‘Planet So Small We Must Live in Peace’

Ann Wright reports on her citizen-to-citizen trip to Russia. Everywhere, including in Siberia,  memories of World War II are still fresh. 

By Ann Wright
Common Dreams

“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

Maria Emelyanova, left, of Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, with the author. (Ann Wright)

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.  

(Ann Wright)

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.

Inhabitants of Yakutsk. (Ann Wright)

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.

Raisa Fedorova, veteran of World War II. (Ann Wright)

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.

Rotary Clubs

Rotarian hosts in Yakutsk. (Ann Wright)

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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16 comments for “‘Planet So Small We Must Live in Peace’

  1. Josep
    September 25, 2019 at 14:20

    “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.”

    This reminds me of a Pat Buchanan article I read on Unz Review saying that during the Cold War the Soviet media portrayed Americans in a sympathetic light while denouncing capitalism. Meanwhile the USian media portrayed Slavs, including Russians, as evil, incorrigible Untermenschen. Makes us wonder who the real propagandist was.

  2. Tony
    September 24, 2019 at 08:57

    A wonderful and inspiring story of citizens’ diplomacy.

    Thank you to all concerned.

  3. zhenry
    September 24, 2019 at 01:10

    ‘The move in the early 1990s toward capitalism, privatization of the massive Soviet government industrial base, the opening of private small- and medium-sized enterprises — new commercial construction and private housing. The import of goods, material, food from Western Europe opened up the economy for many.’
    A Wright goes on: Pensioners from rural areas have found life more difficult and many Russians wish for the days of the Soviet Union.
    Other comments Wright makes like ‘the dark dingy Soviet apartments’ and ‘heating pipes above ground’ give the impression of an American visiting a backward country and that ‘her country’ has ‘the way’ to a better life.
    I find that underlying ‘I am superior’ troupe utterly objectionable and destructive.
    Similarly the US goes into negotiations with another country and assumes that country must do what the US wants or be damn them.

    Until the US (we are talking about the 1%) has the maturity to look at and question their and other economic systems and how we all can negotiate a better economic system for everyone.

    I think international sharing and meeting of grass roots groups are positive, even if they are ‘the military complex grass roots’, but not if one side still harbours ‘we are preditary and we are the best’.
    Let ‘us’ human beings save ourselves and the planet.

  4. September 23, 2019 at 18:07

    Excellent article. I’d never heard that Rotary International was involved in peace work; in US it just looks like a typical “lodge” organization. Deserves more attention in peace circles.

  5. Simon
    September 23, 2019 at 13:39

    Great to read this. And to learn of Rotary activities in Russia. My only question is whether, had Stalin not initially aligned the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union’s unimaginable human sacrifice might never have been on such a scale. I think Stalin’s Hitler alliance is why the West continues not fully to empathise.

    • Susan Siens
      September 26, 2019 at 14:11

      Stalin entered into a pact with Hitler in order to stall German aggression which was inevitable.

    • Tim
      September 26, 2019 at 15:53

      > My only question is whether, had Stalin not initially aligned the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union’s unimaginable human sacrifice might never have been on such a scale.

      No. The Soviet government was perfectly aware that the Nazis had the Soviet Union in their sights. They tried to make defense agreements with Eastern European governments, and failed. Britain also turned them down. The Hitler-Stalin pact was only playing for time (on both sides), and gaining a strategic glacis in eastern Europe — and gaining more time for their arms industry to increase production (just like Chamberlain!)

      Stalin’s government did share the blame in other ways, however:
      – purging a large part of their general staff a couple of years before
      – causing lots of Ukrainians (not just their local fascists) to welcome the Wehrmacht as liberators at first. (The Germans quickly taught them what a mistake that was.)
      – his lackeys in the Kremlin did not dare pass on the information provided by daring spies, giving the exact date and details of the German attack, because that meant the Germans had outwitted Stalin.

  6. Jeff Harrison
    September 23, 2019 at 12:55

    I’ve lived a number of places around the world. And, while the societies and customs are different, the humanity is the same everywhere. The biggest threat to world peace today is the United States and its vassals, the European former colonial powers.

  7. Drew Hunkins
    September 23, 2019 at 11:48

    Russians are rightly worried that NATO and the Washington imperialists will blow up the world.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. political scene is dominated by Trump derangement syndrome, pronoun usage, and shaming working people for desiring a bit of border enforcement. Also, the U.S. political scene is currently at work ignoring the one candidate who genuinely brings class politics, debt peonage and lousy working conditions to the forefront (Bernie) while promoting someone — Warren — based on identity politics who will likely sell-out Obama-style as soon as she’s in office. After all, she was a Republican until 1996.

    Judging from the above, we know which is the civilized society with an authentic humanity based culture and politics versus the one mired in infantile diversions filled with a confused and tapped out public unable to make sense of it all.

    • Susan Siens
      September 26, 2019 at 14:15

      Why would actual working people who are not white supremacists desire to keep out primarily indigenous people who are facing horrors in their own nations? (Most of which have been brought about by the U.S.) Like Jim Crow and mass incarceration, all this crap about the southern border is a distraction designed to keep white voters voting against their own interests. I have no problem shaming white supremacists having been working-class when I was still able to work. And I’ve been around long enough to be all-too-familiar with blue-collar fascism.

  8. Guy
    September 23, 2019 at 11:18

    Good article promoting camaraderie between nations .Yes the world is too small for war , we must learn to share and live together as good neighbors.

    • September 23, 2019 at 16:32

      Yes, I think the world is beginning to get it!

  9. jdd
    September 23, 2019 at 10:43

    The key to peace is international collaboration on exploration and colonization of space, beginning with cooperation between the United States and Russia.

  10. Sally Snyder
    September 23, 2019 at 10:02

    There is an interesting look at a comments from Vladimir Putin about the eventuality of nuclear war in viableopposition
    in October 2018.

    One can’t help but be concerned that one wrong move by either Russia and the United States could create an end of the world scenario in this period of nuclear brinksmanship.

  11. Mary Saunders
    September 23, 2019 at 09:58

    My dad flew supplies and VIP’s into Russian territory for the Royal Air Force during WWII. When he knew he was dying, he wrote several versions of memoir of that time. He was U.S., but with bottle-cap glasses, the U.S. would not let him fly, even though he had already taken flight lessons. He went down to the UK embassy to sign up with RAF. They said ok. He asked if they would test his eyes. The guy said, “I counted them.” UK was losing pilots like flies at the time. Dad secretly trained in Oklahoma, then flew to Canada to cross to combat. He was a conscientious objector, which he got away with by flying medical-evacuation, supplies, and VIP’s. He loved the English and Russian people, but the VIP’s were challenging.

  12. September 23, 2019 at 07:07

    “Our planet is so small that we must live in peace.”
    Yet all the evidence point to another world war. Governments need to be persuaded that the real cause of war – desire for power – will eventually lead to their own destruction. Power (manifested as interest) has been present in every conflict of the past – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war. Other cultural factors might change, but not power. Interest cuts across all apparently unifying principles: family, kin, nation, religion, ideology, politics – everything. We unite with the enemies of our principles, because that is what serves our interest. It is power, not any of the above concepts, that is the cause of war. History tells us that every empire eventually gets the war it wants to avoid – utter defeat – because of power. But they have always been blind to this flaw: still are.

Comments are closed.