August 13, 2002 - Will the Peace Corps be leaving Russia?

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Special Reports: August 13, 2002 - Will the Peace Corps be leaving Russia?
Will the Peace Corps be leaving Russia?

A War of Words?
The Washington Post reported on August 12 that the Russian government had "moved to kick out dozens of Peace Corps workers in a decision that could severely hinder the program's operations here and prevent new volunteers from coming."

The Associated Press reported on August 13 that the US Peace Corps "has canceled plans to send a new batch of volunteers to Russia this year, because the government is refusing, without explanation, to issue visas."

Chronology of Stories

Radio Free Europe makes the Case for the Peace Corps in Russia 18 August 2002

Secretary of State Powell makes no progress on Peace Corps visas with Russian foreign minister 14 August 2002

Peace Corps Moscow chief denies allegations of non-professionalism 13 August 2002

Izvestiya says "Unlawful" activities behind Peace Corps visa denial 13 August 2002

Pravda says No Peace Corps Volunteers to come to Russia this year 13 August 2002

Visa Hassles Frustrate Peace Corps Plans 13 August 2002

US Cuts Back Peace Corps Activitiy in Russia 12 August 2002

Russia Refuses Peace Corps Workers 12 August 2002

Russia Ousting Dozens Of Peace Corps Volunteers 12 August 2002

Russia Denies Peace Corps Visas Amid Domestic Political Pressure 12 August 2002

Is the Peace Corps being used to send a message?

Is the Peace Corps being used to send a message? 13 August 2002

Serious Disagreements between the United States and Russia over Iraq may imperil Peace Corps in Russia 17 August 2002

Op-ed Pieces from the Press

Time Magazine says Russia "Cooling To the Corps" 23 August 2003

Naples Daily News: Nyet to the Peace Corps 17 August 2002

The Columbian: Russian Chill 16 August 2002

Richmond Times-Dispatch: US Dealing with Suspicious Minds 15 August 2002


The Russian Foreign Ministry has not renewed visas for 30 of 64 volunteers seeking documents for a second year of service in Russia, meaning they will be recalled to the United States, according to the agency. As a result, the next Peace Corps class, which is scheduled to arrive soon, has been cut in half and might be canceled altogether.

"Unless visas come through, Peace Corps will have to make a decision whether the new class will be sent or not, and fairly soon," said Jeff Hay, the acting country director here. Hay said the Russian government has given no reason for the visa denials. Several officials contacted in the Foreign Ministry said they knew nothing about them and could not comment.

However, the situation appeared to reflect long-brewing resentment over the presence of a U.S. aid program initially designed to help developing countries. While many communities across this vast country welcome the Peace Corps volunteers, some officials grumble that Russia is treated as if it were simply another impoverished Third World backwater and that the American volunteers are ill- prepared for their assignments in this former superpower.

Another explanation that has been presented is that the Russian government is using the Peace Corps to send a message to the United States government that there has been a change in the overall U.S.- Russian relationship. This would not be the first time the Peace Corps has played this role in US foreign policy. For example, beginning around 1977-78, the Brazilian military government's displeasure with the U.S. anti-nuclear proliferation treaty and criticism of Brazil's human rights policies contributed to ending the Peace Corps' presence in Brazil. Brazil's foreign ministry simply stopped issuing visas to trainees until no volunteers were left.

Are these the last days of the Peace Corps in Russia? What went wrong in Russia and how can the Peace Corps avoid similar situations in the future? Is this a result of internal Russian politics or a signal to the US government that there has been a change in U.S.- Russian relations? Has the Peace Corps overstayed its welcome, or are Russian complaints about the "skill level" of PCVs sent to Russia justified? Read the stories and leave your opinion below:

By Bob Utne on Wednesday, August 14, 2002 - 7:58 am: Edit Post

The Russians appear to be reacting to US policies of severely limiting the US visas of Russian applicants.

