By Val Karren
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy… ” –St. Matthew 5:43
There is in each of us, no matter where we come from, a conditioning that we receive from our homelands. By the time we reach adulthood, this conditioning lies deep in our psyches. It lies as deep as our very earliest memories. To isolate and understand how this conditioning has influenced our preferences and behaviors is a very difficult and uncomfortable exercise. Pin-pointing these ingrained preferences and discerning how they have unconsciously shaped our life choices, can be likened to trying to watch a movie in a fully lit theater: faint faces and bodies on a white screen in the full sun lacking contrasts.
The decision to start a war can always be traced back to the flawed conditioning of at least the aggressor state. The rationale is usually based in an idea that ‘we’ are superior to ‘them.’ or that ‘we’ are more enlightened than ‘they’ are and that ‘our’ race, form of government, or religion is superior to ‘theirs.’ A flawed sense of superiority leads to intolerance, ignorance and fear of our neighbors, who will become self-made enemies if this notion is not exorcized from the national psyche. Unchecked, these prejudices, inherited through conditioning will lead a nation into becoming a closed and fearful society that navigates only by the dim light of nationalism. To begin breaking down deep prejudice towards another group of people, it is necessary to consider members of another race, nation or religion as individuals, diverse within their own ranks, and find what is unique and special about specific men and women.
As a teenager of 1980s, I was conditioned by my national experience to fear the Soviet Union and the Russians. As early as twelve years old I feared my own annihilation by Soviet missiles. When relations between the USA and USSR began to warm, I felt compelled to understand the Soviet system and learn to speak Russian. In the early 1990s I went to live in the (former) Soviet territories and through mutually meaningful interactions with them as individuals, was able to shed my irrational mistrust and fear of two-hundred and fifty-million people.
Even though I had been successful in overriding my national conditioning regarding Russia and Russians, it was not until I spent twelve months living in an eight-floor dormitory in the Netherlands, with students from all over the world, that my prejudices and fears of peoples from other less prominent ‘enemies of the state’ were also able to be neutralized. Proximity has a way of clearing the poisoned air.
In the academic year of 1999-2000 The Maastricht School of Management hosted MBA candidates from over thirty different countries, including one lone soul from the United States of America. The students came from every continent on the globe, creating a rich and diverse mix of races, ethnicities and nationalities. There were students from The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia, but the Europeans didn’t even muster a plurality in the group. The delegation from China was about forty-percent of the class. There were other Asians from Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Nepal, Mongolia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Korea and Japan. After a short year in Maastricht I could take a trip to almost any African nation as well, and visit somebody I had studied with from Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, Namibia, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda. Don’t forget the Americans from Peru, Brazil and Venezuela, Jamaica, Aruba and Curaçao. There were also Palestinians and an Israeli. Even though relations between several of the countries which we represented were not congenial, and even at war with each other during our intense year of study together, I can’t think a better group of friends on graduation day than what we had become. If there is still a chance at world understanding and peace, I think the exposures necessary to catalyze it will start in classrooms and think sessions like those experienced in Maastricht.
Before arriving in Maastricht I felt that I had come a long way in overcoming personal and national prejudices, but even after years of travel and extended stays abroad, I found I was hardly ready for the deep mixing of culture, belief and deeply ingrained traditions that I received during that year. What I found is that I was still carrying the baggage of the last fifty American years which needed to be thrown overboard in order to live in peace and harmony with my next door neighbors, and those that lived a floor above me, and behind me, and across the courtyard out the back doors. How is it that I had the impression that China is a nation of oppressive homogeneity? How is it that I had the impression that Cuba is a dreary place without hope or vision? Who convinced me that all Arabs hate all Americans, and who led me to believe that the Vietnamese are calculating, cruel-minded people? My experiences with these people, who represented America’s self-contrived and perpetuated fears, have convinced me otherwise. But I ask the question again, from where did these misconceptions come? Who taught this to me? For twenty-six years I had subconsciously avoided these cultures out of fear and distrust. This is surely a sad thing, because in these peoples, in these friends, I found much tenderness, friendship, originality and a whole of lot of salsa dancing and joie de vivre.
Many of my classmates were mothers and fathers and had spouses and children who were not able to join them abroad, while I was able to have my wife and first son stay with me in Maastricht. First words, steps and birthdays of many young children were missed by devoted parents who were sacrificing ‘now’ for a better future for their families through the opportunity of an advanced degree. Despite our national and racial differences, the one commonality that ran through all us was the love and devotion to family.
If there was anybody in our class who was the ‘class diplomat’ it was my infant son Matthew. With his help we opened conversations with people from countless countries, including our Dutch hosts. He developed a very strong bond in his own way with a few of the Chinese and African women, and adored a Palestinian lady named Sahar. He would go to her without any fuss when we met her at the school or on the street. As so many of the students were too far from home to call their families regularly and saw them even less, a number of classmates enjoyed coming to spend time at our home, because it was a family home with a Dad, Mom and baby-boy. We made it a point to invite several young mothers and fathers, who had missed their children’s first birthdays, to join us to help celebrate Matthew’s first birthday in March, as a well intended yet insufficient substitute.
Our mutual concern and love for our children and family will always break down the barriers of pride. On a late Saturday night in March a classmate from Vietnam knocked on our door. He was visibly upset and needed our assistance. His wife and eighteen month old son had just arrived in Maastricht for a three month visit and his son had promptly caught cold and was getting feverish. There was nothing artificial in the distress of this young father, just as with me when Matthew was frighteningly ill earlier that winter. We shared the medication and we had received when Matthew had come down with a terrible cough and virus after his immunizations, and made a bond as young parents in the same boat.
