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Can we love our Cold War enemies? or Reflections on a trip to Russia

February 28, 2007

It was as if I had awoken from an unreal dream. The skies were gray and gloomy, there was a stiff, cold wind blowing and a steady mist was falling over the wet cobblestones. And here I was - standing in the middle of Red Square, in Moscow, about to enter Lenin’s Tomb! Never in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined that someday I would be standing here. For most of my adolescent and adult life the Russians had been our mortal enemies, the evil empire! They had the bomb and were going to use it to blow America off the face of the earth! But they never did, and the world has changed over time – and so has my view of Russia and its people.

Penny and I took a three-week trip to Russia last fall starting in Moscow, through the “Golden Ring” down the Volga River to Kazan, and ended our trip in St. Petersburg. It was a wonderful introduction to this huge land and its people. I was able to see first-hand some of the places and legends I’d only read about, although in three weeks we only scratched the surface.

Everything was exotic and different – the food, the architecture, the art, and the people. But it was also very familiar in an unsettling way. We share a common history with the Russians, a history of Cold War tensions that make us more similar than different in many ways. Confronting our mutual history and dealing with our Cold War enemies was an unsettling experience for me, and was a real-life lesson in the biblical admonition to understand and to love your enemies.

Watch out – the Russians are coming!

For most of my life the Russians (aka Soviets, Commies, Reds, Rooskies,) have been America’s boogeyman. First when I was in elementary school and later when I was a warrior in the Cold War, the Russians were the bad guys. My view of Russia over the years has been through these glasses.

On the 29th of August 1949, when I was 8 ½ years old, the Soviet Union got the bomb. At the time this meant nothing to me. However, starting in 1951 when I was in 6th grade at Hudson Center School, I learned to fear the Soviet nuclear threat. The Commies were going to come to our little town and bomb us.

We were taught how to “Duck and Cover” when the attack came – and it was sure to come, because the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) said that it was. When the attack came we had to “DUCK to avoid things flying through the air and COVER to keep from getting cut or even badly burned,” according to Bert the Turtle in the cartoon we were shown. And then we practiced getting under our desks and covering our heads until Mrs. Parker would sound the “all clear.” We all had to be prepared. My buddy Dick Glispin and I even made plans to build our own fall-out shelter in the pasture behind his barn with plans we got from Popular Mechanics, but never managed to get the hole dug very deep.

At the same time the Soviet Union developed a comprehensive civil defense regimen for its citizens, with compulsory public training, drills and alerts. They believed that the we would strike first and would attack their big cities and industrial centers. The painful memories of the “Great Patriotic War” (WW II) when the country lost 7 million soldiers and as many as 27 million civilians were very real. The Soviet Civil Defense program was the largest and most comprehensive war survival program of any country during the Cold War and involved 30 million Soviet citizens and 70% of the industrial work force. School children were taught to put on gas masks and how to evacuate to the safety of the deep subway stations in the cities.

When the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957 my school friend Dick and I dragged a long extension cord to the roof of his chicken house so we could tune into Sputnik’s 20Mhz-band signal with my shortwave receiver. We watched in open-mouthed awe as it passed overhead through the evening sky.

I spent nine years as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer doing my small part to protect America from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Those were the days that both countries built massive armies, navies and air forces and were prepared to engage in global war at a moments notice. Our military manuals called the Russians “The Threat” and the Soviets trained for an invasion from “The Imperialists.”

Through photos from the first spy satellites and U-2 overflights I was one of many who kept a close watch on the Soviet and Eastern Bloc country airfields, missile sites, naval bases and nuclear weapons facilities. We watched very carefully all the new weapons being developed and deployed because nuclear war was only the push of a button away!

I watched with awe the images of May Day parades of missiles and tanks through Red Square in Moscow every year and knew the leaders and bios of the Politburo and Armed Forces Marshals. Russian history, from the ancient Rus through the Soviet Union, was fascinating to me.

When sationed in Germany I was able to travel to the divided city of Berlin inside the eastern zone several times and once had a helicopter flight along the infamous Berlin Wall. It made a sobering impression on me and put the Cold War conflict in stark, black and white terms. I still remember seeing the families separated by the Wall waving to each other from opposite sides. That was as close as I could get to Russia in the Cold War years because of my Air Force security clearance travel restrictions.

My oldest son Allen was at the Berlin Wall when it came down in November 1989 and I treasure the chunk of the wall that he sent to me. It is a symbol that signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War. A few months later I was able to fly to Germany and cross into the former East Germany through the then abandoned border fences and watchtowers. I had a curious sense of triumph that our side had prevailed in the Cold War struggle, and empathy for those on the other side. It was then that I vowed to travel to Russia when an opportunity arose.

