By Martin J. Kidston
Leaving Moscow in an east and southerly direction, across the vastness of the Russian landscape, Havre native Kelli Geldard found herself in the Siberian town of Irkutsk, mixing with people not much different than herself.
A senior at the University of Montana, Geldard has a single semester to complete before she graduates with a degree in English education. So with school nearly licked, she decided to team up with like-minded students from across the US with the Campus Crusade for Christ, and venture forth under the flag of goodwill to discover the Russian way of life.
On a map, she points to Ulan Ude, then to Irkutsk, two small dots just north of the Mongolian border that hug the shores of Lake Bykal. To her surprise, Siberia wasnt exactly what Hollywood would have one believe an eternally cold wasteland born to political prisoners.
The landscape looks a lot like Montana and the weather is pretty much the same, Geldard said. As for the people, I learned that deep down, they want the same things we do they have the same feelings and the same problems. They deal with divorced families, alcoholism, and the great question of why am I here? Theyre just people too.
Geldard said the differences between Russians and Americans appeared to be superficial and she named several examples, beginning with the citizens of Irkutsk a city with a population 600,000 people.
They dont have a lot of contact with Americans, and their view of us seems to come largely from the movies they see. They think were very loud and humorous, Geldard said, smiling, and Im not so sure we dispelled any of those myths. But at the same time, I think they discovered our down-to-earth, caring side, too.
As the influence of Russian novelists like Tolstoy, Kafka and Chekhov cast their reign of influence on American literary culture, American trends, too, work their way across the Bearing Sea to mingle with the Russian way. And with a world wide web connecting the globe, the ease of transportation and a free market, the two cultures may work ever closer to becoming homogenized, as Geldard discovered.
You can sort of see western cultural influences mixing with theirs, Geldard said, stating her example. A restaurant owner had me and a few Russian friends over for dinner. He was probably one of the most well-off men in town, and he was designing a discotheque to build and he was modeling it after Hollywood. Others, sometimes they listen to the Back Street Boys, and their dress well, its rare to see the women wearing shorts or jeans, but rather, they wear skirts and high heels. The Russian girls in my group liked to knit, draw and read.
But even as countries barrow trends, drawing cultures together like a slow weave, Geldard said blending in with the natives was still a difficult task.
They could take one look at you from two blocks away, and they would joke, If you see a back pack, a ball cap and tennis shoes, then you know theyre American.
The trip, designed as a cultural exchange camp, revealed the new Russia to Geldard and others the same Russia that was kept a relative secret for so long. Geldard said that such a trip to the former Soviet Union may not have been possible several years ago. But now, amidst statues of Lenin, which Geldard said were everywhere, Democracy struggles to take hold and the strife amongst the Russian people can be seen at various levels. With the American dollar worth 25 Rubels in the current market, Geldard said she was able to enjoy amenities beyond the reach of most Russians.
Its kind of Democratic, but Id say theres still a communist influence. I remember hearing how some people work and dont get paid on a regular basis, but they keep working because they were afraid they would loose their jobs, Geldard said. Another example, well, some friends and I, we were able to eat at a few restaurants because they were affordable to us, but you wouldnt see many natives there they couldnt afford it.
Geldard said that to look at the city of Irkutsk (which she said is the hub of Siberia), a single glance wouldnt reveal a society struggling to make its way look beneath that, however, and the economic strife begins to appear.
One day, we as a group distributed 200 bags of food to some poor areas, and some of the stories they told us were heartbreaking, Geldard said. They were reluctant to take the food we offered at first, but when they saw it was a free gift, they became overwhelmed.
The gift of food, Geldard said, was greatly appreciated, but she said the greatest gift of all was the gift of god. During the six week mission to the worlds largest country, growth, Geldard explained, was achieved through god, and through god strife became manageable.
The thing Im coming away with is the awe of how spiritually hungry people are, and Ive never experienced such a large group of people so wiling to talk about god, Geldard said, explaining, in part, why she yearns to return to the Siberian city.
The most significant part of the whole trip was not that I traveled to another country, but that I saw lives changed by gods grace. Now, Im thinking of going back, studying the Russian language, teaching and doing missionary work. The friendships I made there its hard for me to just leave and not see them grow, and see how theyre doing.