Our next-door neighbors were Libyans with two small children, who were as affectionate with their small ones as we were with ours. The language barrier kept us at arms length, but when the children were in question, or at risk, concern across cultures was the same for each others’ children. We spoke them no harm, nor they us and we lived next to each other for several months while exchanging greetings and smiles and kind deeds.
Even though Matthew had his fans, the delegation of ladies from Cuba, who lived just a few doors down, adored him more than the rest combined. One warm afternoon as we were going for a bike ride, the Cubans, who were hosting (yet another) Salsa dance party on the lawn, saw the defenceless child strapped in his bike seat and mobbed us to pinch his cheeks, kiss and tickle him until he cried.
Late one morning, a close friend from Shenzhen knocked on our door in tears and asked to come in. She had just heard from her mother that her grandparents had died a day earlier. Due to the heartbreak of losing his wife of sixty years, Yan’s grandfather had passed away only hours of his wife of sixty years, unable to live without her. Yan wanted to go home to China, but knew she wouldn’t be able to so late in the academic calendar. Instead she sat with us for the afternoon, crying out her grief and shock while she told us stories about her grandparents. I have a photo of her with puffy, red eyes feeding Matthew a bottle on the couch after the sunshine had come out again later that afternoon.
After I got to know Yan and the many different personalities within the Chinese delegation, some conservative, some rebellious, some shy, others boisterous, I could only repent of my ignorance that prompted me to treat them as a faceless, homogenous block. In each of them that I worked with, I found kind, compassionate friends that I could rely on for support and help when I needed it to get through tough course work. Each with their own perspectives, skills and experience added unique valuable elements to our project groups. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to live and work in such close quarters with so many different people from so many different countries in order to learn just how wrong I had been about so many different people. Through proximity to individuals, I was to replace limiting prejudices towards groups of people, and I learned to appreciate the diverse mosaic that our planet truly is.
With the modern world so intricately woven together at just the base level of economic inter-dependance, as suppliers and customers, manufacturers and consumers, my mind swims at the contrived need of politicians and dictators alike to build weapons of war, and the rationale they use to convince themselves that any modern war is winnable. When I hear the sabres of war rattling in different corners of the world I always pause to reflect on the possible hidden agendas of those in power who are using the deep seated national or ethnic prejudices of one group against another. When I consider the families of the friends that I made in just one year in Maastricht, that make up the foreign nations against whom my home country is planning future wars, I shake my head in disbelief that Generals and Admirals can so easily plan to volunteer my sons to become the killers of my friends and their sons.
It is time for those whose children will fill the ranks of any future armies to reach out a hand of friendship and peace to those from the places that our governments want us to hate and fear. When we share a meal, a conversation and a kind word or deed with those across a forbidden border, we break the spell of demagoguery and fear mongering that is growing again in our shrinking world, and begin to free ourselves from our personal prisons of ignorance and prejudice that hold us back from living a life filled with love for the beautiful spectrum of people that God designed on our beautiful planet.
“…but I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you…”
by Val M Karren
It’s been nearly ten years now since I started using. It was rather harmless at the start, and I can honestly tell you that when I started, I had planned to use it for only a few months. I could not have foreseen how quickly it got out of control. I never had any trouble with it in my teenage years. Even though my parents seemed to enjoy a bit of it on an irregular basis, neither I nor any of my siblings were ever tempted by it. It repulsed us when we found it in the glove box in my father’s car. Sometimes though, and regrettably so, exposure to it was unavoidable on long family road trips. I suppose that it was those times, as a susceptible young boy, I came to believe that it was acceptable to dabble it in for fun and that it wouldn’t hurt me or anybody else around me. Now I need it every day before work, immediately after and sometimes I even try to smuggle it into the office with me. My boss caught me with it in the airport in Istanbul during a long wait for our flight to Amsterdam. I know I need help, but can’t find the strength to stop!
In the summer of 2006 I received an invitation to work and live in Spain and with the invitation came the sudden need to be able to speak Spanish. It’s not as if I’m monolingual. I speak five languages, but through all my years of living in Europe, I simply hadn’t had a reason nor the desire to learn Spanish. In high school, I studied French. Serving as a Mormon missionary, I learned to speak Russian. At University I mastered Romanian alongside Russian, and since then have learned to speak Dutch fluently as an ex-patriot.
I’ve found over the years that listening to music in all of these languages helps me to keep all of them accessible in my brain. If I sing along while I’m in the car or running outside, vocabulary, conjugations, and idioms stay readily on my tongue. So, when it became necessary for me to teach myself Spanish, as quickly as possible, I turned again to music to get the words and rhythm of another new language in my ears.
The chance to escape to Barcelona for me was my last hope of reviving and extending my fading youthfulness. I was determined to transform myself from a white and pasty, slightly overweight and balding middle manager, into a tanned, trim and windblown beach hunk. I imagined dancing every weekend late into the night on the beach with my (ever youthful) wife, driving the young bucks into a jealous rage while dancing the hot salsa with my voluptuous, blonde Danish beauty.
Life was going to be all sunshine, cabriolets, hot lovin’ and never, ever another proper dinner before 10:00pm. I wasn’t getting any younger and life wasn’t going to wait for me to learn Spanish, so I did what I had to do. I went to the local Media Markt to find me some Spanish music for the car stereo and hoped that an hour or two each day during my commutes would be enough to give me a good jump start. I came home with two compact discs of Julio Iglesias in my shopping bag. That was the beginning of the end. As each month passed, a new Julio disc was ordered and delivered to my home in discreet brown envelopes. I was downloading the music onto my iPod and reading the lyrics while I listened, in secret, with headphones. I took in everything from the early years of “chicka waka” reverb disco to the super cheesy 80’s power ballads, his Caribbean period, and every recording into the modern period of the haunting Spanish guitars. In between the regular installments, I tried some other Spanish language product to prove to myself that I could quit Julio anytime I wanted. I tried some music from Mexico and Columbia and even some contraband from Cuba, but nothing compared. I even strayed into some Brazilian imports (and I can tell you that was the smoothest stuff I’ve ever sampled) but it just lacked that authentic Spanish flavor that I had become so accustomed to. At that point, I acknowledged to myself that I had a problem, but I thought I still had the ability to get clean. I could not have been more wrong!
