Ann Wright reports on her citizen-to-citizen trip to Russia. Everywhere, including in Siberia, memories of World War II are still fresh.
“Our planet is so small that we must live in peace.” So said the leader of an organization for mothers of military veterans in Yakutsk, Siberia. The woman, Maria Emelyanova, went on to call on “mothers to unite against war.” Despite the actions of our politicians and government leaders, this sentiment is shared by many ordinary Russians and Americans.
I was in the Russian Far East as a part of the Center for Citizens Initiatives, a citizen-to-citizen diplomacy program. The 45-person delegation from the United States had completed five days of dialogue in Moscow with Russian economic, political and security specialists about their analyses of today’s Russia. We also formed into small teams and disbursed to 20 cities all over Russia to meet people.
When I got on the S7 airliner departing Moscow, I thought I must have gotten on the wrong plane. It seemed like I was headed for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, instead of Yakutsk, Sakha, Siberia! Since I was going to the country’s Far East, I had expected that the majority of passengers would be ethnic Asians of some type, not European Russians. However, I didn’t expect that they would look so much like ethnic Kyrgyz from in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan.
And when I stepped off the plane in Yakutsk, six hours and six-time zones later, I was definitely in a time warp. It was 25 years earlier, in 1994, when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan for a two-year U.S. diplomatic tour.
The city of Yakutsk looked much like the city of Bishkek with the same types of Soviet style apartment buildings, the same above-ground pipes for heating all the buildings. And as I saw during three days of meeting people in their homes, some of the old-style Soviet era apartment buildings have the same dimly lit, poorly maintained stairways, but once inside apartments, the warmth and charm of the occupants would shine.
As in all parts of Russia, the economic changes of the past 25 years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union has transformed much of daily life. The move in the early 1990s toward capitalism — with the privatization of the massive Soviet government industrial base and the opening of private small- and medium-sized enterprises — brought new commercial construction and private housing. The import of goods, materials and food from Western Europe opened up the economy for many. However, pensioners and those in rural areas with limited income have found life more difficult. Many wish for the days of the Soviet Union where they feel they were more secure economically with state assistance.
World War II Still Vivid
The effects of World War II are still felt on Russians all over the country including the distant Russian Far East. Over 26 million citizens of the Soviet Union were killed as the German Nazis invaded. In contrast, 400,000 Americans were killed in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. Every Soviet family was affected with family members killed and families all over the Soviet Union suffering from lack of food. Much of the patriotism in Russia today centers on remembering the huge sacrifice 75 years ago to repel the Nazi invasion and sieges and a commitment to never let another country put Russia into such a situation again.
Even though Yakutsk was six times zones and 3,000 air miles, or 5,400 driving miles, from the Western Front near St. Petersburg and the eastern European countries that were under siege, the population of the Soviet Far East were mobilized to help defend the country. In the summer of the early 1940s, young men were put on boats on rivers that flowed north to the Arctic and shipped around to the front.
Meeting Veterans in Russia
Since I am a veteran of the U.S. military, my hosts arranged for me to meet with two military related groups in Yakutsk.
Maria Emelyanova, the woman quoted at the start of this article, is the head in Yakutsk of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, an organization that was created in 1991 after the return of Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan in 1989 and was very active during the First Chechen War (1994-96) when an estimated 6,000 Russian soldiers were killed and between 30,000-100,000 Chechen civilians died in the conflict.
Maria said that the brutality of the Chechen war as seen on Russian TV caused two women in Yakutsk to die of heart attacks. 40 young men from the Yakutia region were killed in Chechnya.
I asked about Russian involvement in Syria and she responded that to her knowledge no Russian ground forces are in Syria but the Air Force is there and several Russian airmen were killed when the U.S. sent a missile into an Air Force base in Syria. She said the death and destruction for Syria is terrible. Maria’s calls for peace are echoed by many American groups, including Veterans for Peace and Military Families Speak Out.
Obligatory military service in Russia is one year and according to Maria, families are not against young men getting military training as it gives them discipline and better opportunities for a job after the one year of service — similar to the rationale given by many U.S. families.
I was honored to meet Raisa Fedorova, a 95-year-old veteran of the Soviet army in World War II. Raisa served three years in an air defense unit that protected the oil pipelines around Baku, Azerbaijan. She married a man from Yakutsk and moved to Siberia where they raised their children. She leads an organization for World War II veterans called the Katusha (name of a rocket) club and speaks frequently to school kids about the horrors and devastation of World War II for Russia. She and other veterans are revered in their communities for the huge obstacles faced by their generation in defeating the Nazis.
In these days of U.S.-Russian tensions, many forget that during World War II, under the Lend Lease program, the United States enormously increased its industrial production to provide aircraft and vehicles to the Soviet military to defeat the Nazis. Yakutsk played an important role in this program as it became one of the stopover points for the 800 aircraft that were manufactured in the United States and flown to Fairbanks, Alaska, by American pilots where they were met by Soviet pilots who then few the aircraft 9700 kilometers over isolated Siberia to the bases in Central Russia.
Fairbanks and Yakutsk became sister cities through this connection and each has a monument to the pilots from both the U.S. and Russia who flew the planes.
Ethnic Groups and Land
Inhabitants of the area around Yakutsk come from many indigenous ethnic groups brought together under the Soviet system through education in the Russian language. Cultural events keep ethnic heritages alive. Singing, music, crafts and clothing of each ethnicity are valued greatly in the Yakutsk area.