By K Nelson on Wednesday, August 14, 2002 - 10:53 am: Edit Post

I believe that both issues are valid. Though we claim apolicial status for PC, it is often used by both governments as an introductory statement to political issues. As an Eastern Block RPCV, I know there is also founded and legitimate concern regarding the selection and training of qualified applicants in Russia and neighboring areas. The program is relatively new, little is fully understood about the culture and its effect on learning and change. And knowledgable, idealistic, yet highly unexperienced volunteers are often sent to fill very complex roles. The structure of the new program is also lacking vital follow up, organization and result-measures. Though I believe we have had some good results, the Russian concerns, whether blanketed in politics or not, are founded in the overall results of our volunteer partnerships there. Our intentions are good. Our organization and results are questionable.

By Cordes Lindow on Wednesday, August 14, 2002 - 11:36 am: Edit Post

I think the Peace Corps needs to recognize and publicize what we succeed at - sending inexperienced volunteers with flexibilty, energy and initiative. The current system sets up false expectations that the Peace Corps has highly experienced volunteers. While we may be able to obtain a few of these, those without experience tend to be happier in service and more successful. By focusing our efforts, countries like Russia would have no illusions as to the services we can provide (and no excuse for denying visas).

By Kate Goddard on Wednesday, August 14, 2002 - 1:10 pm: Edit Post

I agree with K. Nelson and Cordes Lindow. I'm sure there is some political wrangling going on, but Peace Corps needs to do a better job of managing expectations in these countries. In many third world countries PC serves, it is fairly easy to be the most educated person around with knowledge to share. When I was was a teacher in Ukraine, my colleagues were far more educated and experienced than I. What I had to offer was English language fluency, enthusiasm, and ideas, which are important, but not the cutting edge pedagogic techniques, which I think they expected. It's all about managing expectations.

By Jim Murray on Wednesday, August 14, 2002 - 1:33 pm: Edit Post

I served in both Brazil (Brazil II, 1962-64) and India (India 122, 1971-73), two countries where the Peace Corps was terminated. I was in India during the 1971 Indo-Pak war and was suspected of being a C.I.A. spy. For whatever reason, when a volunteer's service is no longer wanted or tenable, it's time to go. These days I host former Soviet citizens here to learn about the American legal system, school administration, entrepreneurship, etc. They are good people.

By steve menefee (ntatesteve) on Wednesday, August 14, 2002 - 4:22 pm: Edit Post

Let’s not waste our resources where we are not wanted. We should just say “sorry it did not work out” and move ALL the PCVs out to other places where they are wanted.
I can see how some Russians may consider that having the PC in Russia is an insult. Russia is a place that might be better served by a cultural exchange program of a different type that involves people going both ways.
I was in Lesotho in the 80s and Russian aid workers were around also… had a few drinks with them… good folks

By Thomas Hill on Thursday, August 15, 2002 - 8:39 am: Edit Post

The thing is, that Peace Corps in Russia is pretty open about the program being more for cross-cultural purposes, it has never said that it was sending in highly experienced teachers. None of the people I worked with in my two years with PC Russia expected me to be an expert, in fact, they didn't want me to be -- they didn't give a damn for American teaching methodology. They knew that I was a native speaker, and that's all they asked for. The Russian govermental officials are blowing some smoke over the issue, or perhaps they simply don't understand what Russia is like once you leave Moscow. I agree with the first post about the trouble for Russians to get US Visas, that seems the most likely explanation, in my experience.

By P. Browe on Thursday, August 15, 2002 - 3:10 pm: Edit Post

I was in the first wave of English language teachers in western Russia (Russia III, 1995-97). At the time, the Peace Corps was only taking teachers with Masters degrees and significant teaching experience and placing them in Russian universities.

Shortly thereafter - and I believe against the advice of volunteers in the field - the PC began bringing in candidates with Bachelor degrees and little teaching experience to teach in secondary schools. In a culturally questionable move, we were sending in recent grads (21- and 22- years old), and billing them as "teacher trainers" or the like - sending them into a culture that is built upon the respect for and dignity of elders. I don't know why this decision was made, but my suspicion is that the PC was under pressure to keep the numbers up in Russia, and opening the opportunity to new graduates fit the bill. I do know in cases where volunteers were not capable of doing the work, they were removed and sent home.