That winter I began commuting to Barcelona every other week to lay the groundwork for my operations team and to build relations with suppliers and customers. In Spain, and even more so perhaps in Barcelona, business is done between friends. Being friends is the basis of being able to close any deal, ask any favors and solve any service issues. Building those friendships, of course, took place during activities that had nothing to do with business, i.e. Formula One races, football (soccer) matches and very long, very late lunches on the beach. Nobody seemed to be in a rush and always had time for an extra cup of coffee and an extra long chat. Being forty-five minutes late for appointments was standard. Apologies were rarely spoken in defense of tardiness. Plans had to always stay flexible.
After just a few months I was surprised with how much Spanish I had been able to learn in such a short amount of time. I had quickly learned how to read and write an email in Spanish and have casual conversations while comprehension came with less and less effort. In my experience it usually takes eight weeks of complete immersion in a new language to be able to behave a bit more intelligently than a very smart dog: Sit. Speak. Eat. Then, something exhilarating happens! The dam breaks and, almost overnight, spontaneous conversations spring out of my mouth, and my attempts at witty jokes start making sense to everybody else around me. It happened in Russia, it happened in Holland, and all at once it happened in Spain.
In the weeks that I worked in Spain, I did just that, I worked for ten hours a day. The evenings, though, were mine! Whenever I had free time in Barcelona, the only place I wanted to be was outdoors! The rays of the earth’s yellow sun seemed to give me superhero strength and I felt while jogging in the evenings that if I could get both my feet off the ground at the same time, that I would start flying around the harbor and out over the sea hills. Catalunya has what I consider to be the very best climate that our green earth has to offer. Winter only lasts from just a few days before Christmas through St. Valentine’s day. The spring is fresh, aromatic and bright, the summers are wonderfully warm, but never too hot. The autumn comes on slowly, and brings with it such a wonderful warmth of autumn colors, not in the trees, but in the air. In the morning and evening air, no matter the season, one feels invincible and able to conquer aging itself. What joy! What courage!
While running in the evenings along the shoreline of “The Med,” I would listen to music with a good beat to keep my feet from dragging. One evening, while I was running near the water of the ancient sea, all of the sudden, as if a switch in my head had been thrown, I could understand all the Spanish lyrics in my ears. After months of struggling to hear the words and understand the songs, from one moment to the next, a whole new world of Latin culture was opened up to me…and Julio was in fine form that night! His sung exploits in love, broken hearts and red wine by the cask, put to a disco beat and an accordion, filled me with a renewed youthfulness that kept me running strong, kilometer after kilometer with excitement. I felt like Marathon himself. All eyes were on me! I alone could save the world. As long as Julio sang, I ran, and as I ran I became the hero of each of those songs.
I became the man who discovered true love for the first time in a remote seaside village. I was the man dancing the night away with a black haired, hip swaying Andalucian beauty. I was the man who invented the mouth-watering recipe for white, flakey ‘bacalau,’ and I became the brokenhearted schmuck, left abandoned by my true love because I couldn’t keep my hands to myself that night on the beach. Damn that full moon!
But as these things go, and many times they simply go the wrong way, all at once and without warning, the whole dream fell apart. After months of hard work, regular travel, packing and nearly selling the house in Holland, I received the heart-wrenching news that my application for residency in Spain had been denied. Oh, mi corazon roto! Que dolor! Que deroche! There are no words in the English language that properly express my disappointment. As a consequence of it all, I quit my job in Amsterdam and left the company out of my inability to face my shattered dream every day, for the rest of my career. We sold our home, took a new job and moved far away. Now, all I have left of the perfect dream not-come-true is a pain in my gut, a head full of half correct Spanish sentences, the memory of the heavenly taste of bacalau in my mouth, and a love of cheesy latin love ballads in my heart and in my ears.
Nobody understands my inability to let go of what was for me the end of all existence and I don’t have the ability to explain it, but I know that there is one person in the world who understands my pain, who is just a click of the play button away. As long as Julio sings, my dream will never die. (Sing, Julio, sing! )
Val Karren’s new thriller, The Deceit of Riches, is now available to order on Amazon at the following link:
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 anything that wasn’t bolted to the floor was up for grabs. Oil fields, banks and military hardware were targeted for hostile take overs by tens of criminal organisations out to enrich themselves and take over the reigns of the government. In Moscow the violence was endemic and the corruption deep of those fighting to gain control of the country’s resources and its future. While the government struggled to keep Russia solvent, and bread on the table, the mafia was fleecing the country and moving huge amounts of money out of Russia and hiding it abroad.
Peter Turner, an American student of history and politics, while studying the sell off of state companies and properties in the provincial city of Nizhni Novgorod, stumbles into a burgeoning local criminal network ready to make the next step up. Faced with the dilemma of exposing the deceit or staying alive, Peter must face himself and his own motivations.
Swept up in a ring international espionage swirling around him and his discovery, Peter is picked up in a sting operation by the local authorities and is given a choice that will set him against either a complex spy ring or murdering gangsters, depending on what he chooses to reveal. Peter must find a way out of Russia without getting shot, but the only way out …is to go through it.
by V M Karren
The day the sky fell in, my wife stood alone in the kitchen and wept.
While my wife wept alone in the kitchen, my two-year old son tinkered with a set of puzzles of a boat, a train, a race car and an airplane.
While my son played happily and asked for attention and praise, I tried desperately to keep him quiet and contained as the others in the room were also in shock. My son had yet to understand the gravity of the situation and looking back now neither had I, even though I knew at the time it was serious, very serious.
