Editor’s Note: When we posted this interview, we asked readers to send us any questions they might have, so we could forward them to Sharon for a response. We’ve included several of those questions and her subsequent responses after Natylie’s interview.

After four years of intense anti-Russia sentiment in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 election, U.S.-Russia relations don’t appear to be faring much better under the new Biden administration as both Russia and the United States have officially accused the other of cyberattacks on infrastructure this year. Meanwhile, Western media has provided frequent stories on the plight of Russian oppositionist Alexey Navalny. Natylie Baldwin interviewed Sharon Tennison this past spring to get a different and more in-depth perspective on U.S.-Russia relations, as well as Russia’s history, culture and politics. Tennison is president and founder of the Center for Citizen Initiatives, an organization that began leading citizen diplomacy delegations between the U.S. and Russia in 1983 amidst the heightened threat of nuclear war. She is also the author of The Power of Impossible Ideas: Ordinary Citizens’ Efforts to Avoid International Crises. Since then, she has traveled numerous times each year to different parts of Russia and has seen first-hand the transformation of the perestroika era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the end of the Cold War, the tragedy and chaos of the 1990s, and the gradual social improvements of the Putin era. She also discusses the importance of citizen diplomacy in times of heightened tensions between the nuclear superpowers.

Natylie Baldwin: How did you first end up going to the Soviet Union in 1983 and how has your citizen-to-citizen diplomacy work evolved in Russia?

Sharon Tennison: I can give you one American’s experiences and memories from having traveled throughout the USSR and the newly developing Russia since 1983. Later there were several groups who began to explore different parts of the “enemy country.” We had no academic training in Russian history and simply used our eyes and ears to interpret that vast country and its people, which is very different from the U.S. We simply wanted to get to know “the enemy” and to do whatever we could to prevent nuclear war. I had grown increasingly fearful of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s and again in the early 1980s.

In 1982 I asked several friends if they wanted to go to the USSR to see the “enemy.”

We found a travel agent and, like automatons, we began to move forward.  On September 16, 1983, filled with apprehension, we boarded a plane for the USSR. Surprisingly, we found no enemy there, only human beings like ourselves, frightened of nuclear war and thinking that the U.S. would start World War III. We were shocked. We were also surprised that no one interfered with us when we jumped off of their official tour buses and took off in unplanned directions. We learned with our own eyes and ears what was happening in the huge city of Moscow and Leningrad.

Looking back, I’m sure they were watching us, but no one interfered even when we visited with strident Jewish Refuseniks or walked into an old Baptist church which was full of worshippers (mostly babushkas and their grandkids).

Upon coming home we decided we must take a second trip. Unexpectedly even to ourselves, we began creating numerous delegations annually. Americans began calling us to take delegations, such as an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group who wanted to take their message of sobriety to Russians. Gorbachev
ascended to power in 1985. He gave permission for us to take AA delegations across the USSR.

In 1988 we began Soviets Meet Middle America (SMMA) where we brought 400 unofficial Soviet citizens in couples or threesomes to cities across America. They lived in homes and discussed U.S.-Russia relations around the breakfast table. The unexpected Gorbachev/Reagan era emerged in 1989 with the Berlin wall coming down. The USSR fell apart, republics split off and became new countries, all rejecting Communism, as did Russia. They struggled to get rid of top-down leaders and govern themselves.

During Russia’s tragic 1990s and equally difficult 2000s, CCI trained thousands of Russia’s young entrepreneurs how to develop their first micro businesses. We assisted Russian environmental groups to clean up weapons dumps, sent tons of vegetable seeds to small private farmers, started AA chapters across Russia, and brought more than 6,000 Russian entrepreneurs to the U.S. from 71 Russian regions for industry-specific business internships. We worked with over a hundred U.S. Rotary clubs across America to train these young men and women, which resulted in our entrepreneurs starting their own Rotary clubs across Russia. Through these years CCI earned the trust of both the U.S. and Russian governments.

NB: Can you shed light on what Russians think about democracy—do they prioritize it the as much as Americans and Europeans?  Do they have a negative association with the concept of democracy due to what happened in Russia in the 1990s?  As democracy evolves in Russia, how similar or different from American democracy do you think it will look?

