Building Bridges:

Miami “Ambassadors” Visit Russia

 

Toni Fuss Kirkwood

In some ways, the different parts of the world have never been as connected as they are now. On the Internet, you can view foreign newspapers, government policy statements, and educational websites, and exchange messages with people in a surprisingly large number of countries of the world. CNN and other TV networks offer on-the-spot reports of dramatic events on any continent as they take place. If you have the right satellite connections and a short wave radio, you can tap into local TV and radio broadcasts around the globe.

Does all this mean that we are becoming better informed about the world? While opportunities to get information have increased, the kind of information that flows is often superficial. Worse, there is the possibility that people may think that using the Internet and having access to foreign media are substitutes for the most important dimension of knowledge about another culture, that of personal contact and experience.

Educational travel to other countries (as opposed to quick touristic visits) is still limited to only a small proportion of students, but it is unrivaled as a way for young people to get personal experience of other cultures. In October l995, several students at Miami’s William H. Turner Technical Arts High School, where I was a teacher, were fortunate enough to participate in a three-week student exchange program between Russia and the United States. The exchange involved ten American schools from Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey that were paired with ten Russian global schools located in Barnaul, Cheboksary, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk, Moscow, Ryazan, Sochi, St. Petersburg, and Volsky.

The trip was a remarkable experience for all of us. As we returned, I asked myself whether it would also turn into a major learning experience for the students, or whether it would eventually become only a distant, if pleasant, memory. Would the students carry into their later lives a better understanding of Russia that would affect their view of U.S.-Russian relations?

At the time, I recorded the impressions the students had of their trip. About five years later, I interviewed the students again to gauge the longer-term effects of their trip. Its impact remained very powerful, leaving me with no doubt that travel results in a greater acceptance of other cultures.

 

Discovering Cheboksary

The primary purpose of the exchange was to promote cross-cultural understanding among the people of Russia and the United States. The intention was (1) to bring students from both nations into direct contact and (2) to enable Russian and American educators to work together on designing school curricula that prepare students to live in a world of cultural diversity and interdependence. The combined Russian and American teams of students from paired schools were assigned the task of developing a joint project based on the theme, “Preparing Citizens to Live with Cultural Diversity in an Interdependent World,” to be presented in Washington, D.C., in May l996 at a reunion meeting for all participants.

The US/Russian Student Exchange Program was a result of the Russian Global Schools Initiative sponsored jointly by the Russian Ministry of Education and the American Forum for Global Education, and funded by the United States Information Agency. The program evolved from a series of invitational international conferences held in Miami, USA, and Sochi, Russia, in 1991, leading to the decision by Eduard Dneprov, then Russia’s Minister of Education, to implement global education as the primary methodology to democratize Russian schools. Dneprov believed that an insularity of outlook among the Russian people could pose a threat to the future of Russian democracy, and judged that by exposing young Russians to the economies, cultures, and political systems of the outside world, schools could help to sustain democracy at home.

Two groups of William H. Turner students and teachers—or, as the program called us, “ambassadors from Miami”—went to Russia as part of the project. One of the groups, consisting of myself and three students (Bikransky, Jennifer, and Tory) was matched with School 49 in Cheboksary.

Bikransky, Jennifer, and Tory had been selected by teachers as “our ambassadors” on the basis of their scholarship, love for learning, human relations skills, global view of the world, and need. Bikransky and Tory were tenth-graders, Jennifer an eleventh grader. All lived in the inner city, unlike many American exchange students. Tory is African American. His mother did not want him to leave the house except to go to school, because too many guns were fired in the neighborhood. Jennifer and Bikransky are Haitian Americans, whose lives reflect the struggle and hope of immigrant families in America. All three students engaged in fundraising activities to pay for expenses.

Our home for the next three weeks was Cheboksary, the capital of Chuvashia. Its multi-cultural population consists of two million people—Chuvash, ethnic Russians, and other minorities. The region became an autonomous republic in 1925. It is located 1,000 kilometers southeast of Moscow on the Volga River, “the main street of Russia.” The river flows south from the city for another 3,500 kilometers to the Caspian Sea.

The Chuvash constitute a unique minority group in Russia. Their language is traced to the Turkic linguistic group. They migrated from Turkey during the eleventh century, settling along the banks of the Volga River. The city has some spectacular sights. Its architectural masterpiece, the wooden Kremlin and bell tower, was built by Ivan the Terrible. It has beautiful churches with blue and silver onion domes and spires.

Today, Cheboksary is one of Russia’s fastest growing cities. The expansion is attributed to its rapidly growing heavy industrial base; textile factories; breweries; a massive hydroelectric station; the largest tractor factory in Russia; and the export of 79 percent of the country’s hops. The city is known for its microsurgery eye clinic headed by the renowned researcher S. N. Fyodorov. The citizens point with pride to other famous native sons, including Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human in space.

