Last time I told you how my friend and fellow educator, Lynn Champagne, roped me (not unwillingly!) into being the American connection for a student exchange between Ramstein American High School in Ramstein, Germany, and a secondary school in Ivanovo, Russia.
In the fall of 1991, twenty-two Russian teenagers, accompanied by seven adults arrived by train in Cologne and then traveled by bus to Ramstein. They were welcomed heartily by their host families. For a week the Russian students attended classes and extra-curricular activities with our American students. At one point, they, along with their hosts, were treated to a field trip to Trier, Germany’s oldest city, originally founded by the Romans. Besides other informal get-togethers, there was a huge potluck Thanksgiving dinner at which the Russians entertained with music and dance performances. Among their favorite numbers: “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “We Shall Overcome.”
However, it was not all fun and games. The underlying reason for the exchange was to break down barriers of prejudice and hostility. It is important to remember that this exchange was occurring a mere two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had come down, but Germany was not yet fully unified, and there was still a huge Russian military presence in East Germany.
The seven adults who came with the student visitors were their principal and five teachers, including Marina Belova, my counterpart who also served as interpreter when the need arose. These educators were keenly interested in our system and had many questions as they observed all aspects of it. The seventh adult was Marina’s boyfriend (later her husband), Boris Bolshakov, Ivanovo’s first democratically elected representative to the Supreme Soviet (parliament).
Not surprisingly, Boris had political motives in accompanying a school group to the West. Not only was he shoring up support for an upcoming election, but he thought he might be able to lay some groundwork for a link with the German government to secure some much-needed medical equipment for Ivanovo. To this end, a meeting was set up with the local representative to the Bundesrat (comparable to our House of Representatives). I was invited to sit in on this meeting. Ultimately, nothing came of it, but I have to tell you, it was pretty impressive! Here was a man who had been a young soldier in the German Army in WWII and a former KGB officer calmly discussing issues of concern to their once-enemy governments.
[Sidebar:] The visit of Russian students and their chaperones had been dutifully cleared with the Ramstein Base authorities; they were given a complete list of names, occupations, and passport numbers. Apparently no one bothered to examine the list. But in any military community nothing goes on for long without someone eventually taking notice. My friend Lynn was called out of her class one day and told to report to the base commander’s office where she faced the general and an aide. “Do you know who this man is?” they demanded, referring to Boris. “Yes, he is a friend of mine,” she said. The aide went on to explain that Mr. Bolshakov should have received VIP treatment including accommodations usually reserved for the highest ranking visitor officers. Lynn assured them that her guests were content with their situation as it was. Later, she said, “I hadn’t the heart to tell them that Boris was quite happy sleeping on the floor in my basement.”
At dinner the evening after the disappointing meeting between Boris and his German counterpart, Boris and Marina opened up about the bleak conditions faced by their town, including an urgent need for medical equipment. “In fact, we desperately need everything,” Marina said. “Our people are really suffering.” (Later I saw it for myself and my earlier comparison to the more depressed areas of Detroit was right on target.) Knowing that members of a religious group in the military community had recently delivered a two truckloads of donated goods to the Ukraine, Lynn and I suggested we might be able to organize such aid for Ivanovo. Marina’s response was that “every little bit would help.”
However, we also knew that those trucks bound for the Ukraine had run into a great deal of red tape and other difficulties in East Germany and Poland. We pressed Boris: if we could get a truck loaded with goods to Winsdorf, an air base Russia still had in East Germany, could he get a plane to meet it? He thought he might be able to do so, but he was very skeptical of the whole idea.
“Boltushski!” was his exact response, said with a smirk and a wink at Ned, Lynn’s husband. Roughly translated, he was dismissing all three women at the table as “chattering females.”
[Next week: JET-HI—Joint Effort To Help Ivanovo.]