ST: A book could be written about this subject. Yes, Russians did yearn for democracy, particularly in the beginning. It was the opposite of communism in their minds. No, Russians don’t prioritize democracy as #1 now. Most are interested in something akin to a social democracy with elected leaders, social services such as free and excellent education for all (including higher education), some form of dependable public health care along with private health care for those who can afford it, and a high level of classical culture nationwide.

Early on in the late 80s and 90s, they were enamored with democracy and felt it would save them from communist mentality, that it would be perfect for the new Russian nation. Yeltsin replaced Gorbachev with the hope that democracy would take hold. Actually a criminalized grabbing of huge Soviet enterprises took place, with the help of the Clinton administration. This included public buildings and even housing. Crime and killings took place across the country. Russia unfortunately developed into a criminal oligarchy with little to no respect for order and life during the 90s.

The 90s oligarchs were not “democratic,” and they left a bitter taste in the minds of ordinary Russians. Of course, Russians reject what happened in the 90s under Yeltsin. Young brash Russian men who want unbridled freedom still want more freedom, which to them, may mean democracy. But Russians who are their parents’ ages want more security and social advantages. Middle to upper class Americans lauded democracy, not realizing how it would feel to an average Russian.

I doubt that Russians from now on will ever want full democracy. They had a century of impoverished socialism. Still they believe that they as citizens are due free medical and educational services from their leaders and country. We in the U.S. never consider that free medical care and education is our birthright. We accept that some Americans have a lot of privilege and some live on the streets or under bridges. Today’s Russians want their freedoms but they also see the need for responsibility for all Russians, not just the privileged.

Smarter young Russians began to see democracy as a two-edged sword. Fewer still believe that American style capitalism is the future for Russia. Democracy is developing in Russia, but it always will be laced with socialism unlike here in the U.S. If anything, we may be veering toward their form of governance in the future. But saying this, I think our system may be headed for a collapse, so it will be interesting to see what we end up with in the near future.

NB: I’ve heard you say that Russians generally seem to be reluctant to step into leadership roles. Can you elaborate on this?

ST: Yes, I believe this has a long history, very unlike our history. Russians are less competitive than Americans, except in sports where competition is lauded. Russian socialism/communism included training of children’s mentality in a different manner than we engage in in the West. Teachers recognized early leadership traits in certain Russian kids. They then promoted those brighter children to leadership in their classrooms (or at least this is how it was explained to me). Certain children were given attention and training that facilitated their advancement. Modesty and care for each other was also included in their curriculum.

I remember in the mid-80s when I was told that Soviet children matriculated through several early years of schooling together. If they entered first grade with a class, they stayed with those same children for several years. Further the teachers identified who were the brightest kids among their students, and they became the leaders of the class. So leaders were picked early and primed for leadership. Other children accepted that they themselves were not the leaders; however, all were encouraged at their own levels. Some had talents in art, others music, others languages; they often were sent to special schools with children with the same talents. Leader-like children designated as smarter than others got special perks and responsibilities from the teachers such as being promoted in Pioneers, helping other children not as bright—it wasn’t a level playing field where everyone could have power.

Soviet kids were raised to accept that a few were leaders, and most were not. I was told some ended up in Komsomol (top youth Soviet leadership) and some were learning about the state’s great financial assets. Several of these went on to become oligarchs and grabbed large industries in the 90s. Being a leader was not necessarily important for many Soviet kids. Some loved research into esoteric subjects, others preferred the arts. All forms of education were cherished in the Soviet system. All systems have their pluses and minuses. I was fascinated with both in the Soviet educational system.

I’ve noted that as the years passed by Russians didn’t strive to lead in a Rotary Club, for instance. They were comfortable if the group designated them to be the Rotary president, but wouldn’t push to become a president without others deeming them ready to lead the Rotary Club. This is quite different from conditioning in the U.S. I looked at it as a quite fine way of bringing each other to leadership. Rotary was perfect for Russians because its philosophy provides for the natural development of leadership which changes every year. This is a natural way for everyone in the Rotary Club to learn leadership, without being competitive and pushing others out of the way, which is typical for Americans.

Another way this manifested itself was when a Russian decided he would start a business. He automatically became the lead person and became responsible for all decisions, everything from running the business down to the purchasing of routine paper supplies, etc. This was an early impediment to being an entrepreneur in the new Russia. They assumed if they were the leaders, they had to make all the decisions. It manifested itself in numerous ways. By the end of the 90s, most realized after being in U.S. internships that American owners didn’t make all the decisions, and soon this mentality spread throughout Russia.