A Personal Journey

Our trip last fall was much more for me than just looking at dozens of onion-domed churches and statues of Lenin. It was a personal journey seeking to ground my own Cold War views of Russia in today’s reality. It was time to put some of my Russian boogeyman stories to bed.

We talked to a lot of Russians while we were there. If there were any restraints to talking to foreigners as there had been under the Soviet regime, we didn’t detect any. The Russians seemed interested in America and were very sophisticated on the world scene. They were free in their criticisms of their own government, which surprised me because of their long heritage of being restricted restrictions.

The average Russian has less in terms of consumer goods than we are used to, but they are much better off than only 20 years ago. Many changes have taken place since then. Russians are now free to buy and sell private property and there is a brisk business in used cars, apartments, and appliances. The younger generation wore the same clothes that could be seen in New York or Los Angeles. Traffic jams choked the streets of Moscow and Kazan. Stores were full of goods, from electronics to fresh vegetables, from shoes to furniture, and people were buying.

The Pianist’s Sister

Penny and I and a friend from Chicago, Amy Lewis, went to the Moscow Conservatory one evening to hear the Moscow Philharmonic play Dmitri Shostakovich and Andre Balantscivadze. We had seats in the third row, right in front of the conductor and the solo pianist Alexander Korzantiya. They were great seats, even better than those that the American Ambassador to Russia had, seated several rows behind us! The music was wonderful, the orchestra put on an outstanding performance, but the pianist was the star of the evening. His mastery of the keyboard was unbelievable, and the energy with which he attacked the keys made you tired just to look at him. When he finished his performance the audience went wild with a standing ovation. They clearly loved the performance.

Sitting next to us was a young lady holding a bouquet of flowers all through the performance. When Korzantiya finished playing she jumped up and ran up to the stage to give her flowers to him. He smiled and threw her a kiss as she did so.

At intermission I asked her if she knew the pianist.

“Why yes,” she replied, in quite good English. “He is my brother, and I come to see him whenever he comes to Moscow to play. I live here in the city, but he is from America and travels to Russia often.”

I asked her if she had ever been to America, and she said that she had been there several times. Travel under the Soviets, even within the country, was closely controlled and permission to travel abroad was very difficult to obtain. Today there are no restrictions on traveling for the average Russian either within the country or abroad.

She told me that there is a universal love for music throughout the world, and felt that her brother was helping to build bridges with his music. I certainly felt so too, and was honored to be able to experience the love that Russians have for their music. They are not that much different from Americans in that regard!

Dinner in Uglich

Uglich is a small town on the Volga River, downstream from Moscow. We docked there one day to tour the sites and in the evening went to dinner at the home of Alexandria Kononuroba and her daughter Marina. It was a small modest wooden home with a picket fence surrounding it set on a muddy dirt lane. The minivan dropped 10 of us from our ship at their doorstep and Alexandria welcomed us into her home through the kitchen. She showed us to her dining room where a long table was set with a feast for us. She served us cabbage and lamb soup, mashed potatoes, pickled herring, pastry, breads and pickles. Topping everything off was a brown bottle of homemade brandy that kept circulating around the table. We had many toasts with our hosts.

I was impressed by their warmth in opening their home to strangers, but even more that they were able to socialize freely with foreigners. It was only a scant 20 years ago, before Glasnost, when Russians were forbidden to have any contact with foreigners unless carefully chaperoned by the government. Foreigners traveling in the Soviet Union were restricted on where they could go, what they could see, and whom they could talk with. A good friend of ours was the American Naval Attaché in Moscow in the 1980s and has many tales to tell about the cat-and-mouse games that he had to play to travel and do his job. Now a group of Americans were dining with common Russians in their homes freely and without government oversight! The warmness of the people is not constrained and now can shine, “for the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

The Lady from Murmansk

Penny, Amy Lewis and I were fortunate to get tickets to Swan Lake one evening in St. Petersburg. It was performed at the Hermitage Theatre by the Hermitage Ballet Company and orchestra, and was wonderful. We had found a little café where we had a light dinner of blinis before walking through the falling snow to the theatre. It was magical to be in St. Petersburg for a few days to see the grand city of Peter the Great, and even more so to have snow.

