Letter From A Soviet Friend

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 5
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

This section is primarily about the Soviet Union and its people, but before we begin, we would do well to listen for a moment to how we Americans are perceived by the Soviets.

The following letter reflects the perceptions and feeling of many Soviets who have gotten to know American citizen diplomats. Irina Mazel teaches English in adult evening classes in Leningrad, and has befriended Diana Glasgow on her travels there. The "Just People" she refers to is an issue of the Holyearth Journal devoted to citizen diplomacy.

Dear Diana,

After reading IN CONTEXT and the Holyearth Journal, I fully appreciate the idea of citizen diplomacy. I wish all the Soviet people would be able to read "Just People," which is so touchingly warm.

I’d like to thank you personally for the remarkable efforts you’ve been making to promote citizen diplomacy. The Soviet people who know you and other citizen diplomats have seen a better, friendlier side of America.

It’s wonderful to realize that there are people in your country (let’s hope their numbers will grow) who are striving to make peaceful contacts with the Soviet Union.

Yet, one cannot understand the psychology and soul of a nation without knowing its history and culture. My impression is that we Soviets know your history and literature much better than you know ours. This can be explained, in part, by the different approaches of Soviet and American educators.

Certain knowledge of the history and culture of leading European countries and the U.S. is an integral part of our educational program. In the 8th and 9th grades, our children get acquainted with the most important historical events, public figures, and national heroes of America. American classics by Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, O. Henry, and Jack London are very popular. Particularly well-liked is the poetry of Walt Whitman and Henry Longfellow (especially "The Song of Hiawatha," beautifully translated into Russian by Ivan Bunin, a fine writer).

You can hardly find a 12-year-old boy or girl who hasn’t read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, though some of them may not remember the name of the author. Every educated adult knows the names and works of Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and other modern writers and dramatists.

A good deal of attention is paid to the USA as the most influential country of the capitalist world. We can’t help admiring the remarkable achievements of America’s science and technology and respecting the enterprising spirit of the nation. The people here realize how much we can learn from each other if we maintain peaceful relations and become good friends.

But the interest must be mutual. From my conversations with younger Americans, I have concluded that they know surprisingly little, if anything, about the rich, turbulent history of Russia and the USSR. They have a very vague idea of Russian culture, which has contributed greatly to world civilization.

Where can Americans learn about us? Are there special courses (obligatory or optional) in Russian/Soviet history and culture at high schools in the U.S.A., or perhaps, at colleges? I have heard that foreign languages are being given a lot of attention in your country now. Will Russian be taught in more schools? It would be very interesting to have answers to these questions.

In any case, the fact that more and more American people are coming to the Soviet Union with open hearts gladdens us more than I can say. It gives hope that we will overcome the obstacles that divide us and settle our disputable problems in a peaceful way.

With love and respect,
Irina Mazel

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