22 January 2015

A Quaker concern for Ukraine

Source.  
Back in May, I reported on this peace initiative, which has developed as follows. (The links within the report below were added by me for today's blog post, which was edited by John Lampen on behalf of the initiative's support group, using reports supplied by Misha Roshchin and Roland Rand.)

A Quaker concern for Ukraine

In early May Mikhail Roshchin of Moscow Meeting and Roland Rand of Talinn Friends Worship Group in Estonia brought a concern to the Europe and Middle East Section (EMES) of Friends World Committee for Consultation. They wished to travel to Ukraine to find out what ordinary people were experiencing in the midst of violent conflict and ask if there was anything Quakers could do in a modest way to foster local peace initiatives. Friends gathered in Strasbourg for the EMES Annual Meeting recognised and upheld this concern, and asked EMES to facilitate it by banking any money collected for it.

An article appeared in the Friend (May 16) after which Friends, many Meetings and two Trusts, together with sources in other European countries, gave enough to cover the costs of our two Friends’ visits; there might be surplus for small-scale one-off support if some promising Ukrainian peace work was identified.

In the mean time the violence was getting worse, which made it unsafe to go during the summer, which was the original plan. Eventually Roland visited Kiev and the Odessa Region in September. In conversations with members of different ethnic groups, young people and a religious leader, he found a universal wish for the fighting to end, though some did not want this if the price was the break-up of the country. He attended a meeting of the local Alternative to Violence Group, and commented, “At the AVP seminars it was the clear wish for Ukrainians to live in a tolerant environment despite the differences among them. I sensed that many had reached that viewpoint at the end of the seminar. The regret over historical neighbours not managing to live in harmony was shared by many who held nationalistic viewpoints. Compromise was considered essential for a peaceful solution to a conflict.” He recommended AVP training in Ukraine as a possible recipient of Quaker support.

His first meeting in Odessa was with the AVP Group there, where again the national situation was discussed. “Concerning the question what can be done right now for the resolution of the conflict, it was found that activity should take place on several levels: person-to-person, system-to-system. One person cannot resolve conflict between systems, but s/he can help on the person-to-person level. Some participants thought that it is important to start with the closest one, for example with oneself.”

Roland Rand with children in Odessa
Next day he met the philanthropic organization “The Way Home”, and heard about the temporary living arrangements for families from the eastern Ukraine regions. He visited a Kindergarten for low income large families and gave the children toys and candy. There is a possibility of organizing summer camps in Ukraine and Estonia, because the opportunity for children to learn about other cultures early would be helpful in building tolerance. This is another programme for which he advocated Quaker support.

He also met other community activists, among them Inna Tereshchenko, director of the Odessa Regional Mediation Group. Currently Inna is the representative for the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC). (A number of Friends have worked with her in the past and have a high regard for her.) Roland wants to stay in touch with her and give her whatever support he can. He found that cultural days and festivals are being held to promote peace and stability. Good examples are the free-of-charge concert given in Odessa that he attended, and the women's movement's demonstration at Maidan Square in Kiev against the war.

Mikhail (known as Misha) managed to reach Lugansk near the border with Russia in October. This District has declared itself the “Lugansk Republic” which makes Ukraine a “foreign country”. He found both his journey and the city very calm and quiet since the armistice which was agreed in Minsk in September – but is not universally honoured. He says, “The armistice is observed well here. I have met a few responsible people such as the President of People's Council of the Lugansk Republic, Alexei Kariakin, who took part  in the Minsk peace  negotiations. I have met also with a vice-prime-minister Vassili Nikitin. Especially interesting and helpful for me was a meeting with a troupe from the Ukrainian-speaking theatre in the city. In the People's Council I heard of a project of a peacemaking dialogue between Lugansk and Ukraine. I feel that this proposal is very positive.”

He also reports “a peacemaking initiative of a social-political leader of Alchevsk (a city in Lugansk province) called Alexey Mozgovoy who started a real peacemaking direct dialogue, by means of web, tv and skype connections, with with peacemaking activists (journalists, political people and even a few military people) from Kiev.”

War-damaged church in Lugansk
In general Misha felt that “there is a lack of presence of peacemaking, human-rights and humanitarian international organizations operating in Lugansk and Lugansk province. I saw myself in the city only representatives of International Red Cross. I feel that more long-term peace-making Quaker work in Lugansk and Eastern Ukraine is not only possible, but needed. I can continue to collaborate with friends there who are searching a long-term established peace on the base of their program of dialogue between both parts of Ukraine.” It was part of Misha’s original plan to make a visit to Donetsk where much fighting has taken place. He still has funds in hand for this if it proves safe to go. Meanwhile, he plans to keep up the contacts he has made in Lugansk. He is also in touch with the peace-making movement "Anti-War" (Antivoina). This movement is based in Kiev and organizing discussions using tv and web links across the country.

