The Power of Impossible Ideas: How One Woman Helped Changed US-Soviet/Russian Relations

(Disclosure: I have become well-acquainted with the author over the past several months as a result of my research of the Russia/Ukraine crisis. – Natylie)

 

“Everyone asks how and why, I, a non-academic, ordinary American woman, mother of four children have ended up working at the US-Russia interface. It seems to others like an unimaginable career path.   I agree. I had no previous interest in Russia and never could have guessed that I would spend a quarter of a century immersed in Russia’s transition from communism to a market economy. The personal answer is rather straight forward. My children were near leaving the nest in the late ‘70s—and the larger outside world, particularly, the nuclear arms race, began impinging on my reality.

 

By autumn of 1979, the world felt full of foreboding. Information and talk about nuclear weapons and targets was omnipresent. Political campaigns were driven by the US-USSR relationship and the threat of nuclear war. Perhaps it had been so previously, but it had not registered with me until that time. All of a sudden it was in my face every time I switched on the TV or picked up a newspaper. I worried daily about my own children’s futures. Would they get a chance to have families and careers of their own? If not, this wasn’t acceptable to me. Something had to be done.” (p. 2)

 

This story of a middle-aged mother and nurse, motivated to take matters into her own hands by her concern about possible nuclear war, captures the anxiety that people who were old enough to be aware experienced during the early 1980’s when the Cold War had reached heights not seen since the early 60’s, with hostile rhetoric and dangerous posturing on both sides, backed up with 50,000 nuclear weapons pointed at each other – enough to destroy the planet 10 times over.

 

Tennison wrote a letter to President Reagan after he’d stated that 20 million American deaths would be acceptable in a nuclear war – just one of many ludicrous claims being bandied about by politicians and their pet media pundits during that time period, which included the suggestion that Americans could easily survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a hole in the ground with a door placed over it and three feet of dirt. In her letter, she told the president not to consider her and her four children as one of the 20 million “acceptable” deaths. In response she received a terse reply letting her know that her letter had been “turned over to the State Department.”

 

Along with a group of other concerned citizens she’d networked with, Tennsion brainstormed how they could facilitate constructive change between the two countries as their own governments seemed clueless at best and reckless at worst. Together they decided it was time to “meet the enemy” and figure out for themselves how to build bridges.

 

Along the way, Tennsion details some of her strange encounters with various American spooks, including the CIA agent she happened to meet, seemingly by chance, through her job who unexpectedly expressed respect for the Soviet people’s resilience and acknowledged their historical suffering. He also had his own interesting take on the recent Korean airliner shot down by the Soviets right before her group was scheduled to go on their maiden voyage, making the undertaking all the more urgent as public condemnation and recriminations heated up.

 

Then there were the two female FBI agents she had to check in with after each trip to the Soviet Union and how one seemed to take a genuine interest in Tennison’s experiences with the Soviet people and began asking intelligent, open-minded questions…until she mysteriously disappeared from the FBI payroll.

 

Tennison admits that in the early days, she had no formal study of Russian/Soviet culture or history, which in a strange way, probably helped her to go in with fewer pre-conceived ideas. She let her experiences with the Soviet people she met on the streets – where her and other groupmembers handed out 3×5 cards introducing themselves and their purpose along with a phone number to reach them if they were interested – to guide her thinking.

 

“We increasingly found quality in the people—those we first chanced to run into in the streets or parks. They were intelligent and warm hearted, modest and surprisingly cultured. They were a magnet for us. We couldn’t understand how to connect the decaying society at large with these fascinating and deeply philosophical human beings who were trapped within it. They accepted much that we couldn’t have accepted—they had more patience, more endurance, and more willingness to hunt down what they needed for daily life than we could have mustered. And obviously they didn’t need nearly as many consumer goods as Americans were accustomed to. But it was their intellect that so took us by surprise, their love of languages even though they never expected to be able to travel, and their respect and enjoyment of the classical arts.

 

They had devised so many small ways to squeeze enjoyment out of their limited lives, and so many means to get around the system in which they lived. It seemed defeating the system in small ways or getting around it was accomplishment and pleasure in itself. ” (p. 77)

 

Some of the fruits of her and her colleagues work in the 1980’s included the launching of a travel program for Soviets to visit the US – a groundbreaking achievement since average Soviets were rarely if ever allowed to travel abroad at that point, the establishment of AA programs in the Soviet Union to address the scourge of alcoholism, and a business training program in which English speaking Soviets who were budding entrepreneurs were allowed to spend several weeks with small business owners in America to learn the basics of how to run a business from the ground up. The “graduates” of this program often went on to build successful businesses in Russia.

