Greetings from Russia: The Power of Citizen Diplomacy

Global Classroom director Ryan Hauck is currently in Russia as part of a 2-week teacher program with the American Friends of Russian Folklore. 

I’ve been anxiously awaiting an opportunity to visit Russia for several years. Finally, the chance 20150901_172805 (1)presented itself through an organization called American Friends of Russian Folklore.  I have been teaching about Russia for many years now in my high school social studies classes and always wanted to speak about Russia from a first-hand experience. A couple of years ago, I also started teaching a world literature course that included folklore from a cross-cultural perspective. This was a unique opportunity to experience Russian culture, interact with ordinary people in both urban and rural settings, and bring various historical and cultural stories back to students and teachers in Washington State. In addition, we would visit Russian schools and learn more about their educational system. Now, over half-way through this experience, I have a multitude of different thoughts and pictures racing through my head.

After a quick couple of days in Moscow and a visit to Red Square, the Kremlin, and a couple of museums, we ventured off to a region in the Northwest called Pskov. It is an area that is known for the famous 19th century writer, Alexander Pushkin. He is, without question, a central figure in this region. We visited two amazing estates connected with Pushkin and his family. It seemed as though everywhere we went, people asked what we had learned about Pushkin. Not far from the border with Estonia and approximately 270 kilometers from St. Petersburg, Pskov is rich in literary history, delicious food, and friendly hosts who are willing to make your experience worthwhile. In fact, prior to coming to Russia, some people asked if it was such a good idea considering recent developments in the relationship between the governments of both countries. My personal interactions with ordinary Russian people have validated my decision to come to this vast and diverse land.  Whether on the overnight train from Moscow to Pskov or visiting with students and teachers, the warmth and hospitality of the Russian people has put a bright smile on my face.

Pushkinb EstateUnder the direction of Russian folklore expert, Dr. Yelena Minyonok, we have traversed a wide landscape of Russian history and culture. Perhaps, the most memorable of these experiences was living for a few days in a very small village in a Russian forest outside of Pushkinskie Gory. A narrow, dirt and grassy road led us to remote Plotnikovo. Our intimate group of six lived in a small house with electricity, but not running water, and a pit toilet. One of our neighbors, Nina, has lived in the village for most of her 70 plus years and gave tremendous insights into the local way of life. She described some of the folklore traditions of the area, her marriage ceremony, and the cold winters. She heated up her Banya, a traditional sauna and bath, to hot temperatures that certainly cleared our sinuses. Nina also provided us with milk from her goat and throughout our stay we dined on fresh and natural products from our rural environment. Consuming the traditional, red beet soup borshch, lots of potatoes from the garden, cooked mushrooms collected from the forest, and plentiful blueberries, I marveled at how well we ate by simply gathering from the resources around us.

After returning from the village, we visited a school in the city that provides special accommodations for children with respiratory issues. In fact, many of the students come from throughout the province to this school of approximately 140. We observed the beginning of school and the traditional assembly that IMG_5110marks the beginning of a new academic year. The students, many with bouquets of flowers in their little hands, were eager and ready for class. I was particularly impressed in hearing about the variety of different student-centered, project-based learning opportunities available for students. From a media center, in which students telecast school news, to critical thinking activities around human rights, these students were certainly cultivating 21st century skills. In the afternoon, we joined a local folklore band (mixed ages), singing and dancing to a variety of Russian folk traditions. Afterwards, we had a rich discussion over tea and local cakes. You should have seen the smiles on our faces!

IMG_5107As I reflect back on this experience, I’m left with so many different thoughts and emotions. From our reliable taxi driver, curious school children, energetic dancing partners, and neighborly villagers, I was reassured by my belief in the power of cross-cultural exchange. Ordinary Americans and Russians who characterize the importance of citizen diplomacy and the common threads that connect people across oceans. With politics aside, it was an expression of friendship and goodwill that made for such a memorable experience. As the new school year starts, I can’t wait to get back into the classroom and ignite a passion in my students to have a similar experience!

Photos taken by Ryan Hauck