I traveled to Russia in September 2018 as part of a group of about 25 self-appointed U.S. citizen diplomats. Our ages ranged from teens to eighties, and we came from all four corners of the country and places in between. Our professional backgrounds included engineering, law, medicine, healthcare administration, real estate development, journalism, education, public administration, and more. Even a couple of high school students. Organized by Sharon Tennison and her Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI), our mission was four-fold.
First, we wanted to experience with our own eyes, ears, and hearts, the Russia of today – its people, its culture, its daily life – bypassing the media messaging and political posturing and storytelling of both sides. Second, we wanted to bring those experiences and insights home to share with our families, friends, and fellow Americans. Third, we wanted to help everyday Russians bypass those same filters and get to know something of everyday America and Americans. Finally, and ultimately, we in this way wanted to do whatever we could to stem and even abate the rising tide of misunderstandings, misperceptions, animosity, and bellicosity that threaten to inundate us all, once again, in military or even, heaven forbid, nuclear conflict. Thus, while our mission was itself not overtly political, we hope it will have some political ripples for peace and partnership between our nations.
In the full Reflections report, I first describe some impressions of and experiences at the places we visited – Moscow, Saratov, and St. Petersburg. Then come some of my insights and learnings about Russia, Russians, and their life and culture from the people we met in those places. Finally, although my fervent and primary intention on this trip was to focus on meeting, connecting with, and learning from the people of Russia, it was impossible to totally avoid politics.
A caveat: I do not pretend these observations and reflections to be by any means the findings of definitive research and study or survey sampling. They represent merely my own takeaways based on one person’s experience of two weeks in Russia and listening to the Russians I happened to encounter.
In conclusion, what I experienced in Russia far exceeded any expectations I might have had. I was left with a feeling of gratitude, admiration, and respect for the Russia and Russians that I met, the history and cultural heritage they so deeply love, and their creativity and resilience in the face of adversity. I came away with the conviction that there is indeed hope for the lessening of conflict between our nations and the fostering of mutual understanding, respect, and trust between our peoples. And it’s a hope that in large part lies in the hands of young people in Russia, the U.S., and the world at large.