The start-up phase is over. Russians were quick learners!  However, they still give respect to whoever is in power more than Americans. To my knowledge, Russians always want to understand “who has the power.” Americans do too, but less so than Russians. Frankly, the Russian way is less competitive, more respectful, and more gentlemanly. I love seeing it quietly in action.

NB: You’ve also noted Russians’ general hesitancy to expand their social and professional network beyond a small core of trusted friends and relatives, which can adversely affect the development of the entrepreneurial class (small- to medium-sized businesses). Can you talk more about this? 

ST: Yes, Russians in the 1980s, when I arrived there, had very few friends compared to Americans. They trusted very few people; every Russian I got to know had a very small trusted group of family members, a few early school friends, two or three university students they studied with and maybe one or two from their employment. They would protect each other with their lives; share food even if there was very little; they knew each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and secrets.

I saw these social groupings as a “pod” society; Russians I knew had their own trusted pod, like soft peas inside a tough, protective pod. Not often were outsiders let into the pod. All new businesses that I knew of in the 1990s were developed within these pods. The most intelligent youngish male was usually the business experimenter or leader, his wife usually his accountant or money holder. Different family members would take on different responsibilities needed to run the small enterprise. Everyone worked together for success of the whole. They didn’t let outsiders in the pod or business dealings. In the 90s, they didn’t want to know their competition, they didn’t trust outsiders at all. It was part of the reason small businesses were so difficult to start across Russia.

Knowing this pod mentality and the fear of competition, I brought delegates of the same industry sector in one delegation. I insisted that they each come from different cities across Russia. Why? If they were from the same city they would view them as arch-competitors. In reality, even if from different cities, they still wouldn’t warm up to each other. For example, the owners of eleven different cheese companies wouldn’t talk with each other. They acted like they didn’t know each other; they had no interest in each other. They were afraid they would steal their secrets.

It almost doomed our early training program trips to the U.S. Finally, I said to the American hosts and their Russian interpreters, “Okay . . . the very first evening when the delegation arrives, put the Russians in a kitchen with meat, vegetables, utensils, a couple of bottles of vodka and close the door. Leave them alone. Let’s see if they will talk with each other the next day.” It worked perfectly! They drank vodka, cut meat and vegetables, cooked and began to open up to each other, even to begin singing with each other.

For your information, most Russian men can cook as well as their wives. From then on, the delegations were started in this manner. These leaders began to build such strong friendships that groups of them still have annual anniversaries with each other, even though they come from all parts of Russia.

Soviets in the 1980s seemed totally shut down to each other. However, they were more open to Americans, which was great for us. We learned not to bring in unknown Russians to them. Even though we knew both persons and knew they would like each other, they remained mute with each other. In the 1990s when Russians were desperate to survive, many of them were starting tiny micro-businesses. Still, they were suspicious of each other and even more so due to the mafia who extorted their businesses. Generally, they still didn’t cooperate much outside their small pods, or maybe two or three pods would begin working with each other.

The 2000s brought enormous changes. Putin had registered a lot of Russians’ first businesses in St. Petersburg. He knew their plight and for some reason was the only registrar in the Mayor’s office to “not ask for bribes” from Russian businessmen. Actually, this became known among our CCI entrepreneurs, so all of them went to Putin’s desk. At that time, he was known for being a quiet-but-supportive bureaucrat with a kind heart, even by the domestic help that cleaned up the offices late at night.

When Putin became president, within the first year he started trying to rein in the big oligarchs. He created new laws for the most egregious crimes, but Russia was still a criminal state. However, average Russians were loosening up and beginning to help each other across the country. CCI’s entrepreneurs began Rotary Clubs with the help of our CCI office staff in their cities.

By the 2010s, all levels of business had taken hold. Russians were cooperating with each other. Rotary clubs and AA were taking root. The greatest and most unexpected challenge was that the U.S. had clearly turned against the new Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. I began to detect this in 2001, then increasingly each year our U.S. program persons turned against Putin and Russia. I was discussing this phenomenon with one U.S. VIP, when I asked, “When did the U.S. decide they didn’t like Russia any longer?” He paused and said, “The day it was announced that Putin would be the next president [in 1999].” Further, he related: “I happened to be in the State Department, and the knives were drawn on that very day.”

