Russia was the “Evil Empire”.
Vilified in movies (Rocky IV, Red Dawn, Hunt for Red October, etc.)
Shown as aggressive and oppressive and corrupt in the media.
Studied as hard and stubborn and a bit backwards in history classes.
I grew up with an image of a Soviet Superpower that was more than a bit scary.
I think I probably celebrated with most of the folks I know when the Soviet Union disbanded. It felt like a longstanding rivalry had been settled, that we (the United States) had won. Evil was once again overcome.
Imagine me getting on a plane bound for Moscow to meet a train that would take me to Kirov where I would catch a shuttle to an orphanage inVelikoretskoye.
Into the heart of evil? To the very gates of hell?
I had an excellent group who worked hard to increase my cultural sensitivity and assuage my fears. Still, I found myself wondering if I might end up in some Siberian work camp where I would never be heard from again (I have an active imagination that doesn’t need much to spin a possible, however unlikely, tale of drama and intrigue).
Whatever “truth” there may be to my impressions of Russia, I was not expecting the genuine care, the warmth of friendship, the self-sacrifice and beauty of the people and the place.
These were people who bundled up to go out in the cold. Who ate and drank and laughed. People who listen to music and read books and go to museums. People who like to play and talk. I met people working hard to care for the marginalized, the vulnerable, the one’s desperate for hope.
And they give gifts. A simple wooden boat. A framed flower. A small balalaika magnet (see the pic).
Now, I don’t know how you define evil, but I am convinced evil is prejudice. Evil is close-mindedness. Evil is rejoicing at others difficulties. Evil is dismissing millions of people because a movie or a news report or a book told me to. Evil is me every time I engage in any of these behaviors. Evil is me deciding I’m better than people I’ve never engaged in conversation over a cup of tea. Evil is me wasting energy hating and fearing folks I have never so much as sat next to on a bumpy bus ride. Not just Russians, but people everywhere.
The evil empire I need to guard against is the one I build myself. Thank you Russia (and my Russian friends) for showing me my folly. Thank you Lent for the opportunity to place my experiences in the larger context of a life being transformed.
Here’s to defeating the evil empire, one life at a time.
Life is better together,