By Sharon Tennison
Editorâ€™s Note: PeaceWorker Editor Peter Bergel traveled to Russia with Sharon Tennison and others in June 2016 on a citizen diplomacy mission. He calls it â€œthe trip of a lifetime.â€
For the whole of 2016, we have been actively deliberating how best to use the Center for Citizen Initiatives’ 33-year experience in the US-Russia fieldâ€“â€“since Russia is increasingly being declared Americaâ€™s enemy #1â€“â€“which we totally reject.
Weâ€™ve concluded that our successful programs of the â€™80s are precisely what is needed again in todayâ€™s baffling environment.
Center for Citizen Initiatives’ Background
For those unfamiliar with our history, a few words follow: Â In 1983 at the height of first Cold War, twenty of us mainstream American citizens landed in Moscow with the goal to try to understand the deadlock with the â€œenemyâ€ country. Sixteen days earlier, the 007 Korean airliner had been exploded in air by Soviet planes killing 269 persons aboard, some of them Americans. Â Americaâ€™s Congress and U.S. media burst forth in natural outrage. Â The prospect of Nuclear War hung heavily across the world as we entered the Soviet Union. We first-time travelers to the USSR understood that more than ever that it was critical â€˜to get eyes on the enemyâ€™â€“â€“to try to understand their mentalities and learn if the US-USSR relationship was utterly hopeless.
We began our investigations in Moscow with â€˜eyes only.â€™ We didnâ€™t confront, condemn or try to change the Sovietsâ€™ angst; we listened and spoke up â€¦ trying to remain neutralâ€“â€“which was difficult, since they were obviously frightened an all-out war could ensue. We passionately yearned to reduce the risks of Nuclear War for both Americans and Sovietsâ€“â€“but as ordinary Americans were helpless to do anything but listen and try to get more information about the 007 flight. Long days, multiple meetings, confrontations and deep sharings by the Soviets about their experiences of WWII sped by. On leaving the USSR, our brain cells were scrambled with conflicting accounts of the horrible tragedy still in the news worldwide. Flying home we made the decision to return to the USSR â€¦ somehow realizing that our work had just begun. It was a momentous decision for several of us.
Like magnets drawn to metal, we scheduled a second trip and took other Americans with usÂ â€¦ then third and fourth trips. Â Soon we were making friends on the streets in Soviet cities and starting small projects with some of our new contacts (getting A.A. across the USSR was one of the projects that succeeded beyond anything we could have ever imagined). Thanks to Gorbchevâ€™s ascension to power in 1985, we got permission in 1987 to bring non-Communist party members to visit Americaâ€“â€“those whom we had met in parks, schools and in their small apartments. Â All together, we brought Soviet travelers to 264 American cities in 1988 and â€™89 (thanks to Steve Wozniak)â€“â€“where both sides realized they really enjoyed and respected one another. Â Among ourselves we declared that the Cold War dead! Â Other American groups like ours had also entered the â€œcitizen diplomacyâ€ field. Â By this time we collectively were making a difference in the mindsets of citizens across both Superpowers.
Our CCI travel activities in the â€˜80s succeeded because they destroyed decades of myths, stereotypes and fears between Soviet and American citizensâ€“â€“and they began to reduce deeply-held resentments and fears of Soviet officials.Â Soon, Gorbachev and Reagan met at Reykjavik, Iceland â€¦ and the rest is history. Cold War I vanished without a trace remaining.
Now 25 Years Later, We are into Cold War II
Senior US-Russia historians tell us as 2016 ends, we are closer to Nuclear War today than anytime since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet most Americans arenâ€™t aware of this since interestingly, the facts are not being reported in our mainstream media.Â Despite these grim forebodings, we citizens active in the â€™80s experienced for sure that â€˜intractable standoffsâ€™ between the two Superpowers can beÂ â€¦ and were set aside once before.Â Normal relations were worked out fairly quickly under the more open next decade.
It if happened once, it can happen again!Â Keep in mind that both Gorbachev and Reagan had numerous high-level VIP naysayers pressing them to maintain the Cold War;Â but despite them all, the two of them pushed forward, declared a truce and began working together to create peace between our countries. Following that nuclear weapons were radically reduced on both sides.
Our generation of Americans and Russians experienced pure euphoria when the Berlin Wall came down! Â No longer did we need to fear Nuclear War at each othersâ€™ handsâ€“â€“what a relief. We had proven that when Russians and Americans meet, we quickly find common ground. Strangely enough, our two populations have a Â natural affinity for one another. Yet, how odd it is that enmity has erupted again between todayâ€™s policy leaders. Â Mainstream media tout the same messages at the current leaders. Unfortunately, most of the generation that experienced â€œwhatâ€™s possible,â€ are elderly or goneâ€“â€“and new impressionable minds have been convinced by sheer repetition of questionable storylines that Russians are our mortal enemies! Â Itâ€™s unbelievable to me.