As for younger Russians today, they seem quite open with each other, they are more internationally oriented, but also prouder of being Russian, feeling the greatness and beauty of their history. However, there’s also a residue of Russians who were salaried earlier in U.S. NGOs, basically getting Washington’s agenda seeded in their cities. They are still committed to America’s manner of operating. These Russians are now in their 40s and even 50s, and they still align with the U.S. and the perks of Western democracy. They are the first to protest and try to push Russia away from its natural heritage and toward a Western mentality.

NB: Similarly, you’ve talked about what appears to be a culture of risk-aversion in Russia, which you thought derived from their cultural focus on the arts/humanities and spirituality combined with a fear of invaders and a history of harsh leaders (Ivan IV and Stalin). What are the political and economic implications of this? Again, do you think this is changing for the younger generations?

ST: This topic also has so many aspects. Yes, all of the above and more. The Revolution happened and all of a sudden all were expected to become educated along Bolshevik lines. Schooling for children was mandatory. Education was standardized, every child in 4th grade studied from identical text books whether they were in Moscow or Siberia or Vladivostok. They were being systematically educated. It worked to educate the whole population.

Moscow was the center for education. Every young person after graduating from their universities was placed somewhere out in the country to teach children basic education for three years. Everyone had to fit into the same mold to support the new socialist agenda. Of course, such a tight society produces children and adults to be risk averse. They don’t want to refuse and stand out. Even those who were given the title of “leaders” in the 4th grade wanted to fit the mold and not be criticized or ostracized.

I learned of this period from my earliest Russian friend Maria who graduated from a new Moscow university and was sent to the Far East for three years to teach children how to read. It was tough, she lived in a cold shack, didn’t have running water or decent food, but it was the way she “paid” the state for her education. She was one of millions who educated Russians across the country.

It was a tough system but it had a great deal of logic and value behind it—if one didn’t factor in the millions being sent away to work camps. Of course, most of these camps were unknown to the average Russian. I asked my friend Maria about these camps in the early 80s.  Her eyes grew wide in disbelief, she said, “Sharon these are pure lies to try to demonize our good society!”

Meanwhile the system transformed an uneducated people up to an amazing and classically educated population in a couple of decades. There was a prototype to be achieved. Everyone tried to fit into it. Individuality wasn’t a value. Whoever led this effort also saw the value of the classical arts so in vogue during Tsarist times. Then WWII came and these same devoted Russians fought the Nazis across a huge portion of their nation, most of which was totally destroyed.

To end the Maria story, I met with her in the early 90s and asked again if she knew of the camps. I shouldn’t have asked. She had finally understood and was totally demoralized that it was actually true. The pain on her face shamed me for asking. Most good Russians didn’t know. Those who knew didn’t tell for fear of being sent to camps themselves.

The political implications of this way of life and education were that 1) they followed the leader, 2) it benefited them to “fit in” and any who didn’t were marginalized, and 3) the value of cooperating was passed down from parents to children. There were many advantages to fitting in, not causing problems, being a fine Pioneer or a family with excellent children. It seemed to me in the 1980s that it was so accepted as good that few ever thought of rebelling. Why rebel, when the situation was better than anything Russians had ever previously known? And one that catered to their special interests.

There were the Jewish Refuseniks who were disrespected by the whole society. They were cantankerous. We visited them, listened to their stories, tried to work on their behalf to help them emigrate to Israel or the U.S. We were there when the artists held early public art fairs which in the beginning were torn down. They were painting in a style completely unacceptable to the authorities. Part of it was angry, bold, but much of it was terrific, just subjects that the state considered unacceptable. We went to their exhibitions, met with some of the artists. I still have one of the paintings which is very special, the technique of which is amazing by any standards. They flaunted their differentness in the 80s but eventually won the right to have public exhibitions of avant-garde art which became common in the later 80s.

As for today, there is little risk-aversion left in Russian society. They say what they wish, they go where they wish, they purchase what they can afford. Many are wealthy from legitimate businesses. Young people and elders love to travel abroad and will spend their last rubles on something that gives them pleasure, be it flowers, a new car, or travel to distant places. As for political and economic implications, I don’t see any left in Russian society. Most Russians live within their means, they aren’t great borrowers as are we. All Russians, rich or poor, seem to greatly respect their culture, historic architecture, churches, and great classical history. They frequently can communicate in two or more languages.

