Civility Should Never Be Selective as Global Citizens

Civility Should Never Be Selective as Global Citizens

by Kenneth Rayman on June 18, 2019
I stood within the crowd with my blood boiling. I had heard person after person for the past hour and a half be completely rude and unwelcoming for the Ambassador’s goodwill visit. I hoped I got to him before his assistant said he needed to leave so I could give him a better experience than he’d been treated to by the audience. When I approached the circle, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to say but as I heard the questions around get asked, I knew more and more what to say. I wanted him to know that at least one person in the room appreciated him and his culture beyond what the audience decided to unfortunately focus on regardless of the event’s theme, political grandstanding. 

Even before I got in the conference room, I was left to wonder why people would want to pay $25 to be in the room if they didn’t really want to be there. As the elevator went up to the 49th floor, an older gentleman said, “I’m going to ask him what Trump said secretly to Putin. Think he’ll tell me? Won’t know unless I try, right?!” Once the elevator opened, I put distance between him and myself, so we didn’t appear together. Even though the event’s theme of improving relations between our two countries is itself a political theme, I felt that the setup was more about creating a goodwill conversation between grassroots citizen diplomats, organizations like the World Affairs Council, and a formal representative. I found a seat with a good view of the podium and waited for the event to start, soon joined by two older women. When they noticed me and decided to start polite conversation, I realized that more of the audience was ignorant of the objective or importance of education to understand any issues. When asked what I did, my travel writer response confused them, “How did you manage to get into Russia when they don’t allow anyone in?” I told them, “I’m actually going back in September for my 4th trip to help a San Francisco NGO working with citizens in various cities.” Their response further worried me for the night’s course, “The Russians don’t allow anyone in, how are you going to be able to go? Well, you’ve been three times already so I guess you can, somehow…” They told me they were, in fact, learning Russian to go to St. Petersburg, themselves, later this summer but were upset at the paperwork requirements they had to complete to get a visa. It became apparent to me these ladies were not going because they were interested in the culture or learning, but because it was a “destination to see.” At the same time, someone behind me was “joking,” “what will I tell the FBI when they ask what the Ambassador talked about.” I shook my head in disgust.

The event started off with a prepared speech by Ambassador Antonov that was incredibly grateful to be able to give time to the citizens of Seattle and conciliatory for the theme of the event. He stated that while dialogue had come to a standstill at parts, there were and are things that we can do to commit to better relations. He mentioned the long history of relations between the US and Russia, all the way back to the country’s founding. I mentioned to the ladies quickly that Russia was one of the first to recognize us as a nation after the Revolution, for which they gave me a side smirk. He continued his opening remarks mentioning the reception he received walking the Seattle streets earlier that day being greeted warmly and didn’t get the feeling that, at the personal level, Americans were averse to Russia or “wanting war.” As the Ambassador went on though, my thoughts wandered to the previous statements attendees had made to me and I wondered, “How many of these people are just thinking of this as “political speak” and not interested in the larger picture, of which he is speaking?”

The host of the evening began her remarks by asking about legal matters and efforts on the international stage, leading the way for cooperation from others outside of Russia and the United States, breaking the appearance of a stalemate between the two powers. The Ambassador answered in such a way that I wondered whether the casual audience member, with my increasing suspicions, would take at more than face value. With my general ability to read the background of answers given, interpreting more precisely what they are trying to convey, and lifelong research of the Russian ethos, I heard the subtitle cues in his inflections and word choice to identify where he was coming from and advocating. The ambassador routinely mentioned cooperative proposals given, though no attention paid through the implied narrative of “caution in regard to” Russia; saying essentially, diplomatic brinksmanship insisting on equal footing, yet requiring the other to blink first, can’t lead anywhere. I loved how he articulated the diplomatic process in having any contact with the US government for the attendees, saying he can’t contact just any US representative/official he wants to discuss matters with, but has a diplomatic chain of command he has to adhere to within the American system with only a select few he is allowed to talk to, but all he needs is a response from someone.

I loved how he re-approached his answer when the host restated a question, apologizing for any language difficulty in finding the right words. I almost said something about this to the ladies next to me, that some words in English don’t exist for Russian, but I digressed because they were ‘learning’ themselves and I’d seen their cognitive dissonance regarding myself and the ambassador. The host did a great job fostering an open environment, making no presumption of word choice resulting from a language barrier appearing as blunt or provocative, and encouraged the audience to honor the same and keep questions brief and to the point, “not ending in an exclamation point but rather a question mark.” The first question delved into the cultural divide between the Ukrainians and the Russians in the ongoing issue over the Crimean conflict. Ambassador Antonov responded that ethnic Ukrainians and Russians live and work side by side in Russia in many instances with little issue, including some of his own staff being Ukrainian. I bit my tongue at mentioning the Kievan Rus roots of modern-day Russia, to the ladies.

The next “questions” though… I began to weep for our “show of hospitality” to the Ambassador. An audience member began a long-winded argument about the Mueller Report and the investigation into campaign meddling and he finally wrapped up after the room began saying, “Question? Question!” to him. Again, the Ambassador was polite and restated the international efforts proposed in the previous question from the host about digital security. Next, a UW undergrad asked him a polite question about what the Ambassador could see on improving relations involving the Russian public. The last question was from the gentleman in the elevator, who made me truly wish that questions had been vetted before the event. Instead of asking him a question, he practically yelled at the ambassador about the situation in Syria and said his goal was to “get him to admit publicly” Russia’s complicity in interfering with stabilization efforts and bombing towns illegally. The Ambassador professionally responded about how he could ask the same and debate on how the US has used the same rationale for its war in Iraq and involvement in Libya. At that, the host called the meeting to a close and thanked the ambassador for his time.

People began to crowd around to ask personal questions of the Ambassador along with myself, still thinking of what I could ask. I started hearing the inane remarks and questions disregarding the theme of the talk, and I knew what to say to him. The ladies that sat next to me asked their question first, “If you want more Americans to visit, why don’t you make it easier to get a visa?” Ambassador Antonov replied, “If you remember, it wasn’t our decision to close the Seattle Embassy.” They retorted, “You need to fix the visa process, so I don’t have to think and list everywhere I’ve been the last ten years!” I wanted to bury my head in the sand….

When he looked at me, I shook his hand, asked for a photograph, and he obliged. I then gave him a formal greeting, out of excitement, saying, “priyatno poznakomit'sya” or “nice to meet you” when I’ve come to realize you can just say, “o'chen priyatno.” I simply said to him, “I run a website writing a cultural blog, and my personal and professional interest is Russia, what would you like to see done and what could I do to help?” The ambassador replied, “Thank you, we need more people like you between our two countries; continue doing so.” He asked his assistant for a card to give me, but he was unfortunately out.

With that, I thanked him again and left. I have no idea what was asked of him after that, but I was glad to have shown him that someone other than the World Affairs Council, themselves, was appreciative of his time and respectful of him and his station. I caught the elevator, unfortunately with the “soon to be tourists” who still hadn’t stopped talking about the lengthy visa process and I wondered, “Have you ever looked at the entry application to the US? Since you live here, probably not.” Curiosity piqued, a quick Google search found the US visa application for froeign nationals with the same questions they were berating the ambassador over. I silently wept for whoever becomes their tour guide when they are in St. Petersburg and Moscow, knowing further attempt at trying to be diplomatic and a responsible tourism advocate was pointless.

Your Excellency, Anatoly Antonov, thank you again for a brief moment of your time yesterday evening. I hope I was able to give you a glimpse at the Americans who respect you, your office, and your country and culture, among so many who chose not to.