Itâ€™s critical that we citizens get involved in this latest Cold War II.Â If we do, itâ€™s predictableÂ that near magic will happen again, as it did in the 80s. Â We urge you to consider signing upâ€“â€“and also, please pass this email invitation on to respected, open-minded friends, colleagues and family members in your cities and beyond.
My warmest wishes to each of you for this New Year we have just entered!
~~ Â INVITATION ~~
CITIZENS OF GOODWILL MUST TAKE THE LEAD AGAIN!
You Can Have a Role in Rebuilding Relations and Trust between the U.S. and Russia
Dare to make a difference! Â We invite you to apply for the first-ever Mega Delegation of up-to-100 American citizens who will travel to Russia in April of 2017 to hold hundreds of discussions with Russians from all walks of life in 10 regions throughout Russia. Too many travelers go to Moscow, spend a few days, talk with a limited number of people set up for them and come back to America with a very limited point of view. Hence this trip will guarantee that we are exposed to multiple points of view and get them documented with surveys and notes from discussion groups in far-flung north-to-south and east-to-western regions.
We will investigate both countriesâ€™ perspectives on why the relationship deteriorated to this place againâ€“â€“and what it will take to rebuild equitable relations and trust between these two nuclearized Superpowers. Â And hopefully, the spectre of Nuclear War â€¦ or surrogate wars of any kind may be avoided in the future.
We citizens have the opportunity to be the human links during this extremely critical junctureâ€“â€“and make no mistake,Â the situation is extreme and it is critical. Â More than ever, we need to have â€œears to the ground,â€ listening and fact-checking assumptions and exaggerations relative to both countries. We need to comprehend both sides of the issues that have grabbed the angst of todayâ€™s policy makers. We need to understand the assumptions and major stick points regarding Syria, Iraq, Libya, Iran and China that divide our leadersâ€“â€“then use our voices nationwide and worldwide to call for sane alternatives. Future outcomes and solutions need to be open, honest and fair to all countries concerned.
WHAT IS NEEDED & WHY?
As 2017 begins, we can organize the following:
1) Â American citizens need to travel to Russia to make independent analyses of Russia, Russian people, Russiaâ€™s interests and points of viewâ€“â€“and return home to educate on how to work toward and promote reasonable solutions for both countries. We need to create public awareness and public discourse regarding how to create a sustainable future for us all.
2) Â Russian citizens and public figures need to travel to American cities to share their concerns and perspectives for rebuilding constructive relations and accommodating to each othersâ€™ politics and needs.
3) Â Stop Cold War II demonizations and narratives which feed fears across both nations;
4) Â Rebuild citizen and VIP human connectionsÂ withinÂ both populations as rapidly as possible.
5) Â Provide â€œtruthful informationâ€â€“â€“refrain from fake news, rumors, disinformation and fabrications.
TRAVELERS WILL RECEIVE:
â€¢ Â Travel daybooks in which to keep trip info, including diary space to record contacts, ideas and interactions.
â€¢Â Â Educational materials and metro maps for each city visited.
â€¢ Â Russian cultural norms that are different from American norms.
â€¢ Â Simple greetings and phrases in Russian language.
â€¢ Â How to interact with Russians in numerous types of formal and informal occasions.
â€¢ Â Surveys in Russian and English.
â€¢ Â Discussion formats and how to ask and respond to difficult questions and situations.
â€¢ Â Introductory travel cards to hand out (most Russians you meet will provide business cards).
â€¢ Â Name tags (English and Cyrillic) to remember each othersâ€™ names and to wear during meetings.
â€¢ Â Educational materials daily via email on hot topics between our countries.
â€¢ Â A copy ofÂ The Power of Impossible Ideas: Ordinary Citizensâ€™ Extraordinary Efforts to Avert International Crises, published in 2012, re CCIâ€™s successful citizen diplomacy work from 1983Â â€” 2010.
THE TRIP Â ITINERARY:Â
MOSCOW: Â The full group will meet with and question Moscow journalists, alternative media, officials who support the Putin administration, politicians who oppose Putinâ€™s policies, hopefully former Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev and TV icon Vladimir Pozner, NGO leaders, business and professional persons, educators and university students. We hope to attract a videographer to travel with the group. Want to learn to use Moscowâ€™s metro system? We can teach you so you can venture out on your own. Â As a full group we will do traditional outings on occasion: such as take the metro to the Center for a walking tour to experience Red Square, St. Basils and the renovated centuries-old architecture in downtown Moscow. Â We will dine in restaurants in the shadows of the ancient Kremlin walls. If travelers wish to visit a museum, palace or ballet, we can make the arrangements for you ahead of time.