All of this makes for a different population than we have in the U.S. They have always been color blind. One of my dearest friends was Lily Golden whose father was a black man from Tuskegee. He came to Russia half-dead from a beating sustained in New York. His Jewish wife got him on a boat headed for the USSR, where he regained his health and began the cotton industry in the USSR. He died of his early injuries a decade later. Lily was a black American who was a tennis champion in the USSR and also the head of an Institute. Her color meant nothing at all negative in the USSR, which was a country of 160 nationalities. She actually was celebrated for her color.

NB: Unlike a lot of commentators who pontificate about Putin, you actually met him. This was in the early 1990s when Putin was serving as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg.  Can you tell us about that and what you thought of him?

ST: I met Putin by accident in 1992 when I sought permission from the St. Petersburg mayoral office to start a new, probably controversial program in the city. This was the first time I had ever asked. I don’t even remember why I thought it was necessary. I just felt I should check and see if it would be permitted by the new authorities. I went to the appointed room where a somewhat small man in a brown suit asked my reason for being there. I handed him my proposal written in Russian. He read, underlined, reread, studied the proposal, and began asking some natural questions about its contents. Finally after some time, he put his pen down and said, “I’ve tried every way to see if this proposal is possible. As of today, it is not legal . . . so I can’t put my name on it.” He apologized and remarked that it was a good proposal. This was strange. He was impersonal, clearly intelligent, asked realistic questions.

Other bureaucrats in his position were asking for favors and signing off on anything in front of their faces. I assumed this person would ask also. He didn’t. He just assessed it and said it wasn’t legal. I would have never remembered his name, except that out in the sunlight, I looked at his business card and remarked to my friend, Volodya, “Hmmm, what is this name Putin? Is this a Russian name?” I remember saying, “This is the first bureaucrat who didn’t ask us for something big.” (CCI never paid a bribe to any Soviet or Russian person for any of our programs. We ran an “anti-corruption” program for entrepreneurs for several years.)

In December 1999 I learned that the next president of Russia would be Vladimir Putin. There could not be two Vladimir Putins! I was shocked, saying he would be the worst candidate ever for Russia. I told friends, “He’s too intellectual. He’s too introverted!” I’ve since watched Putin like a hawk, reading his letters, speeches, his TV interviews – anything I can get my hands on.

I have to conclude that he is still the same person I met in the 1990s. Yet he is so demonized that it would be hard for anyone to imagine what kind of man he really is. In the Myers-Briggs personality index he is a high operating INTJ from my perspective.

NB: Do you think Putin’s leadership has been overall positive or negative for Russia? Why?

ST: The change Putin has brought to Russia since 2000 is beyond anything I would have ever considered possible. He is beyond comparison with any other living head of state that I have watched or known of. I was there when Putin took over a broken-down, drab, demoralized Russia, a population that was desperate, a country where young oligarchs drove $100,000 vintage cars in the two capital cities, where elderly people were living in parks, and millions had died during the past decade from hunger due to loss of their rubles in state banks.

Many had been swindled out of their meager apartments and were sleeping on park benches. Some were trying to sell used pots and pans on sidewalks in central Moscow. Yeltsin was drunk and Americans and other foreigners were getting rich from plundering the new Russia. Even the great Hermitage hadn’t been painted in two decades, parks were growing weeds up to the waist, grannies were standing in snow trying to sell packages of cigarettes. Life was cheap, small businesses were being torched if they didn’t pay off their “roofs” (local extortionists).

I saw it all with horror, month after month. I was there because I was interviewing young men who were hoping to get a U.S. internship in how to build their micro-businesses, then interviewing them when they returned, thus learning important lessons for CCI to include in the next delegations.

At one point in the 90s, the second in charge at the American Embassy learned that I was staying in a cheap old Moscow hotel. His wife called and said, “Get your bags together, we will send a car for you in an hour. It’s too dangerous for you to be where you are.” Thankfully, they gave me living quarters in their rooms in the Embassy which I used when in Moscow for maybe two years. I was deeply grateful to have been taken off of the streets where, as they mentioned, I could have been killed since I looked like an American and would be considered to have dollars on me.

Today, twenty years later, Russian cities are spotless, streets are clean, ancient buildings and Tsarist churches are renovated, Russians are nicely dressed on perfect sidewalks, business is thriving—only held back due to sanctions. People feel good about themselves, and are proud of being Russian. Their thoroughfares look quite classy compared to ours. They would be shocked to see my city of today, San Francisco.

