Letter Home from Russia (April 17, 1998)

It’s early on a chilly spring morning in Moscow, and I’m being carried across the tarmac at Domodedovo Airport by our country director and a fellow visiting lecturer. We’ve just returned from the Civic Education Project (CEP) Russia student conference in Tyumen. A mishap on the last night of the conference caused a ligament injury in my leg, leaving me temporarily unable to walk. This is strangely familiar, I think. Four months earlier I was similarly carried away from the CEP Ukraine student conference in L’viv. A mishap on the last night of the conference left me with two broken toes!

Leaving the conferences injured is nothing compared to the logistical nightmare of getting there, a procedure that consists of five easy steps … easy, that is, outside of a John Cleese comedy skit:

(1) Collect photocopies of student IDs and passports in time to buy tickets. Anyone who thinks this is simple either works in a place where photocopiers are taken for granted or is unfamiliar with university students’ understanding of the word “deadline.”

(2)(a) Proceed to the airline ticket agency. Wait in line one hour. Discover that, for reasons known neither to you nor to the agent, you must go to a different agency, on the other side of town, which closes in half an hour. If you wait until tomorrow, the rules will change again. Flag down a car to take you across town; but don’t tell the driver you’re in a hurry, or you’ll soon discover that the shortest line between two points lies across parking lots, back alleys, backyards, parks and frozen ponds. Arrive at the other agency, only to have them reject your photocopied documents for poor toner quality.


(2)(b) Proceed to the railroad ticket agency. Ask the administrator which window to go to. Wait in line one hour, until that clerk sends you back to the original window. This is not done on a whim. The rules simply change by the hour. Wait in line one hour and arrive at the front of the line just as the window is closing for “obyed” (lunch break). Wait for “obyed” to end. Get sent to a different window which has just closed for “teknicheskii pereryv” (technical break).

When you finally make contact with a clerk who agrees to hear (in the passive sense) your request for tickets, the exchange will end with the clerk doing one or more of the following: telling you these tickets cannot be purchased today, for reasons known neither to you nor to the clerk; insisting that your visa is not properly stamped, registered and/or extended and that you are here illegally; bringing to your attention the poor quality of the photocopied documents and perhaps refusing one or more of them; saying you can’t purchase tickets with photocopied documents (but, you can); insisting you can’t buy tickets for other people (but, you can); complaining that the students’ passport photos (taken years ago) don’t match their ID photos (taken only months ago); claiming that you don’t look like your passport photo, to which you respond that this is what dealing with the railroad bureaucracy has done to your appearance; screaming at you and throwing all the photocopies in your face; and/or (it happens sometimes) processing your tickets.

(3) Help one of your students make brief, last-minute changes to her conference paper. Discover that a virus has wiped out the entire document. The only hard copy has editing marks all over it because a printer has not been available for weeks. It took your student days to type this paper. It’s the night before departure. You will be retyping it.

(4) Struggle to the airport or train station at 4:00 a.m. over mounds of snow frozen at -30 F.

(5) Arrive at the conference. Discover that your luggage was lost in transit – at least this is better than discovering a student was lost in transit.

Given the nightmare of getting to the previous two conferences and the memories of being carted painfully away, am I looking forward to the international student conference in Budapest? Absolutely! If asked to name the highlight of my first year as a CEP lecturer, I would answer, “The CEP student conferences.” If asked to name the highlight of my academic career thus far, I would answer, “The CEP student conferences.”

I cannot imagine a more rewarding academic moment than reading the final draft of a paper written in English by a Russian student and realizing that this paper meets the standards of articles published in academic journals; supervising a student engaged in primary research on a cutting-edge topic in a transitional polity; listening to students calmly yet vigorously debate contentious issues concerning their countries’ immediate futures; watching a Russian meet a Belarussian or a Moldovan for the first time; helping a student at a cocktail party successfully network for international career opportunities; seeing a Kazak student ask a US embassy official to dance at a conference disco; watching a Russian student discover halfway through her oral presentation that she can speak English confidently in public; listening to a student change gears in the middle of her presentation to reflect on her conversations with other students at the conference and on how their comments and discussion made her think of a new approach to her topic; watching a student hyperventilate when she learns her paper was selected for Budapest; or attending a first-class, highly professional academic event, organized through hard work under conditions of tremendous adversity, during a momentous period in a nation’s history.

After being attacked by dogs, falling out of a train, falling through a snow-covered steam grate, hitting my head several times on car doors, having a flying screwdriver (launched accidentally by a drunk plumber) graze my head, being body-slammed by another lecturer falling down steps and landing on top of me, sustaining the two conference injuries, and in general feeling like Martin Short in the movie, Pure Luck, injuries barely faze me anymore. And after crossing Siberia, the Russian Far East, China and Mongolia by train over the winter break, dealing with the transportation bureaucracy also seems second nature. But I won’t ever think of CEP student conferences as just ordinary academic events. They are nothing short of miracles.

With my Russian students at the CEP International Student Conference, Budapest, Hungary, April 1998.