We all spoke in hushed disbelief when we saw the sky roll in billowing grey clouds at street level through the canyons of glass and steel. Thick plumes of dust and debris blocked the sun. I remember glancing out the windows to see if, by consequence of a chain reaction, the sky above our town would soon descend on us too as it had in Metropolis that clear September afternoon.
When the sky falls in, all sense of equilibrium is disrupted. What was once up is no longer. What was once down can no longer be differentiated from that which was up, because everything is now under our feet. It can be picked up, tripped over or plowed to one side. Those things that were once inert, up there, in the clouds had suddenly become an overhead hazard as it all came tumbling to the earth in two massive implosions. Just before the whole thing fell in, those who lived in the clouds started jumping out of the sky in hopeless panic. It was if heaven had begun listing and the angels were tumbling out over the rails of the observation deck.
The day the sky fell in there was a profound silence around the airports of the world as there was no longer any sky left to fly in. In Britain, Canada and Europe the airplanes stood still. Nobody took off and nobody landed for days as no one was really sure what was going to fill in the space that was once the sky. Would the stars and blackness of space fill the void? Would the land rise up to meet the stratosphere? We wondered if another airplane could ever fly again.
After the news broke that the sky had collapsed over New York City, the Amsterdam airport cancelled all flights to North America as there was no longer any sky to fly through. Had the planes continued to fly toward the east coast of the United States, we were told that wings and engines would not be able to create the lift needed to keep them suspended above the earth, and would also come crashing down.
Everybody who was hoping to fly westward that afternoon decided to drive. What should have been a ten minute drive home, to safety, took ninety minutes. The world was in chaos.
On the day the sky fell in, my wife stood alone in the kitchen and wept.
by Matthew Karren
“Oh wow, yeah, those are really visible.”
I rolled my sleeves back down.
“How did you get those?” he asked.
I explained that when you’re walking the pilgrimage, you try to stay out of the heat of the day. To do that, you wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and walk your 25km to the next destination. If everything goes according to plan, you get there at 1 in the afternoon and you will have just missed the 31 celsius weather that comes on in the afternoon. However, when you’re walking due west that early in the morning, and the sun rises in the east, you constantly have the sun at your back which translates into ridiculous tan lines on your neck, arms and calves.
My tan lines, as well as the half healed scars on my feet had become conversation starters while I was attending a youth camp about a month later.
Graduation from high school can be harder than it seems. Students can get so wrapped up in the idea of having finished school, and finally being able to leave, that they fail to realize how much structure school creates in your life. As soon as there is no daily schedule, no homework, no deadlines, and no school after the summer, they start feeling pretty lost. I was one of those students.
To prevent stress from all these crazy and sudden changes, me and my father wanted to plan a trip for the week after my last exam. He needed a vacation, and I needed something to do while waiting for my results. We narrowed our options down to a handful of interesting places we could visit, and we finally settled on walking a large part of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
I didn’t bother doing any research about the history of this pilgrimage beforehand like my dad, because I was studying for my exams. Instead I had to pick it all up from conversation with other pilgrims on the journey. I learned that the reason the clam shell was the symbol of the pilgrimage was because Saint James, the biblical apostle of Jesus Christ, was shipwrecked off the western coast of Spain, and did not survive. When his body washed up on shore, it is said to have been covered in large clam shells.
I learned why some of the pilgrims argued that the road to Santiago should start in Aachen, Germany instead of St. Jean, France where most people decided to start in the modern day. They argued that in 812, the great Frankish king Charlemagne, who had recently been crowned Holy Roman Emperor, and who lived in his court in Aachen, decided to visit the grave of Saint James in Santiago as a pilgrim. Since then the Catholic church has regarded the pilgrimage to Santiago as the most important, and will even offer full indulgences to pilgrims during the years when St. James day falls on a Sunday.
On an exceptionally difficult walk down a mountain and through scorching heat, we passed through a city which had been a historic stronghold of the Knights Templar, who had taken it upon themselves to guard the religious pilgrims on the perilous road to Santiago. We sat in the shade of the buildings sipping our coca colas and marvelling at the impressive castle.
At one point I asked my dad why there seemed to be so many Koreans walking the pilgrimage in comparison to other asian nationalities. He explained that about a century ago, the pilgrimage was almost never walked anymore, until a man decided to walk it and write a book about it. The book created a resurgence in popularity, and by some chance caught on in Korea much more than in other asian countries. We figured out that the Camino de Santiago was to Koreans what Paris is to the Japanese.
I started learning more than just the history of the Camino. I learned that walking over 300 kilometers in fairly new hiking boots is a terrible idea. The fact that we had to completely quit walking halfway to our destination one day, the fact that I now have no fear in popping my own blisters, and the fact that my feet still aren’t fully healed all attest that this was maybe the hardest lesson I had to learn.
Another lesson we were forced to learn was not to trust our guidebook. Whoever wrote the thing must’ve been slightly mislead. On our day walking up the Cantabrian mountains, we had planned to stop in a place called Foncebadón at the top of the mountain. The guidebook had led us to believe that it would be much bigger than it actually was. Even though there were spectacular views from the terrace of the café, the town wasn’t much more than the café. Later that day we were convinced that we would be able to stop in a place called Manjarín, very close to where the descent down the mountains began. At one point we saw a couple of rundown barns and a small ‘refugio’ in the place where Manjarín was supposed to be. Apparently it was so small it didn’t even have a sign coming into town. Luckily we were having a good day and we were able to go halfway down the mountain to the next proper village, but we vowed not to trust the guidebook too much after that day.
