I believe in citizen diplomacy…

James - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Entered on September 18, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe in citizen diplomacy…

In late summer, 1988, I went to the Soviet Union on a Peace Walk in the Ukraine. I was there for a month with 460 other Americans and Soviets marching through the Ukrainian countryside, eating watermelons, carrying banners, and talking about disarmament. We wanted to promote peace through person-to-person contact, unfettered by politics. We may even have helped swing the hammer that drove nails into the coffin that surrounds that cold war.

But the coolest thing was the people. The friends I made during that month were immediately like family. One day, I wore a red bandana around my neck. I’m not sure why I did it; I think it may have been a desire to support a persona that would allow me to be more of a cowboy instead of just a tractor driver from Iowa. The next day, Ivan, Artiom and Misha appeared wearing similar red bandanas that we all wore everyday for the rest of the month.

Being guests at typically Soviet ‘meetings,’ many of us were able to make speeches. Imagine that: plain Americans making speeches in the Soviet Union. Trying to give part of my speech in Russian, I asked Ivan how to say that we had been treated like ‘royalty.’ Confused, he asked, “Why do you want to say that? You are treated like friends.”

At one point, Soviet officials invited Ivan to visit a memorial to his grandfather near the route. When I signed the guest book, I was thrilled to be the first American to write my name alongside those of heads of state from countries such as France, West Germany, and India.

After I got home in mid-September, I was too busy with my life to understand how amazing my experiences were. Imagine an Iowa farm boy palling around with residents of Moscow skyscrapers! As a 22-year-old youngster, I didn’t realize the awesome power of the winds of fate that had brought me together with those people. To think that our group may have played a role in ending the Cold War is certainly high-minded thinking, but it is nevertheless thrilling.

In 1999, 11 years after the Walk, I was working at an international school in Baku, Azerbaijan. A man walked into school looking for a native English speaker to help him translate the work of a 14-century Azeri poet into English. While we worked, Seyran Agabekov told me about his a Peace Walk, and proudly showed pictures. It took several emphatic pronouncements before he realized that I had been on not just a peace walk, but the very same one. I even have a picture of him holding a banner.

After 20 years, I’m going to search for more of those friends. I have a train ticket from Almaty, Kazakhstan (where I’m a teacher) to Russia on October 2, and I spent 7 hours in the Russian embassy getting a visa. I’m really going back.

I love the story of a man throwing starfish back into the sea from a beach littered with such animals after they were washed there by unusual surf. Someone asks, “Surely you don’t think you are going to make a difference? There are thousands of starfish here.”

The first man answers, “Makes a difference to this one,” as he throws another out to sea. Citizen diplomacy—every little bit can make a difference somewhere.