The AVP project leader in Kiev said later: “I'd like to say that Roland's mission was a success. Thanks to him, we started raising important issues and a desire to promote peacemaking. In my opinion, we had a real peaceful dialogue, and I'm sure it has helped many of us to take another step to understanding its meaning.” There are fuller reports from both Friends on their experiences, and copies are available from lampen (at) hopeproject.co.uk.

Friends gathered in Strasbourg for the EMES Annual Meeting recognised and upheld this concern, and asked EMES to facilitate it by banking any money collected for it. A support group was set up for them. It hoped that ongoing support for peace activists there would follow in some form, not necessarily involving new structures, which it felt it could not undertake to manage. This seems to be happening.

The first article in the Friend and other information about this initiative raised an astonishing £10,490 from Friends, Meetings and Trusts to make it happen. The original plan was for each journey to be made by two Friends, but this proved impossible, so our Friends’ costs were less than expected, around £6,600. This left a good surplus to devote to the local peace-building initiatives which they recommended to us: the AVP training, the proposed summer camp for displaced children, and the work of our friends in the Odessa Regional Mediation Group. There is also a modest grant for the continuing dialogue between Misha and his new contacts. Misha and Roland want to thank those who supported their concern and bring back to you the gratitude of people in Ukraine who are trying to be positive in the midst of fear, anger, loss and uncertainty.



Picturing a national economy as a "household": John Sentamu, Anglican archbishop of York, introduces his just-released book On Rock or Sand, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Melanie McDonagh says that "the book is a vivid reminder of the forgotten but obvious truth that most progressive British politics, from Wilberforce to Joseph Rowntree, have had a squarely Christian origin."

The top ten reasons Gregg Koskela is a Quaker.

Welcome to a new virtual meetinghouse. And C. Wess Daniels is building a participatory pedagogy.

Carl Abbott: Is Portland the big bully of Oregon?

It's not the same: American digital diplomacy in Russia after Michael McFaul.

What Terrell Jermaine Starr learned about race relations in Ukraine.



Once again, under Samantha Fish's spell...

15 January 2015

"Is this a women's conference?"

Confession time: When I get a Christian anthology or conference announcement, I cannot help but scan quickly through the participants to see whether there's any kind of balance between men and women among the contributors. Maybe you do this, too! I don't claim that this is a reasonable or sophisticated measure of anything, but this has been my secret practice for probably most of my adult life.

If gender balance is no perfect predictor of quality, why do I worry about it? I don't seek to be a hero on behalf of women. This concern is selfish: I love God and the church, but I don't love the religion industry. I don't love the many ways that the love of power and money has distorted Christian witness and suppressed spiritual gifts. As an adult convert who grew up in an atheist family, I keep hoping for evidence that this or that manifestation of church life is more than just the very tradecraft that Friends rose up to confront, and that helped keep me away from the church's door for too many years.

Honestly, it's not that there aren't women who have become spokespeople for old-time oppressive religiosity--there certainly are. But conferences and books with a variety of voices are just more likely to have something fresh and expansive to say.

Source
All this came to mind a couple of days ago when I read about a conference this coming September being led by Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber with a 100% female group of headliners. This news story about the conference quoted Evans on the observation that the speakers' lineup "generates the question, 'Is this a women's conference?' Would an all-male lineup?" Can we already foresee the day when that question wouldn't be asked? Or, if we can't ... why not?



Judy and I lived in Richmond, Indiana, twice--1982-90, and 1993-2000. During the first period, when I worked at Quaker Hill Bookstore, attended Earlham School of Religion and then began working for Friends World Committee, we were often invited to the weekly Yokefellow lunches at First Friends Meeting. Yokefellow founder Elton Trueblood had a vision of men (yes, in those years just men) coming together weekly in a fellowship based on the common ministry of daily work. Women cooked, served, and were welcome to listen to the speaker from the kitchen door. One of Earlham School of Religion's administrators won my admiration by turning every invitation down flatly: he wasn't going where his wife wasn't welcome on an equal basis.

When I told Judy that I was planning to write about this experience, she added two things to the story: First, the women who served the lunch made a lot of money, which they themselves spent as they saw fit. Second, she reminded me of an incident I'd completely forgotten. One day there was a shortage of workers for the Yokefellow luncheon, and pastoral counselor Mike Brown asked her to pitch in for the day. She agreed, realizing that she was about 1/3 the age of the other servers (except Mike himself, who also often served) and intending to keep the whole thing a secret from me. Meanwhile, that very day, I was talked into attending by someone I couldn't refuse--namely that day's speaker, Elton Trueblood himself, if my memory serves me. I also intended to keep my attendance a secret from Judy. When we saw each other, we had a fabulous moment of sheepish delight.

So much for my heroic consistency.



