Rebecca Johnson lives in Seattle and is a member of the Seattle Peace Chorus.
Of the many ways we can reach out to touch each other, music seems a very moving, healing way — a universal language.
On June 18,1985, I embarked on a very special journey. I traveled with 48 other members of the Seattle Peace Chorus to the Soviet Union. We visited a total of seven cities: Moscow, Kalinin, Yaroslav, Alma Ata, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Leningrad.
We had attempted to set up concert dates but hadn’t done so successfully, except for a date at the Moscow Baptist Church. We felt somewhat anxious about how we’d be able to sing with no concert dates. This "failure," as often happens, turned out to be a real gift. We were vulnerable — probably a good way to approach people we wanted to befriend.
In the Helsinki airport, we brought out our guitars and began to sing spontaneously. People gathered round and sang along with us, or at least grinned at our boldness. This felt good and laid the groundwork for increasing courage on our part to sing spontaneously in odd places.
We sang in church. We had been invited to sing in the Baptist Church for a Saturday evening service of a youth program. We were invited to come back the next morning and sing in the Sunday services. I don’t think anyone will forget how moved we were that morning. We were up in the balcony above the majority of the congregation. The church was packed; I don’t believe everyone could get in. We sat above and in front of our "enemy;" the majority were old women (we didn’t see many old men; so many were lost in World War II), with the characteristic babushka scarves tied around their heads. They were beautiful people, looking at us curiously and lovingly. We sang and we sobbed. These people, incredibly, are the people we’re willing to destroy. Their choir sang, sounding a lot like a Baptist church in the U.S.; they sang beautifully. After the church service, people crowded around, giving us gifts and notes and loving us.
We sang in trains. Our large group was split into two groups. Group A went to Yaroslav and Group B to Kalinin; both groups sang on the trains en route to these destinations. Our train car was made up of half Chorus members and half Soviet citizens. We were observed with shielded curiosity, but no contact was made. Our guitarists got out their instruments and began to strum a few American folk songs. Members of our group started singing, rather shyly at first, but soon were into the spirit, making eye contact and passing out balloons with Peace printed in English and Russian to the children. Russian heads began peeking over seats and there was a burst of smiling faces and laughter when we began singing our Russian songs. Our Russian repertoire consisted of a birch tree song, a patty-cake song (often causing great mirth because we sang a children’s song in four parts), and the Blue Green Hills of Earth from the Paul Winter Consort, sung in English and Russian. We felt great warmth and acceptance. What a feeling, that change in energy when people open up to each other!
We sang in museums. In Yaroslav, we visited a beautiful church with old frescos, now a museum. It was small and had wonderful acoustics. We milled around with groups of Russian tourists, not making contact. The woman in charge of the church motioned for us to sing. We started out with a Bach piece; the sound was heavenly. We sang the Blue Green Hills of Earth. Some of the people from the Russian tour groups who had just been leaving the church turned around and wandered back. We held out our hands and they joined us in a circle. They seemed as moved as we were. There was no language needed between us, just the feelings we shared, cutting through all that separated us.
We were often joined in song by people of many nations. I remember singing in the Moscow airport with Angolan medical students and a Russian tour guide whose Scottish brogue was so convincing I was making arrangements to visit him in Scotland later.
Our tour guides soon realized that we had come to the Soviet Union to sing. They began to help us arrange concert dates. One of these was in a Pioneer Palace in Samarkand. It was excruciatingly hot (we discovered to our embarrassment that heat changes vocal chords). Along with the many Soviets who came to see us were a group of Danish tourists who were so impressed by the idea of Americans singing for peace in the Soviet Union that they sat through the whole uncomfortable concert. They also expressed concern for our safety — from our own government! We apologized to our Uzbek audience for not having an Uzbek song to sing for them. After the concert, a woman rushed forward with a song to teach us; she was a music professor at the University. We were hot and exhausted and therefore poor students, so she and some of her students brought over the written music to us in the morning.
On subways and similar places, people would stare at us, trying to figure out where we were from. When we’d tell them in Russian that we were Americans and that we were there to sing for peace, their faces would light up and they’d share this information with each other with some amazement and much joy.
We sang outside and inside our hotels. One night in Tashkent, a small group of us started singing along with guitars. People began to join us; most were East and West Europeans. We sang together, and we cried. We were apparently singing after hours, and the police came, presumably to break us up. But they just stood there; they seemed helpless to break up the feeling there. We experienced this again in Leningrad our last night in the Soviet Union. We had returned late at night from a special dinner for us. We began singing in the lobby of the hotel. More and more people joined us, singing with us, holding hands with us, or watching us and throwing coins and verbal encouragement from the balconies. A lovely Russian woman held my hand and cried as we sang "Laduski," the patty-cake song. She hadn’t sung it since her childhood and I, an American, helped her remember the words! I cannot describe the spirit in that room; there was such a feeling of connectedness, of wholeness, of joy.
We sang in customs. Leaving Leningrad, our guides were not permitted to join us as we went through customs, but stood on the other side of the customs area to see us off. When we’d finally gotten through, we began to sing our farewells to them. The stern expressions on the faces of the customs officials turned to surprise. A softness came over the area. We cried. Our guides cried. What a gift to experience such a moment!
These are just some of my stories; there are 48 more sets of similar stories from our trip. I felt greatly empowered in these experiences, and I think they came from being vulnerable. I haven’t experienced the same feelings back in the United States, and I’m not sure what is different. We were putting ourselves out, admittedly reaching out to make friends, and maybe that’s harder to do at home. I think I’ve had a taste of the importance of being vulnerable and the reward of finding that, by being so, I don’t need to protect myself from enemies. Somehow the "enemy" is no longer there.
Inspired by her experience in the Soviet Union, Rebecca has moved further into citizen diplomacy. She recently went to Central America, where she connected with peace workers in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. For more information about her trip and contacts she made, write to her at Box 344, Seahurst, WA 98062.