Bikransky, Jennifer, and Tory quickly adapted to their new surroundings. They became the center of attention in the school and community. They observed classes and taught African American and Haitian history and culture to their Russian peers (half of the students in School 49 study English from first grade; the others from the fourth grade). They met periodically with their Russian counterparts to develop their joint project, and even held a press conference to explain American schooling and grading. There was much laughter that day as Russian and American students talked with mixed feelings about grades.

Each of us stayed with a Chuvash host family. Bikransky, Jennifer, and Tory lived with families whose children later came to Miami in the spring of l996. Their apartments were located in large, gray Soviet-style buildings in walking distance from the school. Tory’s family lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Their youngest son stayed with his grandmother so that Tory could share the bunkbeds with his “brother,” Vadim, while the parents slept on a pull-out chair in the living room. The father of the family was a high-ranking police officer, and his wife was a biology teacher. Bikransky stayed in a two-bedroom apartment with his “brother,” Alexis, whose parents worked in the medical field and were active in the host school. Jennifer shared a bedroom with her “sister,” Oksana, who spoke fluent English. Her parents were teachers. I slept on the living room couch in the two-bedroom apartment of School 49’s principal, and her husband, daughter, son-in-law, and their two children.

We had little privacy, but we were loved and cared for by our Russian families as if we were their own. They tried to cook American food. They kept us warm. They showed great interest in everything about us and our lives in Miami. We were invited to parties and were frequent guests at elaborately cooked meals in Chuvash homes. We also experienced the rich cultural heritage of the National History Museum, art galleries, and the famous Chuvash National Dance Theater. Throughout our stay, we were welcomed in the beautiful Chuvash tradition.

 

Reflections

Before taking the trip, our three “ambassadors” held stereotypes about some aspects of Russia. They were curious about how they would react to Russian daily life, and also had some concerns about how they would be treated. When I interviewed them about the effects of the visit on them, it was clear that their stereotypes had been permanently changed, and that their questions and concerns had been replaced by very positive memories of the Russian people.

 

Stereotypes and Realities

One common stereotype of Russians is that they are a hard and forbidding people. Tory’s preconception had been one of “stern people [who] would never laugh or joke, [lead] restricted lives, walk a straight line, and have to get permission for everything—all work, no play.” Bikransky told me how he had thought that Russians might be “unsociable” and “unlikable,” while Jennifer’s view was that they would be “serious, with a hard life, intelligent, and very industrious.”

All three students agreed that one of the highlights of the trip was experiencing Russians as a kind, warmhearted, caring, and friendly people who, in Tory’s words, “open their doors to someone they do not know, even to the point of being overprotective.” Among the students’ lasting memories were the sacrifices made by the families to accommodate their foreign visitors, and the great courtesy and attentiveness shown to the students by their Russian peers.

All three were impressed by the quality of relations between people that they witnessed in Cheboksary, which they compared favorably to relations between people in Miami and other parts of the United States. Tory observed that “relationships in Russia are more affectionate than in the United States.” They all agreed that Russian families are extremely close. Bikransky noted that “they have the extended family nearby. All of them have a close bond among themselves.” Compared to American parents, he thought, “Russian parents display a lot of trust toward their children.” Jennifer was impressed that “you always see the family together…[The parents] spend much time with their children. Parents are very supportive of their children.”

Another stereotype was that of Russia as a powerful and unfriendly world force. Tory saw it as “an aggressive country” that focused on “weapons and war making” and was potentially dangerous. At the back of Jennifer’s mind was the image of Russia as “America’s biggest enemy,” who might become our adversary in war. All regarded Russia as very powerful and a real threat to the United States.

Their personal encounters in Russia had a strong effect on these stereotypes. Jennifer was struck by the genuine interest of the Russians in Americans. She was so impressed by the kindness and warmheartedness of the Russians that she could not see how the Russian people could ever have wanted the Cold War. Her conclusion was that “it was the leaders of our governments,” not the peoples, who wanted it. Bikransky came to appreciate that the love of Russians for their country need not in any way be connected to hostility to the United States. Indeed, he was struck by the awe and admiration of the Russian students for the United States and their apparent belief that the “United States could destroy Russia at any time because the United States is invincible.” Tory, after realizing that Russians were less warlike and aggressive than he had presumed, learned “to look beyond stereotypes. I learned that stereotypes were just not true. If you stereotype something and you find out it is not true, you learn not to stereotype any more. That was my biggest lesson.”

One incident witnessed by Bikransky did, however, evoke a traditional image of Russian authority as brutal. This arose from a scene at a bar in a local restaurant where Bikransky and his friends were spending an evening. A fight broke out, causing many people in the dining area to get up and leave. Suddenly, sirens penetrated the night and a screeching car came to a halt outside the restaurant. Several police officers crashed through the door and used billy clubs to attack the men who were fighting. This incident, with its implication of an official brutality lying beneath the surface of an otherwise gentle and courteous culture, remained firmly in his thoughts for the rest of the trip and thereafter.

