The last day of our most recent trip to Russia has come. CCI contributor Ted McIntire traveled with me on this trip, in which we interviewed CCI alumni about their experiences since their training and learned their thoughts about things currently going on in their country, as well as about the current relations between our two countries.
Between Feb 4 and 19, we traveled to three cities: St. Petersburg, Moscow and Volgograd.
ST. PETERSBURG: Feb 4 – 10
- St. Petersburg was beautiful under a light snow part of the time.
- We had hourly appointments with our EDP and PEP Fellows to question them about long-term gains from their business trainings in America. Regardless of industry sector, they felt that these US-based management trainings were life changing for themselves and for their businesses at the time.
- We had a delightful evening with the Nazarov family and got to hear about how their 16-year-old Dasha’s three-month stay in the US had impacted her and the family.
- A typical “Bard and music” evening in the country house of CCI Fellow Sergei Dmitrienko north of St.Petersburg was experienced by Ted. A Russian banya (steam heat, then diving into snow with a little libation) made for intro into Russian culture for this newcomer to Russia..
- High culture was part of the Petersburg experience. Dmitrienko, a supporter of the two Marienskii theaters, gifted several of us with tickets to Verdi’s Requiem the evening we landed in St. Petersburg. The seats were front row, and we were no more than 20 feet from Valery Gergiev, the Marienskii’s world-famous conductor! What a thrill. Another evening later in the week, tickets were available for the ballet Sparticus.
- St. Petersburg’s canals were frozen over making me yearn for spring, warmer weather and boat trips throughout the waterways of the city. Volodya Shestakov was with us most of the time.
- CCI’s business alumni were quietly and uniformly supportive of President Putin’s holding a firm line with the West. They have deep respect for American citizens but don’t appreciate the policies of the current Washington administration which is surrounding Russia with missile systems and has, as they see it, been responsible for wars in one country after another over the past few years. They are deeply concerned that Russia will be next.
MOSCOW — Feb 10 – 13
A overnight train took us to Moscow where meetings began immediately after getting luggage to the old Cosmos Hotel.
- First, Civil Initiatives, the liberal institution of Alexei Kudrin (Russia’s former Finance Minister). We met with Evgeny Gontmaker, Russia’s Social Policy Advisor to four of Russia’s presidential administrations (and a CCI Fellow). Evgeny seemed particularly interested in CCI’s knowledge re development of healthy agriculture production for internal and external markets. We may find ways to support this important task Russia is taking on.
- Russia’s TV Icon, Vladimir Pozner, our next meeting––was most interesting. A discussion about raising public awareness regarding US-Russia relations came up. We ended agreeing that CCI may organize a speaking tour for Pozner to address American audiences on these issues during 2016.
- Dinner that evening was with Victor Kramarenko (former Procter & Gamble External Relations Director) and wife. Victor is a fascinating and well-informed businessman who worked for my friend, John Pepper, former CEO of P&G the years the latter was establishing P&G in Russia.
- Met with PEP Fellow Inna Schabina, the founder of a private clinic/hospital which has internists, surgeons and dentists. It is a combination of private/public medical care. The doctors and all staff operate as one big family; the whole team takes vacations together! A heart warming model for future medicine.
- Visited Professor Alexander Abashkin and five students who had just returned from a student exchange in Mesa, AZ. They were delighted with their new American families, Moms and Pops, and with all aspects of their exchange!
- Met with journalist Dmitri Babich, in a downtown cafe, who kept us in laughter over pizzas and political discourse. Some serious discussion followed.
- We went to Moscow’s recently opened “Gulag Museum” with Alexei Pankin, another journalist and old friend. The museum was deeply moving experience. I recommend for all who go to Moscow.
VOLGOGRAD — Feb 14 – 18
Ted visited the huge Motherland statue on Mamaev Hill and the Panorama of WWII. He then took a helicopter ride over the city. Hard to believe that millions of souls perished over these few square miles in 1942-43.
We attended a packed Volgograd Rotary Club at noon on Feb. 16th.
While I was addressing the club, three unknown Russians with a video camera showed up saying they wanted an interview. Quickly it developed into their insistence I and Ted to come with them to the city’s Immigration offices. Their charge? We had the wrong kind of visas (mine had been used for 2.5 years with no problems). We took it in stride, were whizzed away in separate cars and ended up in an old Soviet building where the halls were lined with many youthful Asians sitting on the floors/asleep on chairs, perhaps waiting for immigration papers? The investigation took some four hours during which thumb, finger and palm prints of both hands were taken. (I looked like I’d fallen hands-first in a tar pit!) Finally the goo came off. In the process, we began friendly discussions with the three men and two women who were carrying out our investigation. Soon I was kindly joking with them in my inadequate Russian language. It’s a long story but not sinister at all. By the end we were shaking hands and smiling at each other as we parted around 9 pm. Looking back it turned out to be interesting and fun. Fortunately, we had a copy of my book in Russian language with us — and gave it to the person taking our history. We were then released to the Rotarians waiting for us outside in the cold night. Soon we were on our way to a delightful Russian restaurant, Greta (owned by CCI Fellow, Oxanna Malashkina), where a tableful of us gathered to try to figure out what had happened and why.
The next morning I got an email from Inna Schabina in Moscow, saying she’d seen on TV that we had been picked up and arrested. Journalists took the opportunity to fashion a sensational article saying that I had the wrong visa, that I worked for U.S. State Department (wrong), was funded by them (wrong) and that I had a long history that included NGO anti-Russia activities!!! (super wrong). I chuckled at the charges, sent a request for a meeting at the San Francisco Russian Consulate upon arrival back at SF, apprised Vladimir Pozner and Evgeny Gontmakher by email and continued my day including drafting this letter to you.
Later I learned this happened just prior to Feb 19 when numerous other foreign NGOs around the country were called in for questioning regarding their “anti-Russia” work. Some of the most egregious were closed down. Apparently the interviewers in our case decided we were Americans of goodwill just trying to find a way to build bridges with Russian citizens.
Tomorrow we fly to Moscow, catch a plane to St. Petersburg, then a Finnair plane to JFK and home to San Francisco.
It’s been wonderful being with all of these wonderful Russian citizens in the three cities. I’ve experienced admiration and sadness watching these noble Russians’ determinations to go on despite the economic challenges they and their friends are undergoing due to the current weak oil price and the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe.
All the best, Sharon