I learned not to be too uncomfortable around other people, and not to worry too much about privacy. If we stayed in a room with another fifty people in bunk beds, we wouldn’t care. I started not caring about their loud nightly noises (even though my dad had a bit of a harder time with that). I learned not to be too weirded out by lacy women’s underwear hanging from my bed, which belonged to the woman in the bunk under me.
I tripled my knowledge of Spanish on the Camino. Up until then I knew ‘Hola,’ ‘Gracias,’ and a wide variety of Spanish names for different kinds of Mexican food. Now I can say, ‘Yo no sé,’ ‘Yo quiero dos Coca-Colas por favor,’ ‘Nosotros somos peregrinos,’ ’Hola,’ ‘Gracias,’ and a wide variety of Spanish names for different kinds of Mexican food.
Finally, I learned a lot about myself. I learned how to make my mind slow down. I learned how to be almost completely disconnected from technology and the internet. I learned how to keep going through pain. I learned to appreciate a great many things that I didn’t have while on the road. I learned that I can keep going for another 10km if I’ve had another Coca Cola and a plate of Tortilla de Patatas. I learned how to paint Spain. I learned how to have a meaningful conversation with a complete stranger.
The funny thing is, I hadn’t realized that I had learned all of this until I was back home.
by V. M. Karren
No war has ever been, is, nor ever will be glorious. Those who portray war as glorious have not lived through a war that took their own home, destroyed their factory or farm or took their only son or grandson.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, campaigns for independence and sovereignty of different ethnic groups within the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Azerbaijan have created both hot and cold conflicts that have grabbed the international headlines. For those in the west, Russia’s annexation of The Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the wars in Chechnya in 1995 and 2000 have been widely reported in the press.
The first of two Chechen wars in the post-Soviet period began in December 1994 when the Russian government tried quietly to put down a rebellion and coup which had been orchestrated by local separatists, lead by a former Soviet Air Force general named Dhozkar Dudayev. Moscow did not want to call the attention of the world to the growing spectre of civil war in Russia, and hoped for a quick ‘mopping up’ operation by sending in troops to restore order after a short military blockade of the provincial borders. Unfortunately, Russian intelligence organisations grossly underestimated the resolve, organisation and readiness of the Chechen militias and suffered an embarrassing defeat with the complete destruction of a brigade and the death or capture of all of its soldiers sent in to establish government control of the provincial capital of Grozny.
After the humiliation of the Russian army in Grozny, on January 5th, 1995, the Kremlin sent the big guns into Chechnya: numerous armoured columns, war planes and helicopter gun ships to systematically and mercilessly destroy the capital city. I listened to Boris Yeltsin announce this to the world from an airport television as I prepared to board a flight from Seattle to Moscow for what was to be an indefinite stay in Russia, in another provincial capital: Nizhny Novgorod.
By April the seriousness and cruelty of the Russian civil war in Chechnya was beginning to be felt by the mothers and grandmothers of the country, and they were beginning to demand that their children be sent home. When too many of the soldiers began returning home in pine boxes, busloads of mothers and grandmothers began travelling to the regions surrounding the conflict zone as rumours were heard that the Chechens were allowing only mothers across the front lines to take their captured young army conscripts home with them. The Russian authorities tried with all their might, except for turning their guns on these determined women, to stop them from crossing the front lines to find their sons and grandsons.
In any war there is immense personal suffering on both sides. Nobody is ever ‘winning’ a war, no matter what the generals or propaganda machines tell those back at home. There are only conquerors and defenders…no winners. It was a mild spring evening in Nizhny Novgorod when I came to understand how the mothers and grandmothers of Russia were suffering from the conflict that their young sons were fighting thousands of miles away.
I was on my way home from university lectures in the old city centre and had just taken a seat on a half-empty bus that was heading home across the river. One of the last stops that the bus makes is at the top of the steep bluff that overlooks the junction of the Oka and Volga rivers, before descending a windy, bumpy road to the main bridge leading to the opposite side. If you don’t have a seat before this descent, you’d best have a pole or handrail to hold onto before the bus begins careening down the switchbacks. The experience could be compared to trying to remain standing on a roller coaster. It is advisable for old women, young children and drunk men NOT to stand during this segment of the route.
Near this stop at the top of the hill was a makeshift bazar of fresh foods, bread and whatever other odds and ends a household might need. The bus, only half-full, filled up quickly at this last stop with shoppers lugging bags of vegetables and bread. Those who could find a seat quickly did so. As the bus pulled away from the curb with a jolt, a middle-aged woman began demanding something from me that I didn’t understand. From her body language I took her to be a transit controller who was asking to see my bus ticket. The transit systems in Russia are systematically abused because one can board the bus without buying a ticket first, nor paying the fare on exiting. These plain clothes agents are authorised to spot check passengers for tickets or monthly passes and to give fines to those without one. Many times during very crowded bus rides one is requested to pass money forward to the driver’s cabin, while the bus is moving, in order that a ticket can be purchased and passed back. From where the money comes, and to whom the tickets belong, can sometimes remain a mystery. Taking this demanding woman for a controller, I flashed my monthly bus pass with my student identification at her with a slightly defiant attitude. She apologised in a very humble voice and turned to grab a hand-rail as the bus was beginning to sway around the first switchback down the hillside.
I became puzzled when the same woman did not ask anybody else to show her their bus passes. Her quiet apology was also very odd as the controllers usually just move on to the next passenger, who is hurrying to get out his money, to look as if he is passing it forward to buy a ticket by proxy. It became evident to me that I had misunderstood what she was demanding of me. Wanting to know what had just happened, and what I had represented myself to be, I leaned over and tapped the shoulder of the white haired Babushka sitting next to me. I explained to her that I was a foreigner and that I hadn’t understood why this woman was first so angry at me and then so quickly apologetic and silent.
