"The West's insistence that Russia must return Crimea to Ukraine would mean violating the age-old U.S. principle of a people's right of self-determination. It would force the largely ethnic Russian population of Crimea to submit to a Ukrainian government that many Crimeans view as illegitimate, the result of a violent U.S.-backed coup on February 22, 2014, that ousted elected President Viktor Yanukovych."
Our delegates who went to Crimea said it has benefited from the reunification, though it's been hardest hit by the sanctions. Russia has invested significant money there in roads, airports, a new train link. But Crimeans feel like there is a wall around them, and they want to be part of the world community.
Several speakers described the better conditions under the Soviets. These included a more stable currency, controlled prices, no unemployment, less crime, police as a moral authority and better health care for all, including the elderly. Putin's government knows that the popular demands of pension, housing, health care, transportation, job security and infrastructure are only ignored at its peril, since Russians know what is possible. In the US, we've been held down for such a long time, we are like the fabled frog that was so slowly boiled, it didn't perceive the danger, and was cooked to death.
After getting an overview in Moscow, the delegation broke into groups to visit 20 smaller towns in six time zones. Three of us visited the small (pop. 60,000) town of Kungur on the west side of the Ural Mountains. Their coat of arms is a cornucopia facing down, spilling out the food, to express fertility, generosity and abundance, rather than an upright cornucopia, which would represent a selfish lack of sharing.
We visited schools in Kungur and in an outlying settlement. Many said that schools are not as strong as they were under the Soviets. However, as a retired San Francisco social worker, I was struck by how the students were neatly dressed, respectful, curious, attentive and calmer than the pervasive ADHD cacophony of students in the US. They seemed pleased to be students and took it seriously, with much respect given to their teachers.
A settlement is a village for the indigenous of the area, with somewhat more autonomy. Russia is a country of 180 nationalities and 40 indigenous, or nomadic, peoples. The Tatar are the predominant people of the settlement we visited. The school doesn't experience truancy, gun violence, gangs, bullying, or an opioid crisis. After school, many of the students walk a few blocks to the library or dance school. The settlement is proud of its most famous library of the district, with 1,500 registered children readers. They spoke of the many holidays that the Russian Orthodox, Muslim and Jew share together. People in the settlement talked freely about the Soviet period. The Soviets converted a Tsar-era school for wealthy boys into an administration building, and built 88 new coed schools in the district. The former priest's house is now the post office. The center of the settlement holds a memorial dedicated to the mothers of those lost in the Patriotic War.
Perm, the biggest city of the district, houses the university that trains teachers, called the "noble profession." (Although called the "noble profession," none of the teachers we spoke to could afford to own a car.) We spoke to the senior class of English teachers-in-training, who were very aware of the non-stop anti-Russia coverage in US-corporate media. One said he fears that dystopian books are coming to life. After I spoke about the need for the US to cut its military budget in order to address its domestic needs (as per MLK), the professor said the best proof of that assertion is that after WWII, Japan wasn't allowed to have a military, so their education and technology soared. The U.S. government will spend 2.7 billion dollars per day next year to prop up the military and the more than 800 bases it maintains in over 70 countries.
Ann Wright, the most prominent member of the delegation, served 29 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves, was a U.S. diplomat for 16 years and resigned from the U.S. government in March 2003 in opposition to President George W. Bush's war on Iraq. She visited Siberia and titled her article about the visit with the words of the leader of an organization for mothers of military veterans in Yakutsk, Siberia: "Our planet is so small that we must live in peace." Although the Russian economy has dramatically improved under Putin, Wright frequently heard that "pensioners and those in rural areas with limited income have found life more difficult. Many wish for the days of the Soviet Union where they feel they were more secure economically with state assistance."
Our trip ended in St. Petersburg, where delegation members described similar conversations in the smaller towns we visited. One member, who visited Russia twice before, 21 and 18 years ago, writes: "Overall, prosperity has improved, dramatically. The apparent quality of life and material standard of living are evident everywhere. Even in some of the rural areas I've visited. Of course, cities in Crimea have slipped a bit due to the sanctions, but I've seen the results even there because federal spending is so evident on the roads, bridges, a mosque, hospitals, dwellings for residences, public works, and other projects not yet allocated."
Another member of the delegation compiled this summary of his conversations about the Soviet period:
- A poor couple living in the countryside felt things were much better back then. "We had more money for food, for the things we need."
- A scientist: "Everyone had a job under Communism, my son has been looking for work for two years now and has not found one."
- A teacher: "My grandfather was arrested in the 30s and died in prison. But healthcare was free, education was free, housing was free."
- Another teacher: "The Soviet education system was maybe the best in the world, now it is collapsing. There is no money."
- A wealthy company owner: "Are things better today? You must ask for whom? For me, yes, things are much better, but for most people, no, I don't think so. No one talks about the lack of freedom or the lack of democracy under Communism. And most think that in the old days things were better economically for most people."
- One noted "We wanted socialism with a human face, but we got [long pause] very harsh capitalism."
St. Petersburg is the cultural capital of the country, where I attended an opera in an ornate theater for $12. The pedestrian bridge over the river Neva shines with repeating metal images of wheat and a 5-pointed star, everlasting symbols of the revolution. I was blessed to experience the women's bath house on Dostoevsky Street. Since ancient times, the banya has been considered an important bonding place in Russian culture, used by all social classes within Russian society. A woman there, with very limited English, asked my name. When I said "Riva," she asked if it's a "Yiddish name." I said yes, that my grandmother was from Minsk. She excitedly told the other women in the room where my "bubbie" was from. I felt warmed by the soul, and pride, of the Russian people.
Pride does not mean the exceptionalism of US foreign policy our way or the highway, sometimes in the guise of a "humanitarian intervention." The people of Russia, with such an ancient culture, have much to be proud of, but they are not trying to impose their will on anybody else. They just want to live in peace. As the woman in Siberia said, "Our planet is so small that we must live in peace."
A short film about the delegation was produced: Russia is not our Enemy
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