The sister city relationship between the Bryan-Sister City program opens College Station, Texas, USA, and Kazan, Tatarstan, USSR, has been the driving force behind the key experience of my professional life – a series of reporting assignments in the Tatar republic, and a chance to work with the most extraordinary editor I have ever known.
These four journeys, which began in September 1990, were personally and spiritually transformative, and involved painful lessons that continue today.
The flowery optimism of the Reagan-Gorbachev years quickly faded. My direct experience of racism, corruption and an infatuation with fascism in Russia disappointed me as the so-called “hand of Russia”, but these experiences sharpened my recognition skills and are useful today. today.
If I was offered a concert tomorrow in Russia through a sister city or a study abroad program or a news agency, I would definitely take it. After all these years, I’m still wired that way, and in fact, I’m working on a study abroad project that I hope will take me to Russia or Cuba next summer.
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Would not send studentsBut I wouldn’t advise any of my students to go there, and I don’t think now is the time to deepen contacts between sister cities in a country with which we are in a state close to war.
In the spring of 1990, I was editor of The Eagle, and the daily budget was filled with stories about the collapse of the Soviet order and the opportunities for democratic and capitalist development that seemed to be opening up in the Soviet republics.
B-CS was on hand, as the visionaries of this community traveled to open a relationship with a city that was truly the perfect fit.
University town, oil town Kazan is a university town, an oil town, a place far from the national center, where national identities and loyalties are as complex as in Texas. I remember covering the first visit of first-class visitors to Kazan – the trip to Washington-on-the-Brazos, the Sunday to take a Soviet to church, and an electric day in our newsroom.
Andrei Gavrilov, editor of Vechernia Kazan, the evening paper, admired our computers and press setup, saying his own team put out the paper every day with “typewriters and cigarettes.”
He might have added the third key ingredient: courage. Andrei was dragging Vechernia Kazan out of the Communist Party on his back, an epic struggle that succeeded, at the cost of Andrei’s life.
But it came later, after I called Andrei a friend, a brother and a boss.
During this visit to the newsroom of The Eagle, Andrei proposed an exchange of journalists. Our management enthusiastically bought the idea (honestly, I don’t know how many owners there are) and held a little essay contest to help choose which of us would join Andrei’s press team during five or six weeks this fall.
I think I won the job because I was already well advanced in my international business studies, working on a master’s degree in Latin American studies at UT-Austin, and because I offered a coverage that today might be called “hyperlocal”, the mix of local ethnic politics, religion, work, family life, crime – everything that wasn’t Moscow politics, which we were getting tons by news agencies, major newspapers and magazines.
So, in September, I found myself at Sheremetyevo airport, swapping headphones and favorite tunes with my new friend and colleague Misha Birin, who spoke about 10 words of English but was fluent in Led Zeppelin and ready for a SRV. I used as much of my “Russian in 10 minutes a day” as I could conjure up, and it wasn’t much. But we got to Kazan and got by, and had a great time living by our common editorial code.
Grasp a 220 volt wireThe reporting, the things I got to see and hear, the people I got to cover, was like grabbing a live 220 volt wire (something I did while I was there- down, after volunteering to try to fix a friend’s doorbell and bouncing myself through a stairwell for my trouble).
Russian mafia, hookup at 2 a.m. in the back room of a nightclub, with a fabulous home-cooked dinner cooked by the mother of a youth gang captain.
A senior KGB officer who threatened me in the most courteous and civilized way possible, for fear that in my naivety I might recklessly involve myself in illegal currency exchange or other mafia contact – sort of reading my mail, actually, which shouldn’t have surprised me.
Militia, the youth prison, a Tatar organizer of young militiamen, an Orthodox village priest named Vsevolod who everyone said could be my brother and who I thought he was.
My interpreter, fixer, and fellow mischief-maker, Sasha Malach, a computer science student working on a ticket to graduate school in the United States (he earned degrees from SUNY-Buffalo and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and called me a few summers ago to tell me he was doing well and had professionally become the “King of S—-“, having established himself profitably in municipal waste management) .
A friend of SakharovAnd of course my boss, elected on a reformist democratic list to the national parliament, where he was a friend and ally of Andrei Sakharov, the physicist and human rights activist. My fellow reporters were telling me how Andrei was reading a hard copy of a “nail story” about politics. He’d come to a paragraph with a special bite, and laugh, and mark to delete it, laughingly saying, “That’s impossible.”