~ Can Ukraine's divided church help heal the divided country? ~ Top Moscow newspaper asks whether the USA was behind the Charlie Hebdo massacre. ~ David Oyelowo on the film Selma as a spiritual endeavor. ~ My top two favorite favorites lists: Nancy Thomas. John Wilson. ~ From cosmology to race relations: Marilynne Robinson on Edgar Allen Poe.



Family memories from Richmond, Indiana, in the 1980's included a videotape of Horowitz in Moscow, which Luke demanded we play nightly. This clip is as moving for its audience portraits as it is for the music. Now we know this concert hall more personally....

More traditional forms of blues return next week!

08 January 2015

"Don't look for enemies! Look for friends!"

"Don't look for enemies! Look for friends!" Peace demonstration in Moscow, September 21, 2014. Source.

"The enemy of my enemy" is a policy that guarantees
incoherence and confusion. (Source.)
This may be important advice for all of us at a time when every major controversy seems to demand villains. And it was a wonderful, very welcome reminder to see this slogan on the streets of Moscow, where the photo above was taken, when peace advocates were being attacked as traitors. But in a world where "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," where false communities based on authoritarianism and identity politics are common, it's worth thinking about what "looking for friends" really means.

A few weeks ago, our pastor at Eugene Friends Church, Clyde Parker, said in his sermon that (slightly paraphrased) if you don't know my shadow places, you don't know me.  The places where I have struggled, failed ... these are what I'd prefer you didn't know about, but if I keep them hidden from you, I'm undermining our friendship. When I open up to you about what's concealed in my unlit places, I'm basing our friendship on truth, not on shared enemies or even on shared ideals and visions, as important as those ideals might be.

I think this is true not just for people, but as the sign in Moscow implies, it's also true for communities and nations. But it's hard for empires to look for friends, instead of gaining allies by bullying or buying them. You'd think, for example, that the USA would be a bit restrained in criticizing Palestine for joining the International Criminal Court--in other words, for being even more willing to acknowledge the rule of law than the USA is. (The USA has announced that it will not join.) But it's normal behavior for Americans to criticize the failure of the rule of law elsewhere while rejecting the scrutiny of others.

Russia, too, resists looking at reality. Russian officials complain about NATO expansion while demonstrating no understanding of its neighbors' horrible memories of Russia's own historical expansionism, particularly during the Soviet era. One of our friends, a Russian, traveled in the Baltic countries, visiting local Quaker meetings, during the height of the tension around Crimea. She reported that local citizens' fears of an imminent attack from Russia were very real, even though, objectively, an actual attack was highly improbable.

If large nations found ways to be honest and even contrite about their own sins, they might be pleasantly surprised at how ready others are to become friends. Isn't it worth a try? "NO!" -- I can imagine national leaders saying. "My own political base depends on looking strong." And so, for lack of genuine friendship, the whole enemy-driven imperial apparatus keeps shambling, snarling, bullying along.

Let's get in its way. Let's be persistent in repeating and implementing that Moscow demonstrator's call to seek friends, not enemies. May it gain resonance in this new year.



Righteous links:  ~ Remembering Gleb Yakunin, the priest who fought the establishments (plural). More on Father Gleb. ~ New politics of torture. ~ Israel rejected the ticking bomb defense of torture. ~ The tragedy of the American military, and where Fallows' article falls short. ~ Why Jesus wouldn't attend anti-Muslim demonstrations. ~ Stalker as a video game.



Music to count musicians by. (How many are there in this video?) Enjoy!


01 January 2015

What was I thinking?!

Highlights from the past twelve months, not based on any metrics...

January: Love--a heavy cross?

"Love ... is a heavy cross." Source.

... "Love is a heavy cross" only when I require reciprocity, only when I forget the words in the so-called prayer of St. Francis,
... Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
So it is up to me to work on not trapping people in convenient classifications, the more so because I know what it feels like--both when it happens to me, and when I have done it myself.

The Pussy Riot controversy here in Russia has been a festival of ruthless categorization: if you support these women, you hate Russia, you hate the church, you are in favor of blasphemy and vulgarity, of the corrupting influence of the West. If you criticize them, you are on the side of obscurantism, phyletism, totalitarianism.

(Also from January: "And the inquisitors sent for us.")



February: "The zombies are coming out"


Before we left the meeting, one of our younger people, always in touch with the world through his phone, told us that power in Kiev was apparently shifting even as we were sitting there, and that nobody knew where the elected president was. This was only one day after an agreement between regime and opposition had been brokered by international figures and signed by representatives of Poland, France, Germany, as well as the president and three opposition leaders.

All the calculations of politicians and pundits alike were confounded by the persistence of the Euromaidan protesters. These people could be sliced and diced by analysts into a spectrum of interests and identifications, but they were united by discontent. What was the exact nature of this discontent? Aside from a minority of paid provocateurs, pathological Russia-haters, habitual brawlers, and other extremists, there seemed to be two broad groups--young people who wanted a better future, and (speaking generally) their parents and grandparents who could not abide seeing these children humiliated and shot at.