We arrived at the theatre early and had our pick of seats. We sat a couple of rows back with a great view of the stage, right above the orchestra. As the theatre began filling up an older lady and her daughter took the seats next to me, and we exchanged pleasantries. She lives in Archangel, far to the north, and was visiting her son and daughter for the birthday of her twin grandchildren.

Helen Mashkarin had been a young girl in Murmansk during World War II, and told me about the Allied convoys that came there during some of the darkest days of the war, delivering everything from tanks and trucks to fuel, food, and ammunition. The Murmansk run was one of the most dangerous, and deadly, convoy routes during the war. The merchant ships that survived the trip were lucky, and each one was greeted with open arms by our grateful Russian allies. Helen still remembers vividly meeting some of the American and British sailors and how much her family and the entire town looked forward to the convoys.

Helen said that their government had told them many things about the evil Americans, and how she had been taught in school not to trust them. “The Soviet Union is accepting this aid because it will help us win the war against the Germans, but you must not forget that the Americans are also the enemies of Socialism.” She could not believe that the sailors who risked their lives to make the Murmansk run could be evil, and has never forgotten the kindness done by the Americans. “Love your enemies and do good to them; lend and expect nothing back. You will then have a great reward.”

The Russian Blueberry Farmer

Tatiana Galaktionova visited Maine during the summer of 2001 and toured our blueberry farm to learn about high-bush blueberry culture. Penny made blueberry muffins from some of our berries, and we all had muffins and coffee on one of the picnic tables under the big maple in the yard. Tatiana is a charming lady who had done her homework well and peppered me with questions about pruning, fertilizer, grafts, diseases, etc.

She now grows flowers on her 42-acre (17-hectare) farm there, and is convinced that the market is ripe to introduce cultivated blueberries to the Russians. She came to Maine because our two climates are very similar and the varieties that do well here should also do well in northern Russia. She took thousands of blueberry bushes back home with her. As she left she invited us to visit her if we were ever in St. Petersburg. We kept in touch with Tatiana via e-mail over the years. I sent a message to her with the dates when we would be in St. Petersburg and asked if her offer was still open.

There were about six inches of new snow on the ground when she picked us up at our hotel for the drive northeast to “Tatiana’s Farm”. Her farm is located in Proba, a small Russian town of about 3,200 people near Lake Ladoga northeast of St. Petersburg.

She fed us lunch, plied us with vodka, and gave us a tour of her farm. She has huge greenhouses and a laboratory where she does micro propagation of flowers and shrubs. Hers is one of the only private, commercial farms that does so in the entire country. She proudly showed us the several awards she has won for her pioneering work. We sampled some of her blueberries – they were wonderful!

I had no idea how big her project was going to be when we sat under our big maple tree eating Maine blueberry muffins and talking about growing blueberries. I am very impressed at the vigor and effort that Tatiana has applied to bringing Maine growing techniques and new nursery tissue culture practices to a new market in Russia. In the new Russia, entrepreneurs like Tatiana represent the best of their new economy. I am glad that we were able to contribute in some small way. When we give a helping hand, no matter how small, it usually comes back to bless us in one way or another.

Arty from Armenia

Our program director was Arty Hatlamadzhiyan, an enthusiastic Armenian who had an abundant supply of patience as he herded the Red Group around Russia for three weeks. He spoke fluent English and we had many conversations about the “new” Russian Republic and the changes that have taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union.

We saw with our own eyes that churches were no longer museums of the state but had active and vibrant congregations. Arty pointed out that Lubianka is no longer a dreaded KGB prison, and the imperial double eagle was again displayed on buildings. He also showed us that the red Soviet stars were still prominent atop Moscow Kremlin buildings and the hammer and sickle still adorned public buildings wherever we traveled.

He spoke with pride about the long history of his country, including the period under the Soviets, but he was also free with his criticisms of what he saw were shortfalls in Russia’s present rulers. Arty typified the strength of the new Russia, combining the long and colorful history of this huge country with the hopes and challenges of today. Of anyone we met on our trip, Arty gives hope that our two countries, so long on the verge of war and mutual destruction, can move beyond the Cold War and live peacefully together.

I hope that we can, and the warmth and openness that I saw in the Russian people has gone a long way in dispelling the image of the Russian boogeyman that I’ve carried around with me for too many years. “Forgive others and God will forgive you. Give to others, and God will give to you… The measure that you use for others is the one that God will use for you.”

These are scriptural admonishments that I will remember in thinking of Russia, and will also carry with me when I confront another personal boogeyman on my trip to Vietnam in April.

Last updated November 21, 2008

Copyright © 2008, Allen Crabtree