Unlike in other parts of Russia where young people are moving from the villages into the cities, the population of Yakutsk is remaining a steady 300,000. The federal government of Russia is offering each person in Russia one hectare of federally owned land in unpopulated Siberia to populate the area and take the strain off the cities. Families can combine their hectares into a viable amount of land for agriculture or other enterprises. One villager said his son and his family have gotten new land on which they will raise horses as horse meat is eaten more commonly than beef. The land must show some level of occupancy and production within five years or it is returned to the land pool.
The People’s Party for Women of Russia, headquartered in Yakutsk, assists women and families in Yakutsk as well as the Arctic North with programs on child care, alcoholism, domestic violence. I heard about expeditions of women heading north into remote villages to hold “master classes” in a variety of topics. The group is working internationally with presentations at conferences in Mongolia and would like to expand its contacts in the United States.
Young Russians Concerned About Livelihoods
In discussions with several young adults, all of whom were busy on their mobile phones, just like their U.S. counterparts, it emerged that the economic future was of greatest concern. The political environment was of interest, but mostly focused on how the politicians were going to improve the stagnant economy. In a relatively new occurrence, Russian individuals and families are going into debt in order to meet monthly expenses. The availability of merchandise and buying on credit, so common in the U.S., is a new aspect of life in the 25-year old capitalist society. Interest on loans is about 20 percent, so once in debt it’s hard to get out unless the economy picks up.
Under the country’s National Plan, $400 billion will be spent on infrastructure, health and education to stimulate the economy. Some young people questioned whether it would help them; they asked where the money would be spent, which companies would get contracts, and whether corruption would eat up a good portion of the project.
Unlike in Moscow, Yakutsk has seen little political protests. The only recent protest was over the alleged rape of a Yakutsk girl by a Kyrgyz man. This brought the issues of migration of Kyrgyz to Russia and particularly to Yakutia into full focus. Russia has allowed Kyrgyz to immigrate to Yakutia for jobs. The Kyrgyz language is based on Turkish as is the Yakut language. As a republic of the former Soviet Union, citizens of Kyrgyzstan not only speak Kyrgyz but also Russian. In general, the Kyrgyz integrate well into Yakutia society, but this incident has brought tensions.
U.S. an Enemy?
“Do you think the U.S. is an enemy of Russia?” I asked many people this question, both in Moscow and in Yakutsk. Not one person said “yes.” The general comment was “We like Americans but we don’t like some policies of your government.” Several said they were perplexed why the Russian government would have tinkered in the 2016 U.S. elections knowing that the fallout of such would be bad — and did not believe their government had done it.
Some said that sanctions the U.S. has placed on Russia for the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and interference in U.S. elections in 2016 has made President Vladimir Putin more popular and has given him more power to lead the country. No one questioned the annexation as inappropriate or illegal as Crimea held strategic military bases that would be threatened by the right-wing nationalist Ukrainian coup makers. They said Putin has stood up to the U.S. and done what he feels is best for Russian national security and the Russian economy.
They said life under the Putin administrations has been stable and until the past three years, the economy was moving ahead. A strong middle class has emerged from the turmoil of the 1990s. The sale of Japanese and South Korean cars boomed. Life in the cities was transformed. However, life in the villages was difficult and many moved to the cities for employment opportunities. Older, retired people find it’s difficult to live on a state pension. Elders live with their children. There are virtually no elder-care facilities in Russia. Everyone has basic health insurance through the government although private medical clinics are growing for those who can pay for private care. Although medical equipment and medicines are supposed to be exempt from sanctions, the U.S. sanctions have impacted the ability to import certain medical equipment.
My hosts in Yakutsk were members of Rotary Club International. Rotary clubs have been in Russia since the 1980s when American Rotarians visited Russian families through the Center for Citizens Initiatives and then reciprocated and invited Russians to visit the U.S. There are now over 60 chapters of Rotary in Russia. Rotary International has partnered with eight universities around the world to create Rotary Centers for International Studies in peace and conflict resolution. Rotary provides funds for 75 scholars each year for two years of graduate study in one of eight universities around the world.
The next worldwide Rotary International conference will be in June 2020 in Honolulu and we hope that members of Rotary chapters in Russia will be able to get visas to the U.S. so they can attend.
During the winter, Yakutsk is reported to be the coldest city on Earth during with average temperature of minus-40 degrees Centigrade. The city sits on permafrost, a thick ice blanket that lies only a few feet underground throughout northern Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. With global warming, this underground glacier is beginning to melt. Buildings have begun to list and sink. Construction now requires pilings to keep buildings off the ground and prevent their heating from contributing to the melting. Should the massive underground glacier melt, not only will the coastal cities of the world be inundated, but water would be flowing deep into the continents.
Wooly Mammoths Preserved
The permafrost contributes to another unique aspect of Yakutia. The hunt for ancient mammals that roamed tens of thousands of years ago is centered here. While the Gobi Desert of Mongolia holds the remains of dinosaurs and their eggs, the permafrost of Yakutia has trapped the remains of the wooly mammoth. Expeditions to the region’s vast area of Sakha, which includes Yakutia, have produced remains so well preserved that blood slowly flowed from one carcass when it was chiseled from its icy tomb in 2013. Scientists took samples of the meat and are analyzing it. Using samples of the preserved meat, South Korean scientists are attempting to clone the wooly mammoth.
The bottom line of my stay in Far East Russia was that Russians, like Americans, want the confrontation between U.S. and Russian officials to be resolved without bloodshed.
Ann Wright served 29 years in the U.S. Army/Army Reserves and retired as a colonel. She was a U.S. diplomat for 16 years and served in U.S. Embassies in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the U.S. government in March 2003 in opposition to President George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. She is co-author of “Dissent: Voices of Conscience.”
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