Glasnost and Goodwill: Citizen Diplomacy in the Northwest

by Kenneth Rayman on January 27, 2018
What have you done when it comes to your passion and working towards making it a meaningful part of your life? Have you found yourself unable to stop talking when someone asks you a question? Does it feel like a burning fire? Do you feel a buzz when you learn something new or it connects a dot that you never thought of before? That’s what happens with me and Russian history.

The exhibit at the Washington State History Museum made me think of my own experiences with those questions. In my presentations at senior living communities, I introduce the topic with a comparison question that mirrors what a previous picture I posted said, “Each side only knew what the news or media portrayed of the other.” I then say that my experience of Russia is different than theirs because they grew up or lived through the Red Scare and the fear of uncertainty with the threat of absolute destruction. I grew up where I saw a wall coming down and people cheering for “some reason.” I ask how many know the Rocky movies and say the scariest thing, to me, about the Soviet Union was the tall guy in the red shorts. Even my brother asked when I said I was reading Gorbachev’s biography, “Is that the guy with the map of Italy on his forehead?” Two different generations, two different perceptions, yet the narrative in the news and media stayed the same.

But this exhibit made me realize that along with the incredible seemingly minuscule acts to bridge the gap done by those featured, I had done the same in my own way with my numerous discussions as to why I enjoy Russian history, the presentations I now give, and the conversations I had with Russian citizens when I realized my dream traveling there.

I couldn’t fathom a time when the thought of an idea for mutual benefit had to be approved by the head of a State Ministry in Moscow before they could ask the Russian fisheries, “could we help each other?” And that’s what happened when a Washington businessman stepped forward when fishing boundaries were extended and Russian vessels could no longer get certain fish. The owner of the cold storage company knew that the Russian vessels had the ability to process the fish onboard which the U.S. vessels did not, hence the opportunity for mutual benefit.

Of all the presenters, the fishing story captivated me the most because of the simplicity of the idea for cooperation. But that wasn’t all, Ted Turner was revealed to be the main sponsor besides a local man named Bob Walsh to be behind the Goodwill Games concept. Ted’s reasoning was because he saw the Olympics becoming a political chess game with the Soviet/Warsaw Pact boycott of the ‘84 Los Angeles Games in response to the U.S. boycott of the ‘80 Moscow Games over the expansionist war in Afghanistan.

The history of wonderful moments when politics were nullified because humanity surpassed politics made me think of the times when I’ve been asked about my Russian fascination; Why did I think Russia was so great? ; Why did I want to learn Russian? ; Was I sure I wanted to go to Moscow during the Russian election interference investigation?; and others.

My first trip to Russia introduced me to my wonderful guide Galina and the connection that we established between two people who weren’t just touring together but that of two people who loved the city they were in and bonded to where tears were shed at their goodbye.

My second trip allowed me to revisit Moscow, seeing the city on my own and sharing the experience of my days with the restaurant servers, Anna and Gayena, and the bartender, Andrei, forming a personal connection that reached beyond just tourists coming and going with no care of what or who was in front of them. Andrei would later talk to me about his love of fishing at his dacha with his kids, show me pictures of his catch, and remark that he was amazed that a person from outside the country would know certain things that only Muscovites would know. I told him about my blog and gave him the Facebook link for it. He said he would follow me though I don’t know if he ever did, but the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel and I have maintained a pen pal like connection on Instagram with my posts on history and my travelogues.

These experiences of mine with the endless questions, stateside, and the human connections in Russia that grew, were not unlike those of the exhibit. I found myself seeing that I was and am a citizen diplomat for Russia and the United States just like Bob Walsh, Ted Turner, and organizations like Target Seattle and Bellingham Cold Storage. I plan on continuing this ambassadorship, and am honored to do so, because to me as the exhibit showcased and said, “when governments cannot or fail to act, citizens can be a bridge to peace.”