Oligarchs are still there but they pay taxes to support any project that Putin deems necessary for Russia, including huge efforts like the Olympics. They still own their business but he controls how they pay taxes. Who else would run those huge enterprises if not the oligarchs who worked for their communist bosses in the 80s?

Yes, Russians complain when Putin wants to change their retirement age. But the retirement age for women was age fifty-five and for men sixty.  Now for women it is sixty, and for men sixty-five. Nothing to complain about. Education is free to students as long as grades are kept up. Medical care is behind ours, but most Russians I talk with believe it is as good as they need. They have public medicine and private medicine. Many Russians pick and choose between them for their health care. Russia today is a totally different place than when Putin walked into presidential leadership. I am shocked at the difference in such a short while; even more so when I see how our cities have deteriorated in the past twenty years.

NB: Have you noticed significant transformations of American participants’ thinking during and after these citizen diplomacy trips?  

ST: Americans traveling on our trips to Russia are quite amazed by the end of two to three weeks of traveling around Russia. They don’t expect to see the level of care of streets, renovation of ancient architecture, the amount of new modern glass buildings, the classy appearance of Russian people, the availability of public transport, the seeming freedom of people with whom they meet. They are quite shocked actually.

As one Rotarian traveler said of the last trip, “I was completely stunned at what I experienced in today’s Russia!” Another successful U.S. businessman reported recently, “My friends think I’ve been brainwashed about Russia. Actually I’m just telling them the truth.”

NB: What is the most worrisome aspect of the poor state of current US-Russia relations? What do you think needs to be done to begin to rectify it? 

ST: Clearly the most worrisome situation is the possibility of nuclear war with Russia. American people need to wake up and realize their leaders are setting up the possibility of direct confrontation through their juvenile acts of putting missiles and warships and flying planes near Russia’s borders in order to look brave and hefty. It’s dangerous and could result in WWIII.

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Readers Ask Follow-up Questions to Natylie’s Interview

Thank you for your candid remarks in the interview. Recalling the citizen diplomacy undertaken during the first Reagan administration, which organized itself along peer group-to-peer group lines, do you perceive the possibility of re-using that model in the present? If so, what would you suggest to get it started? —David

Thank you, David. Reagan was president from 1981 (before citizen diplomacy was known) to January 1989. I started taking delegations to the USSR in 1983 and continued through 1989, when I quit due to the danger on Russian streets as the USSR broke up, the ruble was devalued to zero, and young oligarchs grabbed all of the USSR’s major enterprises. At that time I began bringing young entrepreneurs to America to learn basic business development and related topics. No other citizen diplomats existed at that time. Here is a link to my book, so that you can read the timeline of what was possible and when: The Power of Impossible Ideas.

Russia no longer needs that form of development. Actually the Library of Congress is still running a less impacting program of sorts. I’m not impressed with its value, as too many of the “quality controls” were left out of the Library’s program.  (It was a rip-off of CCI’s PEP Program. Both are discussed in the book.)

The truly laudable goal of building friendship and understanding between the people of two nations wouldn’t seem to require the endorsement of the leaders or heads of state of those nations, so I was surprised at how positively Putin was characterized here. You praise his ‘cleaning up’ of Russia, and the only complaint you mention is his raising of the retirement age. How do you understand his role in undermining democracy and crushing dissent, his involvement in attempted assassinations at home and interference with elections abroad, his imposition of so-called “memory laws,” and his imperial ambitions? —Kate

Kate, we always sought the endorsement of our leaders, such as Congress members, Colin Powell, and ambassadors. This made it easier to get participants, to attract funds, and to have their names on our programs.

Whether anyone likes him or not, Putin has created near miracles to bring Russia out of the conditioning of the USSR and the total breakdown of society in the 1990s. He was elected in 2000 and inherited a totally broken-down population, criminals running major enterprises, a broken and ineffective legal system, and a population that couldn’t even feed themselves. Read my book. I was there multiple times per year. There was no democracy when Putin took over the new Russia. Dissent was being crushed by the criminals of that generation. Putin very carefully began to create democracy, slowly but surely. It’s not our type of democracy, but nonetheless it is a more democratic system than Russia has ever had in its long past.

Empires usually last about 200 years. They come up, plateau, and begin going down, usually from their excesses and wars. George Washington was US president from 1790 forward.  We are already beyond 200 years. It is clear from many factors that we are in massive decline, yet we are still hanging onto power. This is very dangerous, especially in light of nuclear weapons which today could destroy our whole planet.

