Richland College students, faculty and staff had the opportunity to engage in discussions and hear the stories of four women from various regions of Russia during two presentations hosted by the Richland College Institute for Peace, Richland College Honors Program and the Global Education Development Advisory Council on March 29.
The women were Lena Novomeyskaya of Yekaterinburg and born in west Ukraine, Elena Ivanova of St. Petersburg, Tatyana Bukharina of Yalta in Crimea and Natalie Ivanova of Krasnodar. They came to the U.S. as part of the first Russians Meet Mainstream America (RMMA) program developed by the Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI), an organization dedicated to reducing tensions between the U.S. and Russia and debunking misunderstandings through citizen-to-citizen exchanges, public relations and social media efforts in both countries.
During the sessions at Richland College, the women addressed the audience and told stories about their histories and what it has been like to live in Russia, including how their lives changed when the Soviet Union was dissolved. Discussion also included their perceptions and opinions of Americans, the Russian economy, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and other timely issues. The purpose of the discussions was not to argue or debate, but to share different points of view to educate the citizens in both countries.
“I was brought up on the idea that America is a friend of Russia,” Natalie Ivanova told the audience during the second presentation. “My father participated in the Stalingrad battle in 1942 during the second World War. He was wounded in this battle, and when I was a child he told me a lot of stories about the war, and he told me that he was very grateful to the United States.”
Bukharina’s story received particular interest from many audience members when she discussed her home in Crimea, a peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe that, while previously a Russian province, became a Ukrainian territory in 1954. In 2014, Russian troops captured strategic sites across Crimea and annexed the territory, a move that was generally condemned by many world leaders because it was considered to be a violation of both international law and Russian agreements that safeguarded the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Bukharina told the audience about how, despite international opinion to the contrary, many Crimean citizens supported this annexation by Russia for many reasons, including Ukraine’s violation of Crimean human rights, such as cutting the water supply to many citizens, including farmers.
“This morning I checked my [e]mail, and my friends know that we are here with the program Center for Citizen Initiatives, and that we’re working as volunteers, and friends from Sevastopol wrote, ‘give a big thank you to the American people for returning Crimea back to Russia,’” Bukharina said. After a pause, she added, “Are you surprised?”
Honors English student Ryan Morrow participated in the question-and-answer session, and later he commented on what he learned about the effects the dissolution of the Soviet Union had on the Russian people, a common thread discussed by all four women.
“I didn’t realize how much of an economic effect the end of the Soviet Union had on the Russian economy and how much work, or how much damage, it actually did that is still persistent in their society,” said Morrow.
Similarly, Morrow’s classmate Victoria Patterson felt the presentation opened her eyes more because the women discussed many issues that are generally not mentioned by the American media.
“I think it’s really interesting how they’re saying Americans really aren’t portrayed negatively over there, yet our media typically demonizes them so much,” said Patterson. “I didn’t know most of the stuff about what happened in Crimea that Tatyana [Bukharina] was talking about, so I think it’s interesting how much we have kind of been allowed to hide.”
“What is most valuable about this meeting between Richland College students and our Russian visitors through CCI is face-to-face dialogue that brings authenticity and honesty to the forefront and dissolves the barriers created by second- or third-hand news and simple ignorance,” said English faculty member and Richland College Institute for Peace and Human Rights coordinator Scott Branks del Llano, Ph.D. “Conversations are wonderful equalizers, and this event offered humane and compassionate conversations where empathy and peaceful understanding rose above the suspicion and divisiveness that permeates much of the media regarding Russian and U.S. relations. We need to engage in many more such forums of hospitable dialogue.”
In addition to Dallas, this first RMMA delegation’s itinerary includes Atlanta, Fort Worth, San Francisco and Washington D.C.
CCI was founded in 1983 with the hope that ordinary Americans could help bring about a constructive relationship with the Soviet Union. A CCI travel program soon became a reality, with American citizens visiting Russia and Soviet republics, with the travelers developing Soviet contacts. In 1988, Soviets Meet Middle America (SMMA) was the first program that brought non-party member Soviet citizens to the U.S.
Other past CCI successes include helping bring Alcoholics Anonymous to Russia; creating an economic development program in 1989 to train young English-speaking Russian entrepreneurs in how to start a business by organizing internships for them in American companies; shipping both cold-tolerant seeds and emergency food boxes when the Soviet Union dissolved; founding programs to train Russian small business owners and to train young Russian women in the apparel industry to encourage self-employment; and teaching orphanage children computer technology skills. In 2010, CCI closed its doors after funding had evaporated during the prior several years.
CCI was revived in 2015 by its founder and president Sharon Tennison, and a travel program was restarted for Americans to visit Russia. RMMA was then initiated in 2018 in response to the growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, with the intent of bringing Russian citizens to the U.S. to discuss major issues between the countries and reduce stereotypes and misinformation.
The Richland College Institute for Peace is committed to educating for peace, justice and the abolition of conditions that give rise to violence and war. It fosters an interdependent community that actively pursues peaceable living, resolution of conflict and respect for human dignity, contributing to the goal of global peace, justice and friendship among peoples. Programs for students, employees and the community are offered through the traditional academic curriculum, continuing education, professional development and teleconferences.
The Richland College Honors Program provides highly qualified students with an enriched and challenging academic community where they develop the capabilities necessary to excel in their educational and career goals.