 

It is uncanny how Tennison and her colleagues often seemed to have fate on their side as logistical obstacles that got in their way would often be resolved in a timely fashion by the fortuitous appearance of someone who could help them out. Of course, these obstacles often took the form of money to finance a program that was needed to fill a newly realized gap or opportunity. Various philanthropists provided the funding, with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak being the most famous.

 

It is admitted that the programs of Gorbachev in the mid-to-late 1980’s often facilitated the opening needed to make Tennison’s programs work. However, she makes an interesting observation about the overall effect of all the rapid changes that took place during this time, which laid the groundwork for the tragic shellshock of the 1990’s, the effects of which the Russians are still trying to gradually overcome.

 

“They relished the relaxing of structures, opening up to foreigners, and being able to write the truth of what they felt to the newspapers….[But] my sense looking back is that this was too much change too quickly—too much catharsis for one generation to bear. And yet as the decade ended, the Soviets were careening toward yet another set of traumas in the 1990s that would exhaust their remaining coping mechanisms.

 

Their society was rapidly moving into profound political, economic, social and psychological chaos. Gorbachev unleased glasnost and perestroika (voicing and restructuring) but hadn’t factored in the degree of destabilization that both would bring about.” (p. 78)

 

During Tennison’s trips to the Soviet Union she also visited important formal “tourist” sites. One that stood out was a trip to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) where she visited the mass graves (186 pits) in which were buried about 500,000 Russians, including many who starved or froze to death during the nearly 3-year siege of Leningrad when the Nazis surrounded the city. Over 26 million Soviets perished and a good portion of their country was utterly destroyed during WWII. The experience of the visit was all the more jarring due to the fact that the sacrifices and suffering of the Soviets and their crucial role in defeating Hitler was hardly acknowledged in the West at that point.

 

JFK was one of the few to break this taboo in his June 1963 speech at American University at which time he was pursuing a negotiated end of the Cold War with Soviet Premier Khrushchev behind the scenes and was telegraphing a conciliatory message to the Soviets, which was warmly received throughout the USSR when Soviet authorities relaxed their normal jamming of Western broadcasts to allow Kennedy’s speech to be heard uncensored. (See my review of JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass)

 

The Lost Decade

 

The 1990’s saw a growing need for aid as Yeltsin ushered in an era of banditry under the guise of privatization that was overseen by American economic advisors. This period saw the disintegration of law and order along with the breakdown of institutions that provided essential products and services.

 

Tennison and her organization (which changed its name to the Center for Citizen Initiatives or CCI) marshaled money and other resources to help Russians in their network obtain food and other necessities, but also put in place programs to help Russians feed themselves via donation of seeds and education on sustainable urban gardening, rural agricultural revitalization, and vocational and entrepreneurial training for Russians to start small to medium sized businesses.

 

Rotary clubs throughout the US played a supportive logistical role in these US-Russia exchanges and programs. Meanwhile, funding was provided by private philanthropic entities as well as USAID and other government agencies. At one point, Tennison and her colleagues even found themselves advising US cabinet members on conditions in Russia and introducing key members of Congress to actual Russian individuals who were participants in their programs.

 

An Unusual Bureaucrat

 

One encounter Tennison had in 1991 that left an impression was with a bureaucrat in St. Petersburg who needed to evaluate one of CCI’s project proposals for approval.

 

“Entering the former palace through a small side door, Volodya Shestakov (friend and translator) and I found ourselves in a tiny unimpressive room. Behind the desk, sat a trim and seemingly reserved man of about forty years. After impersonal greetings, he began to ask specific questions: What was our proposal? Why? How would it work? Who would it benefit? Where would the money come from? Each additional question was related directly to the last answer given. Not accustomed to pragmatic questions from such people, I became aware of this bureaucrat’s impersonal focus.

 

By this time, I’d had my fill of Soviet public officials. They always had personal agendas….they wanted a trip to America, a trip for one of their relatives or friends “to see what you are describing in person.” Or they wanted to subsume CCI projects hoping to get some tangible benefits for themselves or their relatives….

 

After an hour of grilling, the information gathering was over. Everything that could have been known about our project had been questioned. Indications were that he was interested in our proposal. Now was the “traditional” time for him to assess what he could “get” for giving his official permission. He patiently explained that what we proposed was a really good idea but that, at that time, it wasn’t within legal boundaries. That was all.