Can you help me understand what is in it for America to paint Putin in such a terrible light? —Joan

What is in it for some Americans (very influential ones at that) is that the Democratic party (formerly my lifelong party) stays in power by working with the military-industrial complex, an unbelievably wealthy group of international companies, who intend to keep our country as the Unipolar Power . . . meaning that we control all other countries as needed, the dollar is the currency of the world, and we with NATO control the events on planet Earth.

All empires fear that another empire will rise and take them down. The old empire will lose its status. Whom do they fear most on the planet? Russia. Putin created miracles coming to office in 2000, when he became President. He’s worked hard, he’s very intelligent, and he is a patriot of Russia. He doesn’t want Russia to be the next empire. He believes that the most effective countries of the world should work out a multi-polar world where all bring their best ideas to the table at the UN and help the world rid itself of wars, famines, and lack of education, so that all work together to cooperate for the good of all.

Putin’s idea frightens Washington. They intend to rule with NATO and continue as is. They spread any kind of vicious information about Putin that they can, which includes creating rumors that turn out to be erroneous shortly after, so the public continues to believe the rumors. This has been going on since 2000, 21 years ago. I’ve watched it every year. I have a stack of papers about different rumors that were never found to be true. The main newspapers are also in this racket. They print the view they are told.

The unipolar world is now beginning to fall apart. It is literally disintegrating. This is totally unacceptable to many in the US.

I have read the interview with great interest and even more respect and admiration for what you have done and accomplished. Since I’m a 65-year-old German, who has lived and worked in the US for 6 years (together with my family), I’m aware of the differences between different cultures in different parts of the world.

My question to you is: how are the differences between the rural and urban areas in Russia? I have seen the differences in the US and in Europe, but I‘m curious about what you have observed in Russia. After all, it is a huge country, and I can only imagine how difficult it must be helping to develop it in ways that give ordinary people the means and encouragement to start. —Klaus

Of course there are differences between Russian cities and the Russian countryside. I’ve visited and passed through all of these variations for 38 years now. I’ve seen Russia from a Soviet perspective where only a few had the luxuries of life, and during the breakup of the USSR when everyone was destitute and hungry, when over one million died from lack of food, medicines, and shelter. The ruble was worthless. This was during the 90s. Everyone was destitute except the new oligarchs who, with President Clinton’s help and Yeltsin’s, the new oligarchs grabbed the major industries of the country and claimed them for themselves. This was a miserable time when food was scarce, medicines unavailable, and cities unkempt, with people sleeping in parks in the snow. Then in 2000, Putin was voted in. I had met him, and I was sure he wouldn’t have the wisdom to do what needed to be done. But he did! I watched as, slowly and painfully, he began to put law and order into effect bit by bit. He has continued, and fortunately he knew to start with first things first. Gradually he has rebuilt Russia both in the rural areas and in the cities.

Read my book (available online). Everything is explained there. Today people in the cities are living well, dressing well, and getting well educated. The cities are immaculate, with no trash around, plenty of new cars, new apartments, and food at affordable prices.

The rural regions are doing much better than previously, too. Russia is now the largest wheat producer in the world. People are working on large farms, and they have great tractors and comfortable homes. There are still “grannies” who live on their dacha plots and will never move. Their life is not bad, but city dwellers would not trade places with them, and vice versa. No one is hungry; the state sees to this. They have country doctors and simple health care and medicines. Russia’s countryside now is quite well organized and quite nice to look at.  Come with me to Russia, I will show you many examples of what I’ve written about. Russia is now giving land to any who want to move out of cities. They are helped to make it productive. Many Ukrainians have left Ukraine and settled in these lands. The soil is very rich, and amenities come by trains. Trains crisscross the countryside all over Russia. We should have never gotten rid of our train system! Take a trip, go any place you wish and look around. It’s a very normal and well taken care of country today. Amazing from where it started in the 90s!

Sharon’s final note for readers:

I think I’ve answered your questions. Please go to ccisf.org and sign up for my weekly E-letters, which cover lots of current information. Google me to see what my history looks like. And read my book, which includes photos and documentation based on 20,000 emails and paper letters I have saved since the 1980s.

My best wishes to you.

Natylie Baldwin

Natylie is the author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations. She has traveled throughout western Russia since 2015 and has written several articles based on her conversations with a cross-section of Russians.

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