Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Reflecting on My Past Experience with Russia and Obama's Speech at the New Economic School in Moscow
From 1972 through 1979, I studied Russian language, first in high school, then at university. I had been intrigued with Russian history, culture and society ever since, as a primary six school student back in the 60s, I'd read a chapter in my geography textbook about how difficult life was in the Soviet Union and how pitiful it was that its leaders wanted to rule the world, even to the point of being willing to destroy America. Oh yes, I learned, we were all potential victims in a Cold War.
My interest, or curiosity, took on added meaning one day when my P6 teacher asked me to assist a visiting lecturer in carrying his box of slides and slide projector from his car and into our school auditorium for a presentation - many years pre-Powerpoint - about his trip to the Soviet Union. The guest lecturer turned out to be Mr. Edward Taylor, a humble but world-wise and hilarious gentleman who would soon be my high school Russian teacher and the inspiration for my future studies and a career in education. What amazed me about his presentation was how he captured the faces of the Russian people. While the USSR was vilified throughout my youth by the American media, even by many of my relatives and neighbors who feared nuclear war, its people --at least those portrayed in Mr. Taylor's slideshow -- looked normal, and not like bomb-wielding homicidal freaks. What was the real story, I wondered.
Three years after high school, in 1977, after I'd been studying Russian for nearly 5 years, I left Ohio State University as a 3rd year uni student embarking on his first international trip, a study abroad program at the famed Pushkin Institute in Moscow. My goal had been to put all the Russian I'd been learning into practice, to walk the streets of my newfound literary "heroes" (from the very real guys like Pushkin, Lermontov and Turgenev, to characters such as Raskolnikov and Prince Myshkin), and to check out America's number one foe from the inside out. For a dude from small town America, it was a monumental, foundation-shattering experience. The travel itself, from Columbus to New York, then to Luxembourg, then to Frankfurt and West Berlin (my first plane rides), then by train through the Berlin Wall and into "Eastern Europe," across the DDR, Poland and into the USSR and on to Mockba, allowed me to "get my head around" the distances, mile by mile, and to prepare for the massive shift in cultural and geopolitical perspectives.
Then there was my daily life as a student. From eating soft boiled eggs and sausages first thing every morning in a dreary cafe in the university hotel to traveling across Moscow by train and bus to the school, to interacting with my Russian teachers, fellow (mainly American!) students and local friends, it would all touch me in a way that few experiences ever had. What broke first, I suppose, was the illusion that I had held until that time of America being the center of the universe. Suddenly, there I was, speaking another language to satisfy my basic needs, seeing sights (Red Square, St. Basil's, the Kremlin) that I'd only read about, studying in classrooms with photos of Lenin and Marx hanging in them, and --despite the mortal enemy rap I'd learned so well -- partying down with young commies and dangerous dissidents alike, learning that we were very much alike, after all.
Two of my best friends from that era, a young Chechen artist named Shamil and his sidekick, a Russian black marketeer named Valya, even introduced me to something I'd never expected to find in the land of Lenin, Stalin and Krushchev: ass-kicking anti-establishment attitude! In the back alleys, cramped crash pads, and beer halls that they inhabited, in the alternative lifestyles they had, Shamil and Valya showed attitude. In fact, these guys openly trashed many things Soviet, questioned the ideals and means of their leadership as well as the passivity of their fellow citizens, all that while listening to Pink Floyd and other forbidden Western musical groups and buying and selling every piece of foreign apparel they could get their hands on. They also talked of bringing another revolution to their "fucked" homeland. Through this they were, I surmised, yearning in some odd way to be more capitalist than me, which smacked of serious irony for an Ohio-farm-boy-turned-intrepid-explorer in search of the heart and soul of the socialist dream.