I'd also add that visa hassles are nothing even remotely new to any volunteer who served in Russia. Every one of us has a story or two about delayed renewals, having to leave the country to get renewed, being brought in to the local OVIR for questioning, etc. In talking with other RPCVS from around the world, I've come to learn that the situation in Russia was somewhat unique not only because the volunteers face intense scrutiny and suspicion, but also because the very vast beauracracy that makes up Russia is subject to many and varied local interpretations. Additionally, the program has never really had a ringing or wide-reaching endorsement from the Russian (Federal) government, but has always had to sort of muck along and find its own paths through the beauracracy to keep itself alive.

By Joayne Larson on Friday, August 16, 2002 - 4:09 pm: Edit Post

My question is why is this getting so much more press than other years when there were visa issues? It seems pretty political since it tends to crop up every once and a while. I think Russia is fed up with the US and some of our actions totally unrelated to PC at all...look at our new Iraq threats coming just a few years after the whole thing in Kosovo, they're flexing their muscles (and maybe rightfully so to flex-though not to take it out in this way) about the way the US has been policing the world and running policy so unilaterally.

Also, on the whole affiiliation with PC as a an aider to third world countries and the pride issue, I have a piece to add. A photo I took in Russia was selected to this years' RPCV calendar, I happily sent a bunch of the calendars off to friends over there figuring they'd be thrilled to see the great photo with bright colors and the publicity for our little area up there. Well, I heard some thanks, but one good friend wrote me saying that she felt she could honestly tell me what some people had thought. They were saddened and shamed to see that Russia was grouped with countries like Ghana, Ecuador, Morocco, etc. and felt like it was a huge blow to see Russia in that company. It really surprised me that they had interpreted it so differently than I had. We all know that as a country the blow to pride has been huge, but what they didnt' see was that being put in that calendar simply means it's a place that people from the US just don't know much about, but the calendar does create a bit of a peer group within the calendar however unintentionally or randomly selected. I believe they select by photo, of course, not by country, but most of them are poorer and more developing countries.

Deirdre's right, they have hit a nerve in their complaints there are under qualified volunteers, but there are also under served sites, villages where there will now simply be no English program at all, not to speak of the immense cultural loss of the exchange that occurs and endures when we all made friends and have brought it home with us. I joined PC knowing that goal 3 was the most important...perhaps as someone mentioned, it's a matter of seeing what was advertised in the first place. If we promised technical assistance of the expert level, then they have a right to complain. Most of our group weren't teachers, but we were also a really committed bunch (as we all tried to be) and I think the personalities and desire to immerse ourselves more than compensated for that fact. It's so true that it's the holiday party, the vodka shot and the banya that get you "in", make other things forgivable (like how Tony's issue was resolved--I talked to people from that village years afterward and they attested to the absurdity of it all, so sad to see it's still alive in someone's anecdotes for the papers.) and really demonstrate the value of the program and exchange on all levels that occurs. These are the people that need to speak up!

Some part of me always felt bad that the PC officials were removed from the interactions that we got as volunteers. They couldn't learn the language the same way, didn't get the same type of invites to casual tea that turned into something great or the unexpected party in the school locker room. I attribute so much of my success to everything outside the classroom. People were willing to help me and support me because we shared things beyond. I can see why there'd be these issues such a problem if someone wasn't making 'nicey, nicey'.

It feels more serious this time, but maybe the right steps will be taken and the program will survive...definitely some really strategic steps have to be taken.

By Matthew Lister on Wednesday, August 21, 2002 - 8:05 am: Edit Post

The following message was first posted on the Johnson's Russia list, an
email news service about Russia.)

Dear David,

With the recent controversy over the qualifications of and visas for Peace
Corps volunteers in Russia I thought I'd add a bit of context with a brief
description of what I did on my assignment there and with some information
as to the qualifications of the members of my group. I'll add my two
cents in the end.