But most of it would stay indoors. And he negotiated with the powers of the Party, played the little bosses against the others, gave his newspaper a little respite, one story, one issue at a time.
A gentle, educated, complicated, hard-nosed, stubborn man – the best journalist I’ve ever known, badass as they come.
So I dropped off for Vechernia Kazan a few times a week, dropped off at The Eagle when I could (there were two fax machines in town, and I only made a few phone calls in over five weeks), I continued my stories, had fun and went home.
The following summer I got kicked out of the Eagle, but I was ready to go — I wanted to cover democracy and the free press in Russia, by God, and it turned out that if I had to , you must have been right then.
Educational reportsI got a job teaching reporting in the journalism department at the University of Texas at Austin while I was finishing up my dissertation, got a second job writing sports for the American Statesman d ‘Austin, I leveraged The Eagle’s Kazan stories in a December-January assignment for the Houston Chronicle, with a huge boost from my mentor UT Gay Lansdon.
These stories were undoubtedly the key factor in my entry into the Doctor of Government program at Georgetown University. I made two more research trips to Kazan in the following years, completed my PhD, and taught reporting and editing for the past 30 years.
But as often in this business, what was good news for me, professionally, was not good news to experience. Even on my first trip, the divisions within the democracy/free speech/free enterprise side of Tatar politics were becoming increasingly stark and ugly, too often along straight ethnic lines.
All the Jews I met in Kazan were looking for a way out, and most ended their lives in Israel or the United States. I remember one of my interpreters dreaming of the good news and “optimism” of Vechernia Kazan when it was a propaganda sheet dictated by local Party leaders. Surveillance, by low-tech or high-tech means, was a daily occurrence, blackmail an obvious possibility.
I was and am proud of my work in Russia and all that I learned, all that I sacrificed, to develop skills and credibility “been there” for the class, and I have always been very grateful to the leaders of sister city B-CS and my managers at L’Aigle. But history itself began to turn sour, as Vladimir Putin and his bosses began to rise and their opponents, in politics and journalism, began to die.
When we lose a charismatic leader like Anna Politkovskaya, Galina Starovoitova or Andrei Gavrilov, we lose all the stories they would have worked on from that point on.
In October 1991, while teaching my first journalism classes, covering football for the Statesman, and preparing for my Chronicle assignment in December, I received a phone call from Sasha. Vechernia Kazan, he said, had performed heroically in the attempted coup against Gorbachev, and again covering Tatar-Russian clashes throughout the fall. Sasha himself had landed a large “nailing piece” on a corrupt city official.
Andrei laughed, clapped his hands, and ordered a front page for the story. Andrei died of a heart attack the following day at age 49, exhausted from constantly fighting for his diary.
A few weeks after Sasha’s call, I was back in the offices of Vechernia Kazan, hanging out with friends from the newsroom, drinking some Georgian cognac from the desk drawer, feeling that black emptiness when someone one you love is not there and does not return. One of the staff said someone wanted to see me.
It turned out to be Andrei’s administrative assistant, and she had a favor to ask me. She said, in limited English, that my boss loves “Baptist music” and that he had gotten a homemade tape of it from somewhere (I was familiar with the tape, as I had made it). She said it calmed him down, leaning his head against the wall and listening at the end of the day. And she asked me, when I got home, to go to the people of the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Bryan and ask them to sing a song for Andrei and say a prayer for him.
All this to say that when we lose the ability to travel safely in an unknown world, when we lose the ability to listen and hear, when we lose visionaries or people with unrealized potential, to the forces of violence, bigotry and greed that are so strong in the world today, we are losing a lot. A suffrage activist, a lawyer, recently told some of my students that many of us had made the mistake of believing that the suffrage was a battle won rather than a battle to be fought permanently.
So it is, I believe, with the person-to-person, church-to-church, and school-to-school contact between us and the four corners of the world. If we want these relationships and the knowledge and even the wisdom they can bring, we will have to open our eyes, be willing to play adult hardball, and work patiently towards a better and more hopeful day.
Former city editor of The Eagle, Brad Owens is a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media at Baylor University.