Peace Corps in Russia

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2002: 08 August 2002 Peace Corps Headlines: August 14, 2002 - Associated Press: Secretary of State Powell makes no progress on Peace Corps visas with Russian foreign minister : Peace Corps in Russia

By Matthew Lister on Thursday, August 15, 2002 - 8:19 pm: 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

Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.