literature, poets, and musical geniuses are coming back––thankfully it was not lost in the miserable turnstile between the Soviet era and this new period of societal development.
We, the Baltic peoples, the Ukrainians, or any country, have NOTHING to fear from today’s Russia. From all conversations we are having, Russians have NO interest in more land mass; they have more land than they need, and the worst situation of all, would be to have resentful Baltic countries or other nations under their rule again. The constant allegations that Russians are looking to take over additional territory are totally manufactured propaganda.
We do need to understand that Russians will never submit to a world culture that is different from their own––any more than we in America would.
Russians have regained their national pride over the past decade and are capable of defending their right to exist––and they have a government today that will protect their deeply embedded culture. Russia will never be precisely like America, nor should they be; their history and national conditionings are quite different from ours. However, they are completely ready to let America be America …. and for us and other countries to develop what is comfortable for ourselves. They have NO intention to impose their culture on others.
The narrow slice of today’s American policymakers need to get accustomed to this fact and stop their incessant preoccupation to remake the world in America’s image.
On to Volgograd ….. Sharon
When referring to the policies that are currently being made in the West, I find it more appropriate to designate them as “Washington policies,” not U.S. or American policies.
I KNOW middle America. I’ve been traveling from state to state over the past three years speaking and selling my book. Even though many Americans are frequently misinformed by MSM, Americans are truly good people with good hearts and would never wage wars on other countries …. or on Russia. From Rotary and Kiwanis clubs to business forums, libraries, churches, universities and even high schools, Americans are good stock, doing good work in their cities and states. They want to know the truth and are open to new inputs. Our MSM has been relentless and of one voice on Russia over the past few years — to the place where the average American hardly realizes that the “sanctions” are an all-out attempt to take Russia down economically. If you are interested, I can send Internet URLs by responsible investigative journalists and international news services which will give multiple points of view on these topics. Wars have been fought over such tactics as economic sanctions in the past. Fortunately Russia has kept a cool head and is able to survive––and has as a result, developed serious supportive relationships with China, India, Brazil and South Africa–the BRICS countries. More on this to follow.
If you are interested in a trip to Russia of this type, please let us know,
Please excuse poor sentence structure, typos, etc. No editors available.