Saturday, January 17, 2009

From Nyet To Da: Understanding the New Russia

In the summer of 2007 I spent two months in Russia doing mission work in the city of Tomsk. I went with two fellow interns, one my brother Garrett and the other my friend Heath. We went to work with the ministry of Jim Norville who had been there for the previous decade. Incidentally, Jim was the preacher-evangelist who led my parents to Christ when they were in college at Georgia Tech, teaching in a small group Bible study and eventually baptizing both of them. They had lost touch with Jim upon moving to Austin, but in the fall of 2006 reconnected, hosted him and his wife LaVonne, and Garrett and I had the opportunity to meet them then. Jim was quite touched that two sons of a couple he had taught and baptized 25 years earlier were earning degrees in ministry and interested in missions -- I had just returned from a summer of mission work in Jinja, Uganda -- and he quickly made clear how welcome we were to come and serve with him in Tomsk. Long story short: we went.

It was a powerful experience, and we fell in love with Russia -- and Russians! -- in our time there. Each of us kept relatively extensive blogs leading up to and during our work in Tomsk (we also spent our last week in Moscow and St. Petersberg -- the latter subsequently known and referred to (by me) as the most beautiful city in the world), which you can find by clicking on the links above.

However, to move backwards a bit, in anticipation of our journey, Jim recommended a book to us entitled From Nyet To Da, written by Yale Richmond. He said it was the most succinct, straightforward book for understanding Russia's culture and people, and an excellent preparation for our service there. We followed his advice and each read the book, incidentally the same first edition Jim read before his first trip to Russia in the early 1990s. We found it to be a swift, helpful read whose wisdom was undeniably verified in our experience there -- and I wrote about our use of the book on the blog a couple of times.

In just the last 18 months since our return Russia has been in the news a number of times, most notably this past August when, in sync with the beginning of the Olympics in Beijing, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia -- to the world's simultaneous denunciation and paralysis. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin "stepped down," and his appointed successor Dimitri Medvedev won a majority of votes to take his place as President.

In light of these and other events -- and, presumably, on a more general scale Russia's "return to the world stage" -- Intercultural Press authorized a Fourth Edition of From Nyet To Da to be published, newly revised by Richmond (the previous installments being 1992, 1996, 2003, and now 2009). Having seen my positive mention of the book on my Russia blog, Intercultural was gracious enough to send me a copy to review. I actually received it about a month ago, but I wanted to wait until after the chaos of the holidays to give it a proper read and analysis.

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It was a wonderful thing, through Yale Richmond's leading, to return to Russia. He is a former U.S. Foreign Services Officer and has been engaged with Russia in one form or another for more than forty years. His knowledge is personal, direct, widespread, and drawn from a large span of time. He knows what he is talking about!

I am not sure how many other books there are like From Nyet To Da, partly because the enigma of Russia calls for it in a way other countries do not, and partly because authors would have to step forward equally made up of both solid writing skills and long-term experiential knowledge. But Richmond does set the standard, because in reading him fashion a kind of window through which we Westerners/Americans might better perceive and understand Russia, I find myself yearning for similar windows to be built for other such nations and areas of the world.

Richmond provides his eyes to see the utter strangeness of Russia; to know why these things are; and finally to walk through the distance into friendship. Two aspects of his writing prove indispensable: first, his ability to recognize the distinct differences between West and East, American and Russian. Richmond feels no need to make us all one big happy family; he knows from the Cold War, from relationships, and from life that Americans and Russians think in ways drastically distinct from each other. Each, however heterogenous, however spread out geographically and ethnically, is a people. We are simply not the same.

But that first aspect does not diminish or alter the second: Yale Richmond loves Russia. N.T. Wright speaks of going about our vocations with an "epistemology of love"; Richmond embodies this love-knowing in From Nyet To Da. The man is not cold or distant; he is not speaking from afar or as an unbiased subject to the petri dish object that is "Russia." He speaks from the warmth of political, governmental, business, familial, and personal relationships, spread out over decades, hard fought and hard won in the midst of a long and treacherously precarious rapport between nations. When he addresses customs we might deem goofy, or humorous superstitions, or almost immoral-sounding personality characteristics, his tone is like how one might describe a beloved son or daughter: But don't you know -- he is wonderful! It might sound odd, but then, aren't we all odd?

The book is spread out over eight chapters, though five make up the bulk. The titles of the main five are "Geography and Culture," "Culture and Character," "State and Society," "Personal Encounters," and "Negotiating with Russians." Richmond addresses nearly every area of life, but the economy with which he does it is one of the most appealing features of the book: before the recommended books, endnotes, and index, From Nyet To Da is only 150 pages. Taking into account the incredible amount of information covered, this is quite an accomplishment.

There is no need for me to rehash what Richmond says in the book. For his breadth of knowledge, experience, reading, and relationships; for his recognition of the distinct character of a distinct people combined with a warm love for that people; for the precision and conciseness of his survey -- for all of these things and more I recommend Yale Richmond's From Nyet To Da with the highest regard. On nearly every page I found myself drawn back into my own short time in Russia, pulled into the happy memories of hot tea and endless conversation, of worship and community, of cold streets and groceries-laden babushkas. On every page I found the Russia I knew and loved, the truth of which is indeed, as Winston Churchill said, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." No less a mystery, but also no less a friend.

I leave you with two quotes, the first by Walt Whitman:
You Russians and we Americans! Our countries so distant, so unlike at first glance -- such a difference in social and political conditions, and our respective methods of moral and practical development the last hundred years -- and yet in certain features, and vastest ones, so resembling each other.
The other is by Charles Bohlen, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia:
There are two ways you can tell when a man is lying. One is when he says he can drink champagne all night and not get drunk. The other is when he says he understands Russians.

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