When I traveled to Russia as a 16-year-old in 1990 I thought I’d arrive to the cold, Siberian wilderness I’d always seen on TV. During our three weeks there, the delegation of student ambassadors I was with traveled by bus to dozens of towns spanning Moscow to St. Petersburg. Among many activities in a packed schedule, I remember singing patriotic songs, whispering in ancient churches and swimming in the Volga River.
What I most took with me, what I still remember 30-plus years later, are my warm memories of the Russian people. Many strangers collectively took care of the 30 kids I was with as if we were their own children — feeding and housing us, offering us the best they had. I was in Russia only eight months after the Berlin Wall came down and 17 months before the full collapse of the Soviet Union, yet nothing even closely resembled the words “cold” or “war” during my stay. Even my expectations of the weather were wrong. We enjoyed blue skies and California-like temperatures (but to be fair I was there in July).
The only gloom I felt was when I learned how the people lived under communist rule. When we visited a grocery store I tried not to gawk at the mostly empty shelves. One of my two host families, which included a boy my age named Meisha and his single mother, explained that they were allotted rations to purchase everyday items like sugar and toilet paper — things I had never thought about as luxuries until then. They also didn’t have the freedom of speech to speak out against their leaders or to critique public policy — liberties I had also taken for granted until then.
Meisha and his mother grew serious when they tried to explain what happened to the man prominently displayed in the only framed photo on a shelf. It was Meisha’s father and he was no longer with them. Little did they, or I, know they would soon have a thriving economy once capitalism and democracy announced their arrival by knocking on communism’s door. A few years later as a college student I took notice when I heard there were Gucci and Prada stores in Moscow by then and we could also travel to each other’s countries freely.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but as an adult I’ve noticed how student exchange countries trend with countries with which we need to build diplomacy. Many Americans had Japanese exchange students in the 1980s. Russian and other post-Soviet countries sent their teens and young adults in the 1990s. In late 2017 our family hosted an eighth-grade Chinese student named Johnny. I was reminded that maternal feelings are universal when I emailed with Johnny’s mother, letting her know he was safe just as I would have wanted if one of my children visited China without me. When the pandemic hit and Chinese Americans were targeted in vicious attacks by people looking to target their frustration at an entire group of people, I always thought of Johnny and his mother.
With one ruler for more than two decades, Russia has slid back to be more like it was pre-1991. Free speech and democracy were short-lived; Russian news and social media are censored all while the people are increasingly at the mercy of a tyrant, Vladimir Putin, with every year he dictates making it worse for them. In its aftermath, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will bring myriad challenges that will likely affect generations. It would be compounded injustice to lump Russian people into one category because of what Putin has done. Our Russian and Ukrainian neighbors here at home and abroad both need our support.
Let us reflect on the Dalai Lama’s recent words on the invasion instead: “We need to develop a sense of the oneness of humanity by considering other human beings as brothers and sisters. This is how we will build a more peaceful world … Problems and disagreements are best resolved through dialogue. Genuine peace comes about through mutual understanding and respect for each other’s wellbeing …”
Julie Samrick is a mother, writer and teacher, living in northern California. Connect with her at facebook.com/juliesamrickauthor.