March: Perspective

Here in Elektrostal, we've often been asked by our friends, colleagues, students--"What do you think of the situation in Ukraine?" As I said last week, our priority is not to give our opinions but to listen to theirs. After the Crimean referendum and U.S. president Obama's announcement of sanctions, some of the questions became a little more pointed. One of the cleaning staff at the Institute asked me this evening, "Is it really necessary to be so insulting to us? You know yourself that we're decent, normal people."

Just before the referendum, U.S. senator McCain said, "Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country." Of course the stupidity of such a comment rather neutralizes its offensiveness, but we have to live in the backwash. To restore a bit of perspective and provide some evidence that not all Americans interpret things quite as he does, we brought this Wonkette post to our evening class. This kind of sharp sarcasm isn't my preferred style of political commentary--it has a violence of its own--but I was actually rather relieved to show our friends that the biting humor of Russian political discourse on the Internet does have its American equivalents. Too often we Americans are portrayed here as pleasant idiots, and right now, not all that pleasant.



April: "Every knee shall bow..."


Source.
By the Philippians 2 standard (every resident of the country has confessed that Jesus is Lord), the UK doesn't get the label Christian, despite Christianity's huge embedded advantages: the nation's monarch is officially designated "Defender of the Faith"; old cathedrals display rows of regimental standards demonstrating the tight historical bond between faith and patriotism; the national culture is saturated with Christian references; and not least, a statistical majority of people are still willing to claim that label. Surely the UK belongs on the list of nations historically formed by Christian civilization (as even some non-Christians readily acknowledge, including to the BBC). But it's hard to argue that the trend lines are heading toward 100% Christian knees and tongues.



May: Worship and offense


In the town of Greece, New York, local ministers routinely give an opening invocation before town board meetings. These invocations have usually, but not always, been explicitly Christian. Two local citizens filed a lawsuit, not to prohibit prayers, but to require that they be "inclusive and ecumenical." Susan Galloway, one of the original plaintiffs, found the prayers offered at these town meetings "offensive," "intolerable," and an affront to a "diverse community." The case eventually reached the Supreme Court (from whose opinion I drew these quotations), which has just decided (5/4) in favor of the town's practices.

After surveying a lot of overheated articles on both sides of this controversy, I was happy to see Michael Miner's refreshingly calm take on the story. As it happens, I don't agree with him, but I do acknowledge his essential fairness, and admire his honesty in stating that he originally planned to go one way with his article but found one of the dissenting justices more persuasive in the other direction.



June: Deborah Haight and The Christ of the Indian Road


A couple of years before I arrived in Canada, Deborah had begun her retirement from government service by making an interesting decision. As she told me later, she was wondering whether she needed to buy a car. At the time, she lived on Queen Elizabeth Parkway in Ottawa, not far from our Quaker meetinghouse and conveniently located for public transportation, and she decided that, rather than buying a car, she would take that money and spend it on a round-the-world trip, visiting Friends at every point along the way. She also spent a term (or perhaps a "Theological Reflection Year") at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.

Some of my fondest memories of Deborah involved talking with her about books. Three of the books we enjoyed discussing were Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy, Agnes Sanford's The Healing Light, and the book I just revisited, The Christ of the Indian Road.

At the time I was a new Christian and was concerned to understand how Christian faith and experience could be distinguished from the secular, imperial uses for which it had been exploited for centuries. To my delight, Jones was asking this same question eloquently fifty years (now nearly 90 years!!) earlier.



July: Enthusiasm


... Once again I'm on a committee considering what Friends material to publish for a wider audience. And once again, rightly or wrongly, I worry about a tendency to prefer material aimed at hypersensitive refugees rather than people actually ready to make an enthusiastic Christian commitment.

It's not that we should do anything to close the door to people who have been wounded by religious authoritarianism or who have been conditioned by secular society's reactionary skepticism to discount any spiritual truth claim. Our insistence on evangelism with integrity--based on honest testimony rather than pious happy talk--gives us an opening to these audiences.

But these are not the only audiences we ought to seek. This very same commitment to integrity also gives us a responsibility to make our case to those who are ready to embrace with enthusiasm a Christian path that rejects manipulation, theatricality, hierarchy, and bombast in favor of the immediate leadership of the Holy Spirit.

(Also from July: Some cautious thoughts on enthusiasm.)



August: Sanctions


Source.  
The USA's government is trying to weaken an already weak Russian economy. Apparently, that's what passes for statesmanship these days. President Obama said, according to the Associated Press,
Sanctions are working as intended in putting enormous pressure and strain on the Russian economy....

That's not my estimation. If you look at the markets and you look at estimates in terms of capital flight, if you look at projections for Russian growth, what you're seeing is that the economy has ground to a halt.