I came to Russia with the 7th Peace Corps group to serve there in late
Aug. Of 1999, in a group of about 55 volunteers. About 2/3rds of us were
TEFL volunteers (including myself.) All volunteers had at least a BA from
a university in the US. Most TEFL volunteers had at least some teaching
experience. Personally, I had an MA, had worked as a tutor and a TA while
in graduate school, and had worked with the Intensive English Language
Program at SUNY Albany for a year before starting with the Peace Corps.
At least one member of the TEFL group was an ESL teacher in the US with
several years of English language teaching experience, and another had
been a special education teacher for several years. The group included at
least two retired school teachers. Many others had at least some TEFL or
ESL experience. Some had been Russian studies majors and had already
spent time in Russia. The group of business volunteers included members
with significant business experience, including sales, management, and
marketing, with major companies such as Walmart and 3M, to name some off
the top of my head. We had members with MA's in marketing and MBA's, a
former US Judge, a man who had been both a farmer and lawyer, an architect
who worked both in the US and Russia on improving access for the
physically disabled, an accountant, and several other successful business
people. No one came to help out unemployment statistics. (It was still
the boom market when we came.) So, while some volunteers may have been
less qualified than might be hoped for, this was, I'd think, the exception
rather than the rule. Jynks Burton (quoted in the Washington Post
article, [JRL 6398]) thinks this to be otherwise. She was in the group
that arrived a year after my own, and I cannot comment on the specific
make-up of that group. All one can say is, no one was forced to take and
assignment, and if she did not feel qualified, she should have either not
accepted it or resigned. Some volunteers, to their credit I think, did
this. (Additionally, I think Peter Baker would have done well to contact
more than one rather disgruntled former Peace Corps volunteer. We are not
hard to find, with a large number of us lurking on this list.)

Volunteers received two months of in-country training in Russian, TEFL
methods, Russian business practices, Language training, and cultural
knowledge. This
training included practicums at local schkolas and business groups.
During this time volunteers lived with Russian families and gained some
knowledge of the life of average Russians.

The Peace Corps Russia volunteer support staff is around (probably over)
half Russian, and has Russians in several important administrative posts.
There was little if any feeling that Americans were dictating to Russians
what they needed to do.

My own position was at the State Pedagogical University in Ryazan. All
assignments were different, but mine was not extraordinary in form or
style. I worked in the department of English, helping train future
teachers of English. I did not have a group of students that I alone
taught, and I was not expected to be a full teacher of English. Rather, I
worked regularly with several groups of students that specialized in
American English. In this work I was supervised by the regular teacher
for the group. I helped supplement their regular lessons. Additionally I
taught several courses of American studies in areas that I was competent
to teach in, such as the structure of the American education system, work
in America, American political traditions, feminism and the American
women's movement, and philosophy in America. These courses were offered
to both students and to current school teachers back for additional
training. While I cannot say that all of the classes that I taught were
wonderful, I think I improved with time and that my students learned
something that was both useful and would not have been learned if I was
not there. Of course, American students would also benefit from similar
experiences. But since these students were to be future teachers of
English, and most will not have a chance to visit the US or England
before taking up teaching posts, I'd like to think that extended contact
with a native speaker was a special benefit to them.

Additionally I attended and took part in several professional conferences
on such topics as the status of women, American literature, and scientific
philosophy. I helped the University English department receive a small
grant, and helped other organizations apply for grants. I also did a
small bit of work with a local gender resources center. This sort of
additional work was entirely typical for volunteers, and most did more
than I did.

Some sites seemed to see having a Peace Corps volunteer as a marketing
device, a source of cheap labor, or a matter of prestige, but this was the
exception, as far as I could tell. Also, some sites had poorly worked out
ideas of what they wanted a volunteer to do, to the ultimate
disappointment of both the volunteer and the site. But many sites made
good use of the volunteers and both came away enriched. I count my own
experience in this category, and think it would be a small tragedy if the
Peace Corps left Russia. Rather, as a former country director for the
Peace Corps in Russia once said, I'd be thrilled to see the engagement
spread the other way, with young (and older!) Russians spending two years
living and working in the US.