 

Concerns and Questions

Before going on their trip, the students had a number of questions and concerns about what they might encounter in Russia. How well would they get along with their Russian peers? What were relations like between teachers and students in Russia? Would they encounter racism because of their color?

As to the first question, the students did not need to have any worries. They were very popular at the school they visited. The young Russians they met had very similar interests to those of young Americans—sports, music, and dancing. Like Americans, they enjoyed walking, hanging out, joking around, and having fun. Bikransky found that his basketball skills were much admired. Jennifer discovered that young Russian women had concerns about issues like dating, pregnancy, and abortion that were very similar to those of young Americans:

It always amazes me how people around the world share similar problems. The girls in Russia have the same questions we do. They do not know where to turn with their problems unless they want to ask their parents. And they don’t. Just like us.

The teacher-student relationships they observed were also close and cordial. In Bikransky’s view,

Russian teachers are like neighbors. They are very comfortable with the parents and the students. They often get invited for dinner and discuss their child’s performances in schoo#133;.Students are very comfortable talking to their teacher about anything. A lot of students hang out in the house of the teacher and vice versa.

An important concern of the students had been how, as members of a racial minority, they would be treated in Russia. When I asked Tory later what it felt like to be Black in Russia, his view was that, “You are stared at differently than in the United States. You are more stared at, but they are not the same stares. In Russia, it’s curiosity. In America, it’s prejudice.” Bikransky was surprised that people kept wanting to touch his hair. “Most of us expected this to be a hostile situation, but it was fun. It amused me that what was regular to me was amazing to them.” Tory, however, experienced an unpleasant incident in town one night when a drunk threw bottles at him and his “brother,” Vadim.

One day when Bikransky and Tory were attending a church service in town, they were amazed to find images of Russian saints of color. Their eyes gleamed as they found a painting of the Virgin Mother depicting her as being of African ancestry. It was a remarkably satisfying experience to be reminded in this way that human images of heavenly creatures are the result of cultural perspectives.

 

Comparing Hardships

One common observation made by all three students concerned the pervasive economic hardship in Russia—the small living spaces, large extended families, limited incomes, great expenses, lack of family cars, overcrowded buses, and limited food supply. Yet, as Jennifer put it, the Russians “have so little, but they never complain.”

When I asked the students what they thought the difference was between the notion of hardship in Russia and the notion of hardship in Miami, their responses were:

 

Tory. Our hardship in Miami is trying to be an individual, to do what you want to do in your life. In Russia life is harder … because they have to spend lots more energy to live. Instead of cars they have to walk, there are fewer groceries, they have less variety, they eat more soups. Soups are cheaper than buying meat. Yet Russians trust each other more than Americans. They may not go to church but their gold-plated church domes are not vandalized like they could be in the United States. Crime and violence bring hardship in our country.

 

Bikransky. Russians have less income, bigger [extended] families, more bills, no matter what profession they have. Food supplies were scarce, and I believe that if it had not been for the money provided by the exchange program, many host families would not have been able to provide sufficient meals for us. Host families had to give up their
living space to accommodate us. Public transportation was
terrible, very crowded no matter what time of the day. School supplies were scarce. Hardship in Miami is manifested in prejudice, intolerance, and disrespectful looks from the larger society. And in the lack of equality for all who live there.

 

Jennifer. The amount of equality is different. In Miami, we have very poor and very rich people. Russian society is much more equal. The people live in similar size apartments and have limited access to a variety of food—except maybe for their rich, but we did not meet them. Our Russian parents and teachers lived hard lives, harder than our parents or our teachers in the United States. But we have hardships in Miami in the form of prejudice, segregation and violence, which I did not observe in Russia.

 

Reunion in the United States

The ten Russian delegations visited their American host schools six months later, in spring 1996. At William H. Turner Technical Arts High School, anticipation filled the air. Bikransky, Jennifer, and Tory served their role as the schoo#146;s ambassadors with distinction. They introduced their Russian friends to students and teachers alike, and ensured their comfort in Miami’s newest high school. Now it was our turn to share our multicultural city and its historic landmarks.

The highlight of the exchange was the reunion of all Russian and American delegations in Washington, D.C. The joint student research projects were exhibited in the Halls of the United States Congress. Bikransky, Jennifer, and Tory had researched their African/Haitian American heritage. Their Russian counterparts had analyzed the culture and history of the Chuvash people. Jointly, the Cheboksary/Miami team compared and contrasted the similarities and differences between their cultures. The teams found many historical commonalties, such as migration, hardship, and lack of assimilation into the dominant society.

Looking back at the student exchange, I realized that during the Cold War, I could never have imagined Russian and American students meeting—and becoming “brothers” and “sisters”—like the students I had observed. Things have changed for the better, and the positive image these young Russians and Americans obtained of each other’s countries will likely last for their lifetimes.

 

Toni Fuss Kirkwood is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Florida Atlantic University.