It has presented the choice to President Putin as to whether he is going to try to resolve the issues in eastern Ukraine through diplomacy and peaceful means ... or alternatively continue on the course he's on, in which case he's going to be hurting his economy, and hurting his own people over the long term.
We have supposedly "presented a choice." Does anyone really believe that the president of Russia, or any president of any country, would respond along the lines of the fantasy implied in Obama's words? "Oh my goodness, thanks to these sanctions I've seen the light! We have no choice but to bow before the USA's superior wisdom and shining idealism, and confirm our utter dependence on the good graces of the West by reversing any actions they find objectionable."



September: New martyrs


How does martyrdom relate specifically to Friends discipleship? R. W. Tucker, in his "Revolutionary Faithfulness," distinguishes "cult pacifism" from the cross-shaped testimony of early Friends:
Cultishness is the first and most conspicuous face of Quaker pacifism today. A prospective new Friend is likely to meet Quaker pacifism first in the shape of the dear old lady who rises in Meeting for Worship to speak to the children about why they ought to be pacifists. She tells homely little stories about pacifists who won through to victory in some worldly dilemma. Such cult pacifism is pretty easy to debunk. It is false doctrine in obvious ways. It discounts the Cross, and the whole bloody history of martyrdom.
In contrast, Tucker urges persistent and costly faithfulness, and by persistence he includes faithfulness in the face of clear evidence that many people are not nice, and will not become nice just because we are (at least in our own eyes). We remain peaceable, in other words, when we might have to pay for it with our lives. No wonder the late T. Canby Jones told us that a crucial step in understanding the peace testimony is coming to grips with our own mortality.



October: Resisting the mystique of evil

Signe Wilkinson; source
I'm not sure what is more disheartening--the beheadings videotaped and published by Islamic State, or the utterly predictable responses from world leaders. Yes, there is palpable evil in the premeditated cruelty of those shocking videos, but here's my question: is the effect magnified by the demonstrative shaking of fists by public figures? What might be a more adequate response from believers?



November: Kind cats


It's rare that a single word in one language is a perfect translation for a single word in another language. Words carry clusters of nuances that often are either wider or narrower than the most obvious equivalent in the other language. The Russian language provides lots of examples, as I've noted before.

Today's example is the word "kind," one of the translations of the Russian word "dobry" (and several other Russian words, for that matter). When those of us who speak English as more or less a first language use the adjective "kind," we're usually referring to people, referring to their warm, generous, tender spirits. We also use the word to describe acts associated with those sorts of people: "That was a kind thing to do."

The Russian use of this English word often goes wider. When our student described our cats as "kind," based on the photo, I think she was referring to qualities for which we might use the words "sweet" and "cute" and "appealing."



December: "Shocking honesty"


At this moment, I doubt any good would come from repeating my own outrage at having my tax dollars fund torture. I've written on this topic several times, including this summary of my responses to the usual excuses for using torture. (Scroll down to "Sunday No. 2.") If we don't already agree, it probably wouldn't be persuasive now.

I have a different question, and am hoping for a specifically Christian answer. My question is: what is so mesmerizingly attractive about violence and cruelty that we keep using violent and cruel methods repeatedly after they utterly fail to produce the desired results? What is gratified by those methods, and what can we do in the name of Christ to confront that gratification?



My favorite blues clip of the year. Kim Wilson with Kid Andersen and Bob Welsh (guitars), June Core (drums), Randy Bermudes (bass). Wish the lighting were better, but what a groove....

25 December 2014

Christmas short

Christmas blessings to everyone who happens to see this page, with help from the Oslo Gospel Choir. (Thanks to Anya Osievskaya.) My prayer for 2015 is that everyone who celebrates the birth of Jesus will experience a new birth of hope, courage, energy, so we can continue to grow in boldness and creativity as the Body of Christ in our world. If Jesus is "the yes to all of God's promises" (2 Corinthians 1:20, context), then we are God's provision to keep those promises. Let's do it!

19 December 2014

Russia in crisis

. . . a look back at September 1998

According to a joke circulating in Russia [in the "default" year 1998], two bankers are conversing:

“How did you sleep last night?”
“Like a baby…”
“How could that be??!!”
“Every hour I woke up and cried!”
(Interfaks-AiF, September 18, 1998)


December 2014: We have been following this week's financial developments in Russia attentively. The implications for ourselves and our friends and colleagues in Russia make this story very personal. For this blog post, I dug out the report I wrote on my visit to Elektrostal, Moscow, and Volgograd in September 1998, the month following the famous "default." Here are some excerpts, edited for the sake of privacy for some people and groups mentioned in the original report.