REGIONAL CITIES: Â Leaving Moscow, the travelers will split into 10 smaller groups of Americans going to 10 outlying Russian regional cities (all around a million population) for in-depth interactions with counterpart professionals, local officials, new political party leaders, journalists, local Rotary clubs, business owners, NGO organizers, educators, university students, schools and TV interviews. For those with special interests such as Russian Orthodoxy, multi-religion regions, classical arts, etc., experts can be arranged. Travelers will have introductory cards in Cyrillic, surveys in both languages, interview questions in both languages, and PR materials. Local interpreters will be with the groups in each of the cities. We hope to arrange home visits for all delegates while in the regional cities.
ST. PETERSBURG:Â The full group will meet in St.Petersburg to share their experiences in the 10 regional cities. We will brainstorm how to use their experiences and insights upon return home. Meetings with St.Petersburg citizens for additional idea sharing will be organized. Â Travelers will get an overview of Russiaâ€™s famous cultural capital and its historic arts. Ballet, opera, symphony and museum tickets can be arranged in advance for those who desire them. The great ballet and opera halls are somewhat expensive; but performances in smaller halls are excellent and inexpensive. We can arrange the former early prior to travel, and provide lists and directions to the smaller performances at the time.
We fully expect that this April 2017 trip will reveal the next steps to start rebuilding relations between Americans and Russians at many levels. This happened in the 1980sÂ during a far more heavily controlled USSRâ€“â€“and with an equally resistant American public.
ADDITIONAL TRIP DETAILS
â€¢ Â Travel dates will likely beÂ April 1 â€“ 16, but may shift a bit in order to secure VIP appointments, such as former Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev, TV icon Vladimir Pozner and other notables.
â€¢ Â The trip will be modestly-priced, hopefully suitable to accommodate even a few university students which we hope to attract. Consider sending your son or daughter, grandson or granddaughterâ€“â€“if so, they will be grateful to you for a lifetime for this unique experience. Hotel rooms will cost on average around $60 to $90 (single or double) per night. Restaurants remain reasonably priced to date, since the currency rate favors the US dollar. Should some travelers require high-end hotels, they can be arranged. Trip costs will be worked out in early January.
â€¢ Â If you have food allergies or intolerances, share them. We will print out a card in Cyrillic for you to give to waiters. They will show what foods on their menus you can eat. Â I recently took a woman to Russia who is allergic to eggs, dairy products including butter, nuts and wheat. She had a card printed out, restaurants were helpful and she survived!
â€¢ Â We will useÂ GoToRussia, a private travel company out of Atlanta and San Francisco, with whom we have previously worked. We respect their integrity and â€œgoing-the-extra-mileâ€ for our travelers. They will arrange Visas and will handle all travel from JFK to Russian cities and back to JFK. Â CCI will handle all in-country activities privately with the assistance of our former CCI Russian Office Directors, alumni and interpreters. Â All travel elements within Russia will be carried out on private basis.
TRIP FOLLOW-UP INTENTIONS:Â Post travel, participantsÂ will receive a questionnaire to help us gather distilled impressions and ideas. Â Often after such travel,Â new ideas and social inventions surface belatedly. Some are quite important so we want to capture them if possible. An inter-group email newsletter will be initiated along with a â€œBank of Ideas.â€ Â We plan to create a database of all the Russians the group meets, to which you will have access.
The future of the world is too important to leave up to politiciansÂ
with no direct experience with Russia.
REPORT OUT IN WASHINGTON, D.C. â€” LATE APRIL 2017
Some of the April travelers will travel to Washington to meet with U.S. Congress members and â€œthink tanksâ€ following the trip. Â Members will be apprised of what we learned throughout Russiaâ€“â€“including Russiansâ€™ perceptions toward the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Crimea and war-ravaged Islamic states not far from their bordersâ€“â€“including their perceptions of U.S. relations and Russiaâ€™s leadership. We hope to expand Congressional contacts during this critical year ahead.
If you think you may be able to travel on this first-ever â€œmegaÂ trip with a mission,â€Â please email us at: Â firstname.lastname@example.org. Â
We will send you an application form and additional information
Also please feel free to ask questions.Î¦
The Center for Citizen Initiatives is the brainchild of an American citizen, Sharon Tennison, who in the early 1980s determined in a period of desperation to try to reduce tensions between the two superpowers. Tennison and a growing group of business and professional Americans made the decision to try their hands at diplomacy and began putting together their first trip to the “land of the enemy.”