Fifty American citizens investigated more than 20 Russian cities and peoples between September 1-17 thus giving all of us "eyes and ears" into the life and the thinking of Russian people from Moscow to Yakutia in the Far East and from St. Petersburg south to Krasnodar and Simferopol, Yalta and Sebastopol in Crimea. Other cities visited were Perm, Kungur, Novosibirsk, Barnaul, Irkutsk, Orenburg, Ufa, Torzhok, Sergiev Posad, Kaliningrad, Petrozavodsk, Tver, Kazan & Nizhny Novgorod. We sent our U.S. delegates in ones, twos and threes out to these 21 cities with a list of 24 questions to be delved into while in these far-from Moscow cities and towns.
What did they find?Among other important things, they found that Russia is not our Enemy.
Each city they traveled to, from the largest (Novosibirsk) to the smallest (Torzhok, a thousand-year micro-town being revived by a female entrepreneur!), they found Russians who were delighted we had come to their regions. Most of the Russian "Regional Coordinators" were local entrepreneurs, teachers, professors, lawyers, Rotarians, business men and women ... all professionals, none connected with government apparatus. Some of the Coordinators had traveled to America on CCI's training programs in the '90s and 2000s or were Rotarians whose clubs had been started by CCI entrepreneurs.
POLITICS: Russian citizens with whom we spoke, ran the spectrum from highly approving of the current government and leadership, to others greatly hoping for different leadership when the Putin years end in 2024. All are grateful that Russia is on the incline, that they can travel abroad, can create their own destinies and are greatly relieved that they survived the terrible 1990s. What is important to them? Their families, higher education, that Russia is bringing back its culture based on 1000 years of Russian traditions. Gone are the days of wanting to be Americans or Europeans. They want the respect and friendship of Americans and the Europeans but not at the price of selling out Russia's sovereignty to the west.
PROUD: Russians struck us as being very proud of being Russians today. Even in the small town of Torzhok, they are very proud of their history. They accept the Soviet period as a tragic period, yet they find quite a few aspects of Soviet mentality still valuable for Russian society today; for instance basic health care for all, the care of all children as a top priority, and that the elderly deserve to be taken care of. They believe that their educational system is still superior to most countries and intend to keep it high level. They still speak more languages than many other countries including the U.S. Language is very important to them; their metros, city buses and train stops are announced in Russian and in English (the global language for commerce).
CLEAN CITIES: Wherever our delegates traveled across Russia they found amazingly clean cities. As one of our 24 questions is about care of cities we looked to see if there was trash ... there was almost none to be found. Trash receptacles are used by all it seems; persons in uniforms empty them throughout the day. Some of our travelers in far-out places reported seeing a street pothole here and there, but most of us found newly paved streets with carefully marked white lanes. New city buses were prevalent in the cities we visited. A lot of the old five-story Khrushchev housing is still standing, but new high-rise apartment buildings are being built nearby. Many classic Russian buildings from 100 years ago have been refaced, their new business buildings look very much like ours in Silicon Valley.
HOMELESSNESS? There appears to be very little homelessness across Russia. A few of our travelers saw a person or two they think may have been homeless. Actually Russia's situation is quite different from ours. They have guarded their borders for a hundred years or more and require every citizen to carry a small internal passport telling where they live. If outsiders come to work in Russia they must have a residence and tell the length of time they will stay. After that they must leave. Having an address where one lives or a hotel is very important in Russia. If anyone is picked up without a passport or permission to be in the country, they are delivered to the borders and sent away.
APPEARANCE? Russia is well dressed today, better groomed than most countries including our own. Perhaps this is because Russians went through such a degrading period during the 1990s ... a decade when they didn't have money for bread or rice, let alone clothing. My guess is this is partially why they dress so carefully today. School and university students dress very well. Occasionally jeans are seen but black slender pants are the norm along with short groomed hair cuts for males and long blond or brown tresses with short skirts or slacks for females.
ATTITUDES TOWARD AMERICANS: We experienced friendliness regardless of where we went--train stations in unknown towns, airports, stores of all sorts, taxis, Ubers, asking directions on the streets or in metros. Those we spoke with, we left giving them our "yellow cards" that explain why we are in their country we didn't give them in advance, thinking it might color their initial response to us.
A TINY HAPPENING: We were in Tver for one day because we had to catch a night train from there to St. Petersburg. Torzhok is off the grid but an hour's taxi ride from Tver. Tver, like most medium-sized Russian cities we moved through, showed a lot of new renovation, manicured parks and numerous 19th-century buildings being restored. Tver is very different than when I visited 15 years ago. A speaking engagement had been arranged. We were told it was an "intellectual" club and that it might be a little stiff. Young and middle-aged people began to quietly come through the doors at the appointed time. They didn't seem to know each other. They were spread out across a large room. To make it easier to interact with them all, I tried to get them closer together ... to no avail. Start time came. I was told to introduce myself, Volodya and Regis, which I did, and to tell why our CCI travelers had come to Russia. I explained that we are Citizen Diplomats and why then gave a very brief history of CCI. Then I asked for their questions. With each next person the questions became more personal.
The mood in the room began to change. We were asking each other questions and giving answers in humble yet meaningful ways. When we broke for tea, the room really came alive. Women and men were coming up to us, giving us hugs with heartful expressions of goodwill and gratitude. One woman came up with two small apples which she offered me ... I guess the only thing she had to give as an expression of goodwill. Earlier I had barely mentioned our role in bringing AA to Russia. Afterward, one teary-eyed woman came up and said, "I am Al-Anon and I want to be in touch with an American woman who is a member of Al-Anon, can you help me?" She was grateful to know that she will be contacted. Others asked if we could keep in touch. We three left there with a stack of names, email addresses and footage of those who want to have contact with CCI and Americans. We even briefly discussed a Citizen Diplomacy conference in early 2020. This group came alive through listening to each others questions and answers! We scurried off to the train station to catch one of Russia's new bullet trains and arrived in St. Petersburg at 1 am.
This was a tiny moment in the thousands of happenings our delegates have experienced over the past 17 days. Yet it points to the type of reception we received day after day. We will provide numerous reports and photos from other travelers over the coming days.
Yesterday was CCI's 36th Anniversary; our first arrival in Moscow was on September 16th, 1983. We rented a private art gallery and celebrated the Anniversary with a number of our St. Petersburg alumni. It was fabulous! So many sharings of warm experiences, so much gratitude, so many friendships that have illumined their lives and ours. The Russian alums took in our new CCI travelers like long lost friends or relatives.
More to follow with photos and videos!