Translator Mira Perper in her study.
Elektrostal, September 1998: this truck was selling potatoes
for 2 rubles a kilogram.
The relentlessly cynical Exile's cover for September 24, 1998,
featured an ATM telling the customer, "Sorry, all your money
is in Switzerland." 
Current humor. (Source.)
Survey: "How much will dollars cost in the new year"? The
online version of the business newspaper Kommersant began
running this survey yesterday. Choices from top to bottom:
64 kopecks; 36.6 rubles; 100 rubles; from three to five; money
isn't everything.
See source for most recent tally. Note: 36.6
rubles was normal about two months ago; today the figure is
about 60.
When I arrived here in Elektrostal, Russia, two weeks ago ... I knew I was coming to a country in economic crisis, whose financial structures seemed to be dissolving and whose government seemed powerless to act. The US news media had been emphasizing the worst, with dramatic scenes of lines at currency exchanges and warnings of the global consequences of Russia’s economic instability. Some members of the Board of Friends House Moscow, whose meeting was one of my reasons for being here, seemed ready to postpone the meeting entirely. What would happen if hyperinflation took over? Would a military adventurist fill the power vacuum? Would the borders be closed?

Six weeks ago, when the crisis began (provoked by announcements and hints from the Russian government concerning devaluation of the ruble and rescheduling of loan repayments), the Russian media were just as apocalyptic. By the time I arrived on September 18, the newspapers had become more philosophical, often reflecting (and fueling?) the cynical attitudes of the public with their own gallows humor. The weekly Argumenti i Fakti published an article with the front page headline, “How the Bankers Stole our Money.” The following week they asked, “Is it Worth Putting Our Money in the Savings Bank?”

The biweekly Interfaks-AiF ran a headline, “We Wait for a Change,” followed by the subtitle, “If the crisis is all in our heads, it’s not necessary to beat us about the head so hard.” In the same issue, a commentator, Vladimir Razuvaev, remarked on “Our Funny Politics”: “Politics in Russia seems funny by its very nature. The head of the state promises to lie down on the train tracks if prices in the country rise, and at the same time gathers neoliberal [market-oriented] economists under his banner. He makes his experienced and devoted prime minister resign, only to call him back to this same post five months later. On Friday he announces that the ruble will not be devalued, but the opposite is happening by Monday.”

Two issues later, a front page article is suggesting that if duty in the new prime minister’s cabinet is so unattractive to Russia’s politicians, maybe Primakov ought to consider some new sources for cabinet appointments: “Look, Russia’s great friend Helmut Kohl has just been released. The German electorate, who benefited from his sixteen years of chancellorship, have decided to change their country’s top person. As a result, the most experienced politician in the world today is sitting around without any of the sorts of responsibilities appropriate to his stature….” Remarking that “… it is not in our Russian nature to do things by halves,” author Anton Trishin goes on to add former prime ministers of Japan and Great Britain to his list of potential recruits, and then points out that, according to rumors, even such figures as International Monetary Fund head Michael Camdessus and our “friend Bill” Clinton might soon be available for cabinet positions!

In the meantime, you can turn to the newspaper Segodnya (September 28) for an article on “How to Transfer your Money Across the Border” – presumably to a safe place outside of Russia. Why would you want to do that? Because, as author Olga Zaslavskaya bluntly says, “Money which falls into a [Russian] bank literally disappears into a black hole.”

Serious analytical articles abound as well, including proposals from a panel of state-control-oriented economists from the Russian Academy of Sciences, leaks from within the government’s own discussion (one leak concerned possible restrictions on dollars, leading to a brief panic yesterday), and thoughtful essays and interviews with the views of such leaders as the head of the center-left Yabloko party, the head of the Central Bank, and former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Several commentators focus on the country’s lack of a pervasive national identity and sense of purpose as a systemic source of governmental paralysis. Commentator Nikolai Petrakov writes in Interfaks-AiF about the economic consequence, namely that the country’s financial sector is completely disconnected from reality, and the government is doing nothing about it. The banks have become financial organizations generating money out of thin air through their financial manipulations instead of actually investing in the country’s productive capacity. It is as if “our government regards the people as a biomass on which they can perform experiments.” In an odd sort of way, maybe prime minister Primakov is confirming this suspicion, at least for the time being, by saying (as quoted by the newsweekly Itogi), “The country may be able to, so to speak, maintain self-restraint for some amount of time.” Newspapers and television stations are speculating on what will happen on October 7, the date appointed by a major association of trade unions for a general strike. Will people use the opportunity to say on a massive scale that they’ve had enough?

In an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 26, Duma member Vyacheslav Zvolinksky also addresses the systemic roots of the crisis in Russia, and warns of the possibility of civil war. He believes that the state, particularly the Duma, must take responsibility for its role in saving the country, but feels that the state has been paralysed because of the contradictions and imbalances contained in the constitution. He urgently calls for constitutional reform before food and energy supplies are depleted to the point where the people lose patience entirely and rise up in elemental protest, “sweeping away everything in their path: the new government, the president, and all the legislators lost in their doubts and discussions.”

