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Siberian thaw

Fold a map of Russia in two and right in the crease you’ll find Krasnoyarsk, deep in the heart of Siberia. From Holland, it is as far to the east as Chicago is to the west – six time zones away. Russia is truly huge!

The very name Siberia conjures up images of gulags, isolation, vast frozen and desolate flat tundra landscapes. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not what I encountered in Krasnoyarsk last week as I came to teach in our DTS there. We flew in over lush green forests and fields as we came in to land, and stepped out into thirty-plus degree weather. Krasnoyarsk is a mega-city on the banks of the wide, deep-flowing Yenisey river which flows 2000 kilometres due north into the Arctic Ocean, making it one of the world’s longest rivers. The city looks across the deep blue waters onto smokey-blue wooded ranges with rugged rocky outcrops and intriguing valleys.

Although a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Krasnoyarsk had been a “no-go” city to visitors as nuclear weapons were produced here in the Cold War days. But in the early nineties, many westerners had rushed into this and other Russian cities with frenetic ‘crusade’ activities, only to depart just as abruptly after exhausting all the photo ops. Perhaps that’s a tad cynical, but there’s more than a grain of truth there.

Other encounters I had last week challenged my stereotypes formed over the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I saw neighbours taking cooperative initiative to landscape their common garden area and improve their environment. I noticed humorous bronze statues in public areas replacing the serious “superhuman” images of socialist times. I drew out roubles from a money machine on my Dutch card. I passed young people dressed in sophisticated western fashion, trendy mobile phones glued to their ears. I received a smile from an immigration official who indicated the beard on my passport photo was now missing. And the lady at the airline counter returned my ticket with the comment, “You have a beautiful name”!

I was even taken to a stadium on Friday evening to a game of rugby, where high-standard first, second and third-phase play indicated the presence of a South African trainer. Rugby! in Siberia!? The smells and sounds transported me to the New Zealand of my childhood – except for the American-style cheerleaders who danced to loud music every time their team scored.

Yes, there were still many quiet reminders of the old order: for example, a surviving Lenin statue, and a squad of headscarved babushkas armed with long-bladed scythes marching off to a day’s labour of grass-cutting.

But these signs of change and hope reminded me of the profile some of us had sketched ten years ago of the post-communist person. We had tried then to identify common character traits of those who had lived through the communist era so that we could design training to address the hurts and distortions.

Problems with authority had led typically to mistrust, passivity and controlling leadership styles in the church. Wounds of injustice and abuse had produced defensiveness, anger, secretiveness, helplessness, a victim mentality and an inferiority complex. The fear of failure, of betrayal, of being corrected, of outsiders, of the unknown and of the future were all products of the communist period. They produced a tendency to say one thing in public and another in private. Education under communist regimes meant regurgitation of the party line. Students were often afraid to draw own conclusions and to think for themselves. And a decade ago, an ugly nationalism was on the rise in Russia resulting from the collapse of communism.

I was encouraged to learn from Elise Carey, our DTS leader, and others I asked, that a new generation of young people was emerging who were prepared to think for themselves, able to express themselves more directly and honestly, not afraid of reprisal and not so hampered by the wounds of the past. While history still remains a great blank for many, they are more conscious of their place in the broader world – even deep in the heart of Siberia.

The DTS students I interacted with last week had really seemed to grasp that ideas had consequences, for individuals but also for nations. And that the future of Siberia was dependent on the choices of today’s generation.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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