This sweet white haired grandmother explained to me that this woman wanted my seat, because she didn’t want to stand with her groceries while the bus was speeding down the hillside. She went on to explain that my bus-pass and student ID had been mistaken to be an invalid’s permit to sit in the seats reserved for old folks, pregnant women, women with small children and of course, invalids. Seeing that I was neither old, female, nor carrying a small child I asked why she would have mistaken me for an invalid?
“Oh young man,” she sighed with distress,“the boys from here are starting to come home now from the war in Chechnya and many of them have been badly wounded and have been given an Army pension and invalids’ papers. This woman thinks you are an wounded soldier . . .”
This grandmother went on to tell me that her youngest grandson, who was my same age had just been called been called up to fight in Chechnya with his brigade and feared that she had seen him alive for the last time. He was twenty-one years old.
She held my hand the rest of the ride home telling me war stories from 1945 and warned me to leave Russia before it was too late. She told me that she had lost her father in the Second World War and she understood that sacrifice, but couldn’t come to grips with sacrificing her grandson to this conflict, not for these leaders, fighting other Russians for no real reason than to save their own pride.
by V. M. Karren
Upon graduation from High School my classmates voted me the person most likely to become the youngest Supreme Court Justice of the United States’ because of my obsession with politics, law and world events. There were many who signed my senior yearbook who expected me to run for the presidency of the United States. My classmates expected me to come very close to the proverbial “power seat”, if not sit in it for 8 years. What very few of these old friends of mine know is that I came very close to that power seat just eight months after we received our first diplomas; in fact I got too close and spoiled everything.
My brush with power came on January 30, 1992, just a few weeks after the Soviet Union had officially been dissolved on Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of that defunct super power, live on international television. My studies had taken me to London, England and I was staying just across Bayswater Road from a long street, lined by foreign embassies on London’s west-end. On many evenings this street was closed to all foot and motor traffic due to visiting foreign dignitaries, kings, queens and prime ministers on the move in motorcades of black limousines with tinted glass and wailing police escorts. On more than one occasion we saw the British prime minister, John Major, speeding away with his own security detail after a meeting and photo session with one visiting president or another. Power surged from this neighbourhood. One could feel influence oozing from the walls and windows if one didn’t speak while walking up and down the street.
The morning of January 30th was a typical London morning in winter; it was not cold enough to freeze anything except one’s nose and ears, with no sunshine. I had plans of doing some artistic photography that morning in the winter fog and I had just loaded my camera with a roll of black and white film when a roommate came crashing in the front door, out of breath, with incredible news!
“In fifteen minutes, Boris Yeltsin will be at the Russian Embassy across the street!” Clint announced.
I ran down the street and crossed Bayswater Road against the light and continued as quickly as I could to join the crowd assembled outside the newly reflagged Russian embassy. London’s Metropolitan Police and Russian secret service agents were in full force making sure that the public stayed behind the barricades. Desperate just to see my hero Yeltsin in the flesh, the man who had altered the course of modern politics, I pushed my way to the first row of onlookers and held my ground.
I had known about and watched Boris Yeltsin for several years as he slowly eroded the legitimacy of the Communist Party in Russia and across the Soviet Union. When he was elected the President of the Russian Federation after resigning from the ruling communist party, the hope of the Velvet Revolution rolling through the Soviet Union itself kept me glued to the news reports as eastern Europe continued to shed the oppression of Moscow’s dictatorship. Having seen Yeltsin openly and publicly oppose the coup d’etat in August of 1991 I fully expected him to be assassinated by the KGB’s Alpha group as he stood atop that tank in Central Moscow in August of 1991, urging Russia and Russians to demand their freedom. In 1991 there was nobody greater in my eyes in Russia, or world politics, than Boris Nicholaevich Yeltsin.
After a long wait in the cold, Yeltsin’s motorcade finally arrived. To my disappointment the car carrying the Siberian bear pulled right up to the door of the embassy. Yelstin, a large, strong man even at sixty years old, was almost physically forced against his will by his bodyguards into the embassy without the crowd being able to even get a decent glimpse of him. He did manage a quick wave to those of us stuck behind the barricades, but was almost knocked over by his security detail when he paused to give us all a quick smile and a thumbs up. Many in the crowd were sorely disappointed with such a brief appearance and grumbled as the crowd broke up. Even many of the journalists and photographers who had come to get a quick photo packed it in and sped away to the next assignment or siting.
Even though many of the curious onlookers began leaving, the security guards and policemen remained. They didn’t move in closer to the house, and the driver of the car who delivered Yeltsin to the embassy never even got out from behind the steering wheel nor turned off the motor. All of these things said to me that he wasn’t staying here long. Twenty minutes passed and a beautiful green, classic Jaguar pulled through the crowd with its lights blinking, flanked by two policemen on motorcycles. Margaret Thatcher appeared on the stairs of the mansion and descended rapidly with her security team, climbed into the emerald Jaguar and sped away with little fanfare. A few more people appeared after Mrs. Thatcher left, but they were faces that I didn’t know and didn’t care about. Each of them simply jumped into a waiting car and sped away with police sirens wailing as they turned onto Bayswater Road, heading back to Whitehall, the British power seat.
I waited for about an hour before the doors of the mansion swung open again. From the street one could not see into the shadowy doorway, but we knew immediately that it was Yeltsin, due to the amount of camera activity from the press pool who had been allowed to wait on the staircase of the house. Flashes, flashes, shouting and more flashes. To my dismay, just like the other visitors, he was rushed through the crowd of photographers and journalists right to his waiting car. The door was flung open by a waiting security agent and stood wide open, ready for him to dive in and speed away in safety.