A few final thoughts on the situation- Obviously I have no special insight
into the causes of the denied visas. I suspect that my friend and
colleague Chris Mahon (JRL 6399) is right to think that Hubris played at
least some part. I'm sure that xenophobia also had a role to play, as we
were often asked if we were spies and were known to be watched closely by
the FSB. Several volunteers served in areas where foreigners (especially
from the west) were still almost unknown and not trusted. More or less
run-of-the-mill bureaucratic idiocy probably had a part to play as well.
But, I hope that we will all keep in mind that in general the Russian visa
regime is no more bureaucratic or capricious than that of the US. As it
is, a low-level state department employee can, on his or her whim, keep a
Russian (or other foreigner) out of the US for failing to satisfy his or
her judgement as to whether the applicant will return to his or her home
country or not. These decisions are obviously highly charged with class
and ethnic bias, and have on several occasions (though not to my knowledge
in Russia) been shown to be out and out corrupt. There is basically no
chance to appeal such a decision, and reasons for them are kept secret by
the US as well. Our own system is also full of a xenophobic bias which
assumes that everyone envies us and wants nothing more than to live
forever in the US, leaving behind families, jobs, education, and personal
ties as if they meant nothing. To this end our visa regime assumes
others, including Russians, to be less human than we are. None of this,
of course, exempts the poor treatment and slander of the Peace Corps
volunteers in Russia which they have recently received, but is meant to
remind us that our own visa regime is hardly free of troubles as well.

(addendum, Aug. 15- Word from the Peace Corps office in moscow is now that
there will not be a new group of Peace corps volunteers for the next
year. The thought is that they don't want to send anyone if they can't
say for sure they can stay for two years. Of course I don't know for
sure, but I suspect this will be the end of the PC in Russia. I consider
this a tragedy for everyone involved. Personally I think it's a mistake
on the PC's part, in part a bit of tit-for-tat, or cutting off our noses
to spite our faces. At least some of the moscow staff think otherwise,
and I can understand their thinking, but I suspect we will be bringing on
the end by doing this, and I'm sorry for that. I just hope I'm wrong.)


Matthew Lister
Returned US Peace Corps volunteer
Ryazan, Russia 1999-2001
JD/Ph.D. program
Department of Philosophy and the Law School
University of Pennsylvania

By Leo Bellantoni on Tuesday, January 07, 2003 - 12:35 pm: Edit Post

Although we should always be self-critical and look for ways to improve PC and its programs, I tend to think that the shutdown of the Russian program was due to international politics than PC ineptitude. Here is why:
(1) I was a PCV in Tanzania in the late 1980's. Much of what Matthew Lister says parallels my own experience there. We were the first group of teachers that had been allowed in the country for many years and, as appears to be the same in the Russian case, PC Washington prepared a group that was in terms of credentials more than qualified for the assigned jobs. It is pretty reasonable to expect that this was no accident in either country. Once on site though there were, as there so often are, a variety of screwups and misunderstandings. In the Tanzania case, relations between the two countries were improving and the problems were relatively quickly resolved in reasonable ways. In that way, Tanzania 15 years ago was quite different from Russia today.
(2) I am doing scientific research now for a living, and this is a profession which entails a lot of international travel. Since Sept. 11th it has been more difficult for foreigners to get to the US, if only because visa applications are getting more scrutiny. More to the point, several of my colleagues were unable to get permits to visit Russia in the summer of 2002 - the issue being entirely the politics of the Russians providing the Iranians with nuclear power plants. Since I know that there are problems in getting travel authorization for peaceful scientific research, I am not too surprised to see that there is trouble getting visas for peaceful economic development projects.
It is kind of unfortunate, but the fact that PCVs see themselves as apolitical does not ensure that host country nationals or governments do so also. *oh* *well*

By pamela strong on Thursday, January 09, 2003 - 8:41 am: Edit Post

To quote Vladimir Kovalev from RFE, who was making the point that the FSB likes to make 'pre-emptive" arrests of people that might be a danger to the country, "The FSB has apparently had considerably more success in determining the intentions of Peace Corps activists and journalists than in divining those of the terrorists who seized more than 700
hostages in Moscow in October or who exploded two car bombs on 27 December at the administration building in Grozny, killing at least
80 people."

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