 

I remember walking out the door and onto the sidewalk saying to Volodya, “At least we have been heard by one ex-Soviet bureaucrat who didn’t ask us for anything. ” (pp. 87-89)

 

At the time of Tennison’s observation to her Russian translator and friend, she had no way of knowing who this “non-descript” bureaucrat would go on to become, only that the business card he handed her bore the name of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

 

At the time of Putin’s election as president of the Russian Federation in 2000, many of CCI’s alumni in St. Petersburg told Tennison that they had voted for Putin because he hadn’t charged them anything to register their businesses – a rarity among local-level bureaucrats throughout Russia.

Indeed corruption is still mostly a problem among local officials (90% of all corruption is estimated to be at the local level) throughout Russia as opposed to large institutions or the Russian people in general. Part of the reason it persists is due to the strong historical roots of getting essential things done via “connections” and the prestige associated with it rather than the rule of law as a foundation. This was the case in Czarist Russia as tributes were typically paid in the form of goods or money to officials as part of the feudalist system, which was gradually dismantled in the rest of Europe but persisted in Russia. Due to Russia’s sprawling geographic size and lack of a developed transportation system, interaction with the outside world and the attendant exposure to new ideas was hindered through the 19th century. Moreover, Russians’ relationship with governmental authority – their social contract, so to speak – had never been that of a citizen with rights or sovereignty but as subjects that were granted varying but limited amounts of social protection and decision-making within small local communities. (See also Deena Stryker’s review of the Russian Tradition by Tibor Szamuely at http://www.opednews.com/articles/The-Russian-Tradition-by-by-Deena-Stryker-Class_Community_Conspiracy_Democracy-140509-717.html)

 

This arrangement of deference to authority and reliance on “connections” to obtain necessities continued under the Soviet system with deference to authority demanded in exchange for security, stability and a degree of social protections. There was a class of people, for example, who played a role in procuring items of necessity in the Soviet Union, along with local Communist Party managers who lorded over their respective regions.

 

By the turn of the century, elite Communist Party bureaucrats (aka nomenklatura) had colluded with Western economic advisers in schemes to enrich themselves by taking possession of valuable state assets at fire sale prices and moving their ill-gotten wealth into off-shore accounts.

 

Along with this powerful class of oligarchs that came to control the Kremlin were the 89 regional governors throughout the Russian Federation who ruled their respective fiefdoms, enriching themselves through massive bribery. Lower on the food chain were local officials who earned paltry salaries and bilked new entrepreneurs for bribes in exchange for signing off on official documents as well as contriving inspections on charges of flimsy or non-existent violations, requiring the payment of additional bribes for clearance. (This is why the recently developed open electronic database containing the relevant details of all business inspections in Russia – as reported by TASS News Agency on October 8th – has potential significance in the fight against corruption. Time will tell.)

 

Tackling these systemic problems effectively without getting assassinated or overthrown in the process was a tall order for Putin in 2000, despite his ties to an intelligence community that had experienced its own internal divisions in the post-Soviet era.

 

In a late 2000 conversation with Oleg Plaxin, an aide to Putin’s economic advisor, Andrei Illarionov, Tennison was able to get an inkling of just what Putin was up against.

 

“This was my first glimpse into the tenseness of the Kremlin clans Putin inherited from Yeltsin. With no constituency, no political party to support him, no power to take out the clans, Putin was all alone – and from what became clear, the Kremlin environment, for the most part, was a den of self-serving vipers.

 

Later I asked Oleg Plaxin whom President Putin goes to for counsel. He looked at me in complete shock at the question and answered, “He can’t confide in anyone! If he did, it would be highly dangerous. They could betray him.” I was stunned considering what it would be like to try to take hold of an out-of-control country like Russia, to try to figure out a workable strategy in isolation, and to not trust anyone around you – how could any human being survive or govern in such an environment?

 

It became increasingly obvious to me why Putin began bringing St. Petersburg people to Moscow – they were dependable friends with whom he had gone to school and university, those whom he trusted during his early KGB years – in addition to those he worked closely with in St. Petersburg’s municipal offices, like Dmitri Medvedev.

 

World media called these new Putin appointees, the St. Petersburg “Chekists” [a pejorative for Soviet-era secret police].”   (p. 136)

 

Once Putin started to develop a governing system, he did begin to take gradual steps to counter corruption. After telling the oligarchs they had to start paying taxes and stay out of politics if they wanted to keep their spoils, he appointed a Russian entrepreneur named Alyona Nikolaeva as director of a government affiliated organization that began to explore approaches to the problem. Nikolaeva got the appointment after storming into Putin’s office in early 2001 demanding that his government do something about the bribery by local officials that was threatening her livelihood and that of others like her.

 

Conferences were subsequently held on the topic which some CCI alumni participated in. Attendees had a meeting with Putin representatives more than once, including one in 2004 with his economic advisor, Andrei Illarionov, in which they provided the results of their research and brainstorming on the issue – summarized in reports that were passed on to Putin who began using some of their points in addresses to the nation and parliament.