Yeltsin looked healthy, strong and happy to be alive. His silver head of hair was full, his posture straight and chest puffed out and he strode with confidence and purpose. He was watching and waving to the crowd, shouting “Halloo, Halloo” over the heads of the guards, almost walking on his tip toes to see over their heads. He had not yet grown into the somber, grumpy man that he was when we left his post in 2000, but seemed to have a glow of excitement and vision in his face. He seemed almost childish in his reaction to the crowd’s adoring calls and applause. He stepped up to the open car door and with a strong swing of his hand, he slammed it closed in front of him, and bullied his way through the crowd of security guards around the trunk of the car. He was heading straight toward the barricades and the crowd behind them and I was front and center in the swooning crowd.
Yeltsin was growing bigger and bigger in the viewfinder of camera and when I finally realised that he walking directly toward me I could see only his face and shoulders in the little window of my camera. In the late 1980’s, the Goodwill Games between the USA and the Soviet Union had been held in Seattle. I had learned a few Russian phrases that I had used every now and then when I met a group of athletes on the streets of downtown. They were uncomplicated greetings, a few adjectives, yes, no, and “my name is” etc., etc. As Yeltsin came within two steps of me, I let the camera fall and dangle on its chord around my neck as I stuck out my hand, looked him straight in the eye and blurted out in poor Russian, “Hello, how are you?”
He was pleasantly surprised and slapped his hand into mine and said something back to me which I didn’t understand. He gave me a smile, a firm handshake and a slap on my left shoulder before he moved on to the numerous other hands waiting to shake his. My camera could not take photos fast enough! Yeltsin climbed over the waist high fence in one large stride and mixed right into the crowd. He shook the hand of anybody and everybody who wanted to wish him well, and even kissed two babies. Then at the urging of his security team he began back to the waiting car. As he walked backwards to the waiting limousine he shouted “New York” to the crowd and made a motion of an airplane arcing over the ocean towards New York City, and he then shouted “United Nation.” Then with one big wave of both of his hands high over his head, he disappeared behind the bullet-proof tinted glass and sped away, with police sirens wailing, on his way to the world’s power seat at the General Assembly of the United Nations.
I was not the only person taken off guard by Yeltsin’s disregard for his personal safety. The police and body guards scrambled from all over the street to get next to him as he turned and twisted through the crowd, bending down to say hello to even the smallest of well-wishers. Those who were taken the most off guard were the photographers and reporters who were sent there to get a few good pictures of Boris Nicholaievich while he was in London. After Yeltsin’s motorcade was gone a number of professional photographers came quickly to the crowd and began asking if anybody had had a chance to get good photos of the man of the hour. As I was standing at the front of the barricades I was asked directly if I had been able to get two or three clear pictures of the Russian President. I was reluctant to tell them anything because I wanted these photos and nobody was going to take them away from me! I finally admitted to a photographer from Reuters that I believed that I had been able to take a number of pictures straight on and then quite a few of him with the crowd while he was shaking hands with others…and that my film was in fact black & white. This news made several photographers very eager to get my pictures and they began bidding for my film.
I refused to sell the film that now contained what I considered to be an irreplaceable treasure. The photographers wanted to take the film right out of my camera and give me 25 to 50 pounds for the roll. The money sounded great, but I refused. The more I refused, the more money was being offered. When the photographer from Reuters realised that I was not going to let the film out of my possession, he invited me to come down to Fleet Street to deliver the film myself to the darkroom. He invited me for a tour of the Reuters News Service while the negatives were developed and would pay me 50 pounds per suitable photo and I could keep the negatives. He scrawled his name and direct telephone number on the back of an envelope and asked me to meet him at his office no later than 2.00pm, or else the opportunity would be lost for the Sunday morning papers.
I arrived at the Reuters building in the heart of the London news district at a quarter to two. The reception desk would not let me and my two classmates pass as she did not believe the story that I had taken better pictures of Boris Yeltsin than their in-house photographers. I showed her the envelope that their photographer had given me and asked her to phone his direct line and verify our story. She would not. I had to find a telephone myself and phone my contact to have him come down and meet us.
I delivered my film directly to the darkroom manager as was promised, and my name and phone number was put on the envelope before it was taken away for processing. In the meantime my classmates and I were given a tour of this news-powerhouse’s news floor, the “wire room” and the photography labs. The rooms all bustled with nervous, almost frantic activity of reporters fighting time for their cut off times. Phones chirped, keyboards rustled and printers churned. They were like a hive of bees with each one of them busy with their own task, paying no attention to the bee in the next honeycomb, who could very well be working on something completely different and unrelated. Their worlds began and ended with their own stories. Creation, Existence and Judgement in three hours’ time. We benignly observed the creation and deterioration of several solar systems in the time that we waited for word on the photographs.
Finally the word came down that the negatives were ready. We found the darkroom manager where we had left him and he showed me the negatives displayed on a light board. Five of the frames had been tagged with small pieces of red tape on the margin. I was counting the cash and imagining my photograph of the Russian president on the front page of the London Times!
The dark room manager began to critique the photos. “These are fine photographs. You used some very fine film. These are great head and shoulder shots. Can’t believe they let you this close to the man.” I held my breath. The fellow continued, “thing is though, I showed these photographs to the editor and I’m afraid he cannot use any of them. He was hoping to have pictures of Mr. Yeltsin with somebody in the crowd or shaking hands with somebody.” Visions of fame and fortune quickly evaporated, “I’m sorry son…you were just too close!”
by V. M. Karren
When Vladimir Lenin, the brain father of the now dissolved and discredited Soviet Union, passed away, it was in a very mortal way. He died from the effects of a series of progressively disabling strokes, and for several months before his actual passing his face had the expression of a condemned man waiting for his sentencing. His last words and thoughts go a long way to explain that expression. Even though Lenin enforced his secular religion of loyalty to the state and persecuted all symbols of living religion and the religious, in his final days even he acknowledged that he was going soon to meet his Maker. . . “as his greatest enemy.” As terrifying as such a thought would be for anybody, Lenin feared even more that Joseph Stalin, a bank robbing, megalomaniac mafiosi was close enough to and had enough loyalty around the power seat of the communist party to muscle out his chosen successor, Leon Trotskiy as the leader of the central committee. Lenin’s fears were well grounded.
