The author with Nicolai and Tanya, 8th grade, School 185 in Leningrad, 1986
by Frank Thoms
When I decided to speak to the San Miguel community about my time with the Russian people, I did not anticipate the war in Ukraine, that I would come with a heavy heart. Recently I heard from my closest friend in St.Petersburg that he and his wife are safe. But now I hesitate to message him for fear of him being arrested. When we do message, we are very careful.
The Russia I knew is becoming another Russia, harkening back to Stalin days. Students are turning in teachers who talk about the "war," instead of the "special military exercise." More than 15,000 Russian citizens have been arrested, fined or jailed for protesting. Droves of young people have left. And the government has openly declared in a written document that it intends to "denazify" Ukraine.
Given this turn of events, I want to take this opportunity to reconcile my warm encounters with the Russians during the Gorbachev era, 1985-91, with the horrors of what is happening now. I want to share about the good people I knew from a country that has wrestled for 400 years under tsars and 70 years of communism... and now Putin.
Before I traveled to the Soviet Union, I taught about the Russians to eighth graders for 25 years. I stressed the legitimacy of Marxism and Communism as valid ideologies. I focused on Russian history and on Soviet society. I empathized with Russian ways, and developed a deep urge to find out about the Russians on my own.
The author's eighth grade Hanover, NH class being Soviets, NH, 1964
In October 1985, I had my first taste of Russian life behind the Iron Curtain. That two-week venture led to seven more trips, teaching English in four Soviet schools in three cities, Leningrad, Moscow, and Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, and later to Yekaterinburg, Siberia, where I worked with teachers coming to America.
In 2020, I published a memoir, Behind the Red Veil: An American inside Gorbachev's Russia, about my unique relationships with the Russian people and my understanding of who I was among them. When writing, I visualized that the Communist Party had put a "red veil" in front of foreign visitors, its own people and to the world at large. My purpose was to go behind this communist façade to meet real Russians in their daily lives.
The author with Katya Shrayber, 8th grade, School 185 in Leningrad, 1988
My views of the Russian people are mine alone. Taken together, my ventures became an inside study of the Russian people, who they were, what they cared about, and what they thought about life. At this time in Russian-world relations, I believe we need to remember the Russian people as people, not as former communists or as enemies now.
We in the West are in relationship with a people who, in increasing numbers, are not in relationship with their leader. We will do well not to condemn them at this time.
Who are the Russian People?
La Biblioteca, courtyard
Saturday, April 23, 3pm
Frank Thoms taught about the Russians and the Soviet Union to eighth graders in New Hampshire and Massachusetts for nearly forty years. He spent nearly a year of his life living and teaching in four schools and three cities, Leningrad, Moscow, and Alma-Ata during the last days of the Soviet Union. After teaching and consulting, he turned to writing. His fifth book, his memoir, Behind the Red Veil: An American inside Gorbachev's Russia (Speak Press, 2020) is a vivid account of his encounters with Russians and their impact on his life.