At this point, people so far are indeed showing remarkable self-restraint. While the politicians dither and the financial puppeteers pull their strings in Moscow, the people of Russia show their characteristic patience, resignation, persistence and incredible decency and somehow keep the country going. What else can they do? So, as I put down the newspapers and look around at real life here, my first impressions are that life on the streets of Moscow, Elektrostal and Volgograd seems amazingly normal. The only unusual activity is that life’s daily rounds of shopping, school, childcare and (often unpaid) work now also include frequent trips to the currency exchanges, as people draw on their hoards of dollars to pay for food and other necessities whose prices had often doubled or tripled since mid-August. (Of course, not everyone has little stashes of dollars, but many did collect at least a few for a rainy day.) Here in Elektrostal, plain bread, potatoes, milk, vodka, bus fares, apartment rents and utilities remain at roughly the same prices for now, but just about everything else has gone up. Cheese has gone up 50% to 100%, meat has doubled or tripled, rice has gone up as much as five times. Many imported products, especially manufactured goods, are now priced in a currency euphemistically labeled “conditional units” (“UE’s”) which are really dollars, even though payment must be made in rubles.

New tasks lead to new hassles: Often people find that the currency exchanges close early for lack of rubles. Here in Elektrostal, it took me six visits over four days to two different places (and one private “banker” operating out of his car) to collect enough rubles to pay for my round trip Moscow-Volgograd train ticket. That hassle was a concrete, if minor, way I could share the daily reality of millions of Russians. Even when they can get rubles, people want to get the best price for their dollars, so they compare rates between different exchanges, and try somehow to slalom their way through the frequent changes. Just before I arrived, rates were as high as 22 rubles to the dollar, but today they are 14 to the dollar (making people very cynical about the fact that they can get rubles today but not when they were at 22!) and last week the dollar ranged between 15 and 11.5 within just a few days. As one person said, “There’s just no way to beat it; the people pulling the strings will always come out on top in the end.”

Underneath all this apparent normalcy (the usual activities of working, commuting, buying and selling, gardening to the very last moment permitted by weather, and so on) there is a quiet desperation which is only dealt with by concentrating on one day at a time. “I can’t even imagine how we will get through the winter, so I just think about today,” said one of my Elektrostal friends. Another friend, in Volgograd, described how her elderly parents are coping: “They are spending the money they set aside for their burial. I go to the store for them, so I see how their money is getting used up. They try to buy things for me, too, but I tell them I have everything I need.” In saying that, she is simply lying; she can only count on some bread and one meal each weekday at the school where she teaches. Ordinarily she has to pay for her meals at the school canteen, but the director is allowing them to eat on credit until they are paid their salaries again. Not that the long-postponed salaries are much to wait for; hers is about $100 a month in newly deflated rubles. [The new rubles, with three zeros lopped off, were introduced the previous year.] For their other needs, the teachers often pool their money together and divide up the shopping tasks – each person buys one or another thing in bulk for the whole group. Together they try to scrounge up food and supplies for the children as well. The same is going on at the home for children with special needs here in Elektrostal (headed by one of the participants in the Friends group) – the food budget allocations from the government have long since disappeared, so the staff must beg and improvise to keep the kids fed.

Twice I went to my host family’s dacha to help with their garden, a heavily planted half-acre or so. The little house on the plot burned down last year, but the main point of the place is not to relax, but to provide food, so the dacha’s winter-lifeline function continues. We carried back big bags of beetroots, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, cauliflower, and turnips – and armfuls of gladiolas! In our case, the gladiolas are for gifts and for decorating the home, but I found out that for many, the importance of growing flowers is that they can be sold on the street. I saw several elderly women selling flowers on the street in Moscow; somehow they have to carry these huge, beautiful blooms in on the suburban trains and get to their destinations without crushing them, stand and call out to potential customers all day or until they run out, then go home and cook and get ready for the next day of survival. (They might be able to get a better flow of customers by bringing their wares to an outdoor market, but then they might also have to pay a cut to the Mafia.) On Thursday it snowed in Moscow and Elektrostal: the garden season is coming to an end, whether everything has been harvested or not….

The current issue of the Economist reports the results of a survey of Russians:

“Are you being paid at your place of work” Answers: Yes, regularly: 18%. Yes, irregularly: 25%. (Most of the Russians I know are in this category.) No: 57%.

“What will enable you to live through the economic crisis?” Food from own small-holding or dacha plot: 44%. Stockpiled food from the summer: 12%. Game-shooting, fishing, picking berries, mushrooms, etc.: 12%. Food bought at cheap outdoor markets: 10%. Informal self-employment 10%. Help from relatives in the countryside: 9%. Bank savings 5%.

Interesting, but not surprising to me, are the answers to another question: “Would you like to emigrate if the situation got worse?” Yes: 18%. No: 62%. Hard to say: 20%.