Immediately after Lenin’s death, Stalin disregarded every wish of his dying mentor, and to be sure of his take over of the party apparatus he commissioned a brutal assassination attempt of Trotskiy with an ice pick while making his final move to fill the power vacuum. As a final insult to his dead comrade Stalin did not let Lenin be buried without more than the usual observances for the passing of a head of state, as Lenin himself wished, but entombed Lenin’s body in a red granite mausoleum on Red Square — no doubt so Stalin could keep close watch that Lenin actually stayed dead! To this day the preserved remains of V. I. Lenin can be viewed by the curious public and tourists behind thick security glass and in very dim lighting, denying him the rest that all the dead should be afforded.
Next, Stalin ordered thousands of statues to be carved and mounted all over the Soviet Union depicting the Lenin, the immortal leader, pointing the way to the bright future of the workers’ state. A slogan was created; “Lenin is, was and always will be,” to help assure the Soviet public that the USSR would never lose its way as it would be guided by their eternal leader. Ironically, against his will and express instructions to his successors, Lenin was deified in the secular religion that he forced upon his people.
For a time after Joseph Stalin had passed away his body was laid next to Lenin’s in the monolithic tomb that had been constructed on Red Square, just off the Kremlin wall. It became very evident that Stalin had ordered the construction this red polished granite crypt with hopes of himself being laid and preserved there in perpetuity—his only chance at immortality.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Kruschev took the reigns of power, and the Soviet Union began a period of ‘de-Stalinization’ by disavowing the totalitarian paranoia that Stalin perpetuated and by returning to the pure communistic theory that Marx and Lenin had expounded during their short lives. The public mood in the Soviet Union began immediately to thaw, and the chill of the oppressive years of war, purges and suspicion melted away to a warmer, more nurturing Soviet system. Artists were allowed to create, poets were encouraged to write about the horrors of the recent past and architects were able to experiment in more colourful and creative styles of building. Film makers and play writers began to take a critical look at Stalin and his brand of Communism and denounce the destructive culture of fear and suspicion that he created. Political prisoners began returning from Siberia and were officially rehabilitated to be able to rejoin society again. Although Kruschev allowed criticism of Stalin, still Lenin and Marx were revered as wise, guiding statesmen. Kruschev himself was an ardent Communist and believed strongly in the correctness of a pure communist philosophy.
Although life within the Soviet Union was beginning to bloom after a long cold winter, relations with the United States and its western allies were growing increasingly tense as the rhetoric from both sides was growing in animosity towards the other. Kruschev won several diplomatic battles for the USSR around the world, as well as lost a few in the end, but while he was on a roll he frightened the world, and especially the United States. . . to its core.
It was under the leadership of Kruschev that Sputnik was successfully launched into orbit around the earth and returned with a still living dog inside. It was under the leadership of Nikita Kruschev that the standard of living inside the Soviet Union briefly surpassed that of the United States and Europe. It was under the leadership of Kruschev that the USSR was granted three votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations, much to the anger and insecurity of the United States. It was Nikita Kruschev that declared upon his visit in the United States that the communist system would bury the capitalist system due to its innate superiority. It was at then that the arms race of the Cold War truly began running.
I grew up in the later years of the Cold War, terrified of the possibilities of nuclear war and the inevitable end of the world that the launching of these missiles could bring. In the 1980’s Ronald Reagan was at the helm and was continually rattling the USA’s countless nuclear sabres. The USSR had also just invaded Afghanistan and a stray Korean airliner had just been shot out of the sky on the direct orders of Yuri Andropov above the Soviet Union’s far eastern territories. The struggle between Communism and Capitalism for influence around the world was in full swing as I was coming to understand the workings of international affaires and politics. This fear and awareness of the ease with which life on our planet could be evaporated by a hot nuclear mushroom cloud, motivated me from a young age to try to bridge the differences between the two competing systems.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union I have visited the tombs of each of its leaders, from Vladimir Lenin to Yuri Andropov. I have even visited the tomb of Karl Marx himself in the Highgate cemetery in London. Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, and Yuri Andropov are all buried in full state honours on Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. Mikhail Gorbechev has yet to pass on, and may he live long and tell his story over and over. Only Nikita Kruschev has been separated from the rest of the country’s former leaders in death because he died after his fall from grace —after he blinked at Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. Even after the great steps forward that Kruschev led his country to take after ruthless, totalitarian rule, the loss of face on the world stage over Cuba was too much for those of the Inner Circle to take. Kruschev was declared unfit to rule and was retired from political life. Some in the central committee claimed he was crazy, some believed he was about to lose control of the whole country. Others just wanted his job.
Nikita Kruschev is buried in one of Moscow’s most prestigious places to be buried in all of Russia, even though he wasn’t good enough to rot next to the other glorious leaders on Red Square who had “kept the faith.” Kruschev’s bones are interned underneath a low key, moderately sized dark red granite head stone, with the likeness of his round, bald head and toothy grin smiling forever at the walls of the ancient Noviy Devechy monastery. The graveyard is perched on a small hill overlooking a peaceful pond—that happened to be frozen over when I visited it with my father in early days of 1997.
I can understand the feelings of animosity that my father’s generation has towards the Communist leaders of the USSR, especially Kruschev who kept the USA in a constant state of alert and anxiety about whether or not tomorrow would even be worth planning for. That is why I snapped a beaming photograph of my father standing over Kruschev’s grave in the snow, drinking a cold can of Russian made Coca-Cola shortly after muttering. . .“Who buried who, Buddy?”