Thanks to the Vermont Council on World Affairs and the Open World Leadership Program, we just hosted two young women who are journalists in Yaroslava, Russia. And I’m struck by how similar the challenges they face are to our own.
Marina is a deputy editor and writes about the arts and architecture. Anna is a political blogger, competes in boogie-woogie dance competitions, and reports on local and Russian politics.
They came to visit Vermont news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, UVM’s Cynic and VTDigger, among others, to learn more about American journalism and to talk about journalism in their native country.
One of our most enlightening dinner conversations was about the implicit fallacy and danger of monolithic generalizations or judgments about any one group of people — Russians or Americans — or, in the case of current federal policy, Central Americans, Mexicans or people of color. In our week together, we became as family, expanding horizons, erasing clichés, and deepening our understanding of one another and our complex, flawed countries.
Our time together was a gift. Our own love of Russian history, literature and music had been overshadowed by growing up during the Cold War, Russian meddling in Western democracies, and their Crimean invasion. Without altering facts, Anna and Marina brought context and meaning to our newsbyte understanding of Russia, as did we to their filtered understanding of America.
Both our countries are burdened by calcified ideologies and leadership apparently bent on stirring up fear and hatred. But one can only do so against the “unknown.” And when we sit down with the “unknown” and come to understand how similar we are and how many problems we have in common, hatred becomes impossible.
Every country is made up of unique individuals. Some are diverse, curious, energetic, and will guide us through difficult times. Marina and Anna are fresh-faced examples of young Russians dedicated to journalism, free speech and truthful expression.
We’re grateful to have briefly shared our lives with them. We’re all smarter and happier for the opportunity. And if exchange programs such as Open World Leadership were more commonplace, current political efforts to vilify foreigners and strike fear into the electorate would be a much harder sell in both countries.
Bill Schubart grew up in Lamoille County, and now lives in Hinesburg. He writes about Vermont in fiction, humor and opinion pieces. This commentary was first aired on Vermont Public Radio. Email letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.