Little of what I found in Moscow, mind you, had ever been discussed in my international studies, political science and literature classes at OSU (although there was a Dostoevskian tragic quality to my new friends' existence). The focus of many classes was either on the archaic or the life-threatening. Once, when I'd wanted to research and write a paper on samizdat literature (underground self-published materials that had begun to filter out of the USSR), a distinguished professor had even told me to focus on the classics. In Moscow my friends lectured me on the reality, insisting that a focus on the so-called classics, whether in art, music or literature, was just a means by the the authorities for keeping discussion of change out of public discourse.
My book learning had taken place in the Brezhnev years, a period when the US-USSR competition seemed to have reached its epitome, when many of my countrymen envisioned that every Russian (or even student of Russian!) was a probable KGB agent and when many Soviet citizens were keen to show Americans how evolved their society was. It was also a period when the huge statues of Lenin and well-armed military parades symbolized Soviet might and hostile US and Soviet relations had been spun into scary acronyms like MAD --- mutually assured destruction --- and heavy metaphors such as the Iron Curtain.
Those images have fallen by the wayside in the last 20 years, of course. Which brings us back to Russia today, to Obama, and to his speech at the graduation ceremony of the New Economic School....
Nearly twenty years have passed since the country that my friends Valya and Shamil lived in ceased to exist. The Soviet Union of Lenin's dream, of Stalin's purges, of Krushchev's shoe being pounded on the lectern at the UN, is no more. This is not to say that Russia today has ceased to be anything like its Soviet incarnation. The corruption that still exists there might seem a vestige of earlier times. That a privileged few control vast wealth and resources might seem a vestige of earlier times. Even the fears, doubts and distrust that many Russian citizens have toward political institutions, toward leadership, toward America itself, might seem a vestige from earlier times. But there have been mountains of change.
In fact, at the end of his speech to future entrepreneurs and business leaders at the New Economic School, an institution whose very existence speaks of amazing changes in the Russian landscape, Obama carried the geological metaphor further when he said that "Russia has cut its way through time like a mighty river through a canyon, leaving an indelible mark on human history as it goes." Yes indeed.
What I especially liked about Obama's speech was not just that an American president was actually taking the time to address Russian college graduates, but also the clear intelligence and insight of his comments. Obama offered the students a rich analysis of how Russians and Americans (in fact, citizens worldwide) have many common interests. He spoke of how Russian success could also be interpreted as American success. He talked of the need for citizens and leaders of both countries to work together with the goal of building a better world with better opportunities and a better future for all involved.
I like that goal, and admire Obama's attempt to be inclusive. He's a guy who knows that people are just people, no matter where they live, no matter what their national or ethnic or religious identity. French, Iranians, Chinese, Iraqis, Chechens, Filipinos, Kenyans, Russians, Americans. We want a chance to fulfill our needs, a life that spells security and a measure of comfort, a good place to raise our kids, a brighter future for ourselves and our communities.
But Obama's also a guy with few illusions: he knows that in the face of growing demands and shrinking resources, peace and harmony hang by a thread because the world is the way it is, a place of backward tribal beliefs and dark corners of vice, raw emotions bubbling and chasms waiting to be filled with unsuspecting victims. Still, he's trying to put a positive spin on the human spirit and international relations, he's trying to engage others and reverse past trends -- down with all the stereotyping, vilifying, sabre-rattling. Out with the base need to conjure up ghouls and antagonistic, war-mongering sentiment in phrases like the Axis of Evil and the Evil Empire (or even the Great Satan).
And who can blame the prez? We're all in this world together. Look at the potential for disaster that exists by reviewing the mess that's been created in the last 100 years.
There seems to be cause for optimism, however guarded. At least the Russian and American leaders have sat down at the table and seriously talked about hot topics like easing bilateral tensions, reducing nuclear arms, shoring up international institutions and improving cooperation. Let's hope these guys' intentions are as sincere as they seem.
In these interesting times, I have to wonder what ever became of my old friends Valya and Shamil and what they might think now. Viva la revolucion?
Find the transcript of Obama's Moscow speech here.