Citizen Diplomacy

Joys and pitfalls of building connections
with the people of the USSR

Originally published in
Copyright (c) by Context Institute


WHY DO WE DO THIS WORK? What sustains us in doing it? What perils does it present? Beneath our fear of nuclear destruction and our wish to make a contribution toward peace, what drives and rewards us at a personal level?

Trapped in our individual egos, and experiencing the limitations as well as the benefits of American culture, we feel the vague or acute pain of estrangement from broader humanity, alienation from deeper parts of ourselves that could make us feel inwardly whole and outwardly united. We yearn for the psychological peace of harmonizing connectedness and felt comradeship.

So we travel to the USSR, and risk losing our groundedness in whatever is supportive and righteous in US culture. We struggle with a strange language, avoid the Leningrad water, and risk "sympathizing with the enemy." Our comforting perceptions and concepts of ourselves and Soviets are loosened, expanded, enriched, endangered.

Some Soviets, feeling their own versions of the pain, fear and yearning caused by the cold war, reach out to us lovingly. They are moved that we travel far to see them, and that we return. They see that we value aspects of their culture, that we smile, laugh and cry in response to life as they experience it, and in response to them as persons. One of their slogans about World War II is "No one is forgotten, everything is remembered." When we show that we have some capacity to feel and remember pain and to long for a shared peace, they begin to trust us as humans, not just Americans. And we experience their humanness, in and beyond their Soviet-ness, in spite of our fears of their propaganda cons and our compatriots’ accusations of disloyalty and naivete.

Perhaps pain is the only motivator powerful enough to launch us across the barriers between us – pain, and the hope that life can be different. That yearning, and the treasured moments when it is fulfilled in personal contact between Soviet and American friends, or even sometimes between strangers on the subway, gives a bittersweet quality to citizen diplomacy. It is a special high, a transformation of consciousness, a trip beyond ego, that turns us into addicts and maybe bodhisattvas.


Compartment Nine

by Tom Greening

No tanks push through the mist
Hovering over historic fields,
No tread marks scar the early snow,
And undisturbed birches
Watch our train peacefully
Plod toward the border.
My Russian dictionary
Lies unopened, while we trade
Stories about the journeys
That brought us this far.

The general’s daughter sews
On a peace quilt
And tells us how she watched,
Perched on her father’s shoulders
At age four, a lynching.
The former physicist describes
The birth of his son
And the end of his war career.
As the short priest says
That he feels called to Volgograd,
I watch a farmer on horseback
Waiting at a crossing,
In no hurry
For the next war.

The mist grows thicker,
And my mind is clouded
About how I got here,
Or where this train is taking me,
So far from the Memorial Day parades
Of my New Jersey hometown.

I open my briefcase
And go through the list of names
Of Soviets I’ll see,
And the foolish, stubborn hope rises again
On this dark November afternoon
That we could make a difference.



It’s Hard For Me To Say This,
But. . .

By Danaan Parry

"YOU’RE INVOLVED IN CITIZEN DIPLOMACY? So am I!! We have a Sister-City in the Ukraine!"

At every meeting that I attend, or talk that I give lately, I can count on someone saying that to me.

It used to excite me.

It’s beginning to depress me.

Why? The first reason comes from the Soviet Union, the second from the U.S.

When I am in the U.S.S.R. and I mention the sister-city concept, I usually get either a blank look, or a quite negative comment. Not that the idea is bad, but most Soviets that I interact with resent the manner in which the idea has been handled. A typical reply might be "You Americans, you demand that we do it your way, and don’t bother to ask how we do it. Are you trying to embarrass us? Are you trying to make the whole world American?" What they are referring to is the way that we operate individually, without going through established channels. We are proud of our ability to circumvent systems. For them, it generates mistrust.

The second source of my growing discomfort relates to my question to Americans who say they have a Soviet sister- city. I ask "Have you had a reply from this city?" Once in a very great while the person will say . . . "Yes, the Peace Committee responded." Or, "Yes, the Mayor wrote us a letter . . . " That’s wonderful! That makes all the work and the time worth while. My spirits soar when I hear that.

But unfortunately, about 98% of the replies to my question are "Well, we haven’t heard anything back yet, but I’m sure we will." OK, maybe so, I hope so. But that is not a sister-city relationship. Let’s just not fool ourselves. The prevailing negative feeling about previous attempts at pairing U.S. and Soviet cities, combined with good-natured but unfounded statements, create a confusing picture of what is going on. This makes it more difficult to assess what needs to be done.

So, what to do? First, educate yourself. Naive enthusiasm is not enough when we are dealing with cultures so different from our own. In fact, it can cause more trouble than trust. Here are some suggestions for deepening your awareness of the people and the process, as a first step in citizen diplomacy:

  • Send for two "primers" on the subject: 1) Surviving Together, by the Institute for Soviet-American Relations, 2738 Mc Kinley St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20015;
    and 2) "Just People, a Handbook for Citizen Diplomats," by Holyearth Foundation, Box 399, Monte Rio, CA 95462.
  • Subscribe to the newsletter "The Citizen Diplomat," Box 20875, Dallas, TX 75220.
  • Take a Russian/Soviet culture and history course at your local college. If there isn’t one, arrange for one to be given.
  • Study the Russian language, not so much to speak fluent Russian as to develop a feel for how they think and feel. Of course a formal class is best, but tapes and books are good, too. I recommend "Russian in 10 minutes/day" by Keershall, Bilingual Books. Holyearth Foundation has a cassette tape of Russian words, phrases and information for the citizen diplomat, for $6.50.

And the ultimate "what to do" is to visit the USSR. Especially if you are involved in any sister-city idea, go to that city, or as close as you can get. Meet with the folks, the officials, the school kids. Then, from that person-to-person foundation of trust, decide your next step.

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