 

Media Distortions & Demonization

 

The onslaught of negative western media coverage, distortion and demonization of Russia and Putin began in earnest from 2003-2004 after Russia refused to participate in the Iraq war. Tennison had started to realize that what was often said in the Western media about Russia and Putin did not correspond to what she was seeing on the ground in Russia or hearing from the cross-section of Russians she dealt with.

 

She noted that much of what passed for reporting on Russia was largely opinion – often unfounded, distorted or unbalanced – being repeated ad nauseum until it was considered fact. She encountered journalists covering Russia who spent short stints in Moscow and asked loaded questions designed to elicit responses that fit into a pre-conceived negative framework. And when journalists did attempt to provide balanced or positive coverage of Russia or Putin’s policies, they often didn’t get accepted for publication by the journalist’s editors. One journalist even admitted to Tennison that her editors told her they wanted more pieces like those about Khodorkovsky whom the Western press had characterized as a “political dissident” and victim of an autocratic Putin.

 

However, the majority of Russians, including the small to medium business owners who busted their tails to create their enterprises, viewed Khodorkovsky as an arrogant predator who made himself billions through pilfering Russian assets. He then refused to give anything back via taxes and resented Putin’s moderate attempts to rein in him and his ilk – a class of oligarchs that had literally bought Yeltsin by 1996.   In short, Khodorkovsky represented the worst of Yeltsin’s decade of chaos and mass impoverishment for Russians.

 

Another point of contention that the U.S. used to heap criticism on Russia was legislation regulating foreign NGO’s that was first passed in 2006.

 

One of the most notorious types of NGO’s that the law was designed to target was the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the plethora of other NGO’s that NED supported in Russia, among other countries. Despite its innocuous sounding name, NED is funded by the US Congress and was established in the early 1980’s in response to congressional hearings, exemplified by the Church Committee, that exposed the CIA’s covert efforts to destabilize and overthrow foreign governments that were anathema to the US political elite. Rather than cease these unpopular – and often violent and illegal – covert operations, they were simply transferred to another organization that obscured these nefarious activities under the guise of building civil society and democracy. (See Trojan Horse: National Endowment for Democracy by William Blum at http://www.iefd.org/articles/trojan_horse.php) Even government officials who helped draft the legislation creating NED have admitted that NED now does much of what the CIA used to do in this arena.

 

Tennison’s comments on the context of this legislation follow:

 

“In 1938 the United States found it necessary to restrict foreigners whose intentions were to sway public opinion and policy in America. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was Congress’ response to the large number of German propaganda agents who were active in pre-World War II America. Our FARA legislation was updated as recently as 1995.

 

Like the United States, Russia is undeniably interested in limiting foreign influence in its domestic politics. Although their fears are discounted by the West, Putin and many Russians harbor deep concern that foreign and domestic NGOs may be fomenting a “color revolution” in Russia, as they suspect happened recently in the new states of Ukraine and Georgia.

 

The Kremlin is further challenged by Russia’s wealthy exiled oligarchs who have funneled a great deal of money to Russia’s NGOs in order to destabilize the Putin government. To date (2006), laws like FARA don’t exist in Russia.

 

In most countries, NGOs rely primarily on philanthropy from their own citizens; hence, their activities reflect the will of their own people. This is not so in Russia. Foreign and oligarch support in Russia has led to NGOs’ pursuing objectives contrary to those of the average Russian citizen and to the stability of the fragile new government. This wouldn’t go down well in any country.

 

To align NGO activities with citizens’ interests, the Putin administration needs to legislate tax incentives to encourage Russian support for NGOs, thereby creating a base for in-country private donations, not foreign or oligarch funding.

 

Russia’s not-for-profit sector is in serious need of regulation. It still hasn’t developed the legal underpinnings to assure transparency of expenditures, operations or funder information—all of which are crucial for societal trust and civil society development.

 

Russia is inching toward a democratic society, but it isn’t close yet. The country’s long history and harsh conditioning cannot be radically transformed in two short decades. Pushing Russian society and the Putin government faster than they can go at this juncture will incur consequences that serve neither Russia nor the West. Lecturing Russia to move farther and faster than they can will only backfire on us—and them. ” (pp. 198-199)

 

In sum, Tennison’s insights from working on the ground throughout Russia’s 11 time zones for over 30 years makes her a treasure that should be more wisely utilized by US policy makers and the media.

 

Now in her 70’s, she continues to visit Russia 3-4 times a year, having developed a deep respect and affection for that vast and fascinating land. On one of her future trips, I intend to join her and see it for myself.

 

 

 

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