Compared to these widespread hardships, it seems anticlimactic to report on my own activities during these past two weeks. I spent most of the first week helping with English classes in two schools, Natasha Fedorchenko’s Foreign Language School (Natasha is a participant in the Friends group) and Sergei and Larisa Kazantsevs’ New Humanities Institute. The Elektrostal Friends group met once while I was there, probably their only meeting since Retha McCutchen and I visited in March. I also had visitors from Moscow.... I attended a meeting of the group working on joint publication of a Russian edition of the book Lighting Candles in the Dark, a Friends General Conference collection of stories of nonviolence in daily life, primarily illustrated with art by young Russian and American artists. I made two visits to a remarkable 81-year-old scholar, Mira Perper, whose parents were Tolstoyans and who herself has translated books and articles by [and for] Bill Edgerton, a retired professor of Russian history and literature and member of Bloomington Meeting in Indiana. Finally, a young member of the Elektrostal Friends group, Dmitri ... and I made a brief trip to Volgograd by train to visit with a teacher there who is a friend of Richmond residents Paul and Marie Turner.

... In case I leave the impression that there is nothing but misery and introspection in Russia, I should point out that people haven’t forgotten how to have fun. Elektrostal has just celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding as a new Soviet city with festivals and carnivals and cultural programs. There is still a carnival going on at the hockey stadium, with rides and booths of all kinds, and plenty of loud music. Teenagers and young adults are still pairing off and flirting in public, on the streets, in the trains and metros and buses, creating little bubbles of privacy around themselves to make up for the lack of privacy at home. President Clinton’s woes have been a source of diversion: every English class I have visited has had at least one student who wanted to know what I thought about the affair. Attitudes in Russia are almost 100% pro-Clinton. One laborer came up to me at the New Humanities Institute and, realizing that I was American but not realizing that I spoke Russian, said with a big grin, “Clinton – good! Kennedy – good!” Excerpts from Clinton’s grand jury testimony were shown on Russian television on the very day I arrived. A week later, a headline in one of the “boulevard papers” (Russian versions of National Inquirer-style tabloids) read, “Americans Tired of Lewinsky.” After reporting on Monica Lewinsky’s literary agent’s failure to get a book contract for her, the article went on to say, “We, however, publish our newspaper not in America but here, and so we promise that our next issue will have more spicy details from [independent counsel Ken] Starr’s office.”

Russia is still Russia, and signs of the Soviet era still remain here and there. During my visit to Volgograd earlier this week, Dmitri and I stayed at the Soviet-style Intourist hotel, run with the old “we know what is good for you” style. Sometimes the results of that attitude can actually be better than expected. When we registered at the hotel, we received breakfast vouchers. But when we asked about when we might be able to have dinner, we heard the familiar reply, “Sorry, but the restaurant is being renovated.” I asked, “How will we have breakfast then?” and was assured that though the kitchen was closed, there would be some cold items available in the morning. The next morning, wondering what we would actually find, we sat down in the ornate and nearly empty dining room and awaited our cold items. There was no menu, we would get what we would get. And we did! -- apple juice, coffee and tea, a delicious cheese and egg dish, rolls, bread, butter and excellent Russian jam, cheese, and a huge bowl of hot cereal. Later we went to two museums in Volgograd – the museum of the battle of Stalingrad, and a museum devoted to the city’s civil war history and the Russian emigration to France. In both cases, Dmitri asked, “May I take photographs,” and in both cases, the response was “No, it is not allowed, but … oh, go ahead!” At the civil war museum, the staffer looked around and added, “But please make it quick!” The managing editor at Astreya, Svetlana Bazovkina, which is publishing the Russian edition of the Quaker book Lighting Candles in the Dark, presented us with some proposed cover art for the book which was a throwback to the socialist-optimism style of twenty years ago … but she did understand our doubts about that style. She herself is an editor for, among other things, the new magazine, Igromania (“Games-Mania”), a magazine for fans of Nintendo, Sega and PC games.

After these two intense weeks, I’m leaving Russia with a lot of mixed feelings. This is not an easy time for the Russian people, and something in me feels a bit embarrassed to be “escaping” to the somewhat more stable West. I especially regret not being present on October 7 for the general strike. It helps to remember that my Volgograd friend, the one who was pretending to her parents that everything was okay, ended her visit to me with these words: “The most important thing is that I know Jesus Christ is with me.”  [Moscow-based Eastern Orthodox Christian and Quaker] Tatiana Pavlova said almost exactly the same words to me. In prayer and in the unity of faith, I hope we can be with them and the millions of others in Russia who are in the same situation. And may the same faith bear fruit in political life: as evidenced by the lively, creative debates in the press, the Russian people are fully capable of coming up with the policies needed for their country, but forming and applying the necessary political willpower seems to me to be a supernatural task.

[Sadly, Mira Perper died in 2001, Tatiana Pavlova in 2002, and Bill Edgerton in 2005. Eternal memory to all of them! To what extent these travel notes are still relevant to 2014, I leave to others to decide. Certainly there are many differences between 1998 and now, but the mood of uncertainty, a certain degree of resignation, and the importance of humor remain constant, along with the imperative of prayer.]



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