So, my latest adventure is that I’ve been granted a Fulbright award to research and teach in Russia for nine months. This has put my plan to open a Russian law office on hold for a bit, which is just fine. To be honest, I haven’t gotten very far along in that plan, anyway. Will I revive it later? Who knows?
But for the next nine months I’ll be blissfully away from my regular job as an immigration lawyer in the U.S. while I live in Belgorod and teach migration issues to college students. Belgorod sounds like a lovely place, a “hidden gem,” so to speak. Many outlets report that it is one of the cleanest cities in Russia. In fact, there is street parking that says, “This parking is only for clean cars.”
From what I’ve read on the Internet, the city is indeed beautiful. Even photos from the blogger most critical of local municipal government show a well-designed, well-maintained city center.
The only woman I know there is a woman named Natasha, who I met at last year’s conference. But what a person to know– she is warm and funny and was always the first to start singing at the conference’s many banquets. I’m looking forward to getting to know her better.
Originally, I wasn’t supposed to go to Belgorod. I was supposed to go to an entirely different city. But, in the end, no one at the University in that city wanted to be responsible for signing off on having a visitor funded by the U.S. State Department.
The Fulbright is indeed funded by the State Department. Its stated goals are to “promote linkages between U.S. scholars and professionals and their counterparts at host institutions overseas.” But there is good reason for Russians to be skeptical. The U.S. State Department has not exactly been a comforting force in Eastern European politics lately. In fact, one State Department official, Victoria Nuland, has become so infamous in Russia that you can hear her name uttered with contempt on random street corners.
This all goes back to February, 2014, when Ukraine was in the midst of a revolution. For over a year, Ukrainian officials had been caught up in a tug-of-war (ugh, what a terrible pun) between Russia and the European Union. The EU was pressuring the government to sign an economic integration agreement with Brussels while Russia was lobbying for an investment deal with Moscow. The two options were mutually exclusive. In September, Ukraine’s president sided with Moscow and shunned the European Union.
This set off months of protest in Ukraine’s capital. It all came to a head in February, while Russia was hosting the Olympics in Sochi. The Ukrainian government looked like it was about to fall– all because its president had made that deal with Russia. While Ukraine’s government teetered on the brink, an anonymous YouTube account posted an intercepted phone call in which Victoria Nuland is overheard talking to the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. The two of them are clearly mapping out who should be in charge in Ukraine as they discuss their behind-the-scenes actions to maneuver favored politicans into various seats of power. The phone call made news in the U.S. mainly because of Ms. Nuland’s salty admonition to “F the EU,” but the real story was that the U.S. was caught red-handed in the act of directly interfering with Ukrainians’ choice of government.
In Russia, this appeared to be proof that the U.S. was working to overthrow the government of Russia’s closest neighbor. For reasons that date back hundreds of years, the move was seen as incredibly hostile. Imagine that the U.S. was hosting the Olympics and during the opening ceremony it comes out that Russia is pushing for a coup in Mexico. People would lose their minds. So you can see how Victoria Nuland became a household name in Russia, and not for good.
A couple of weeks ago I went to my Fulbright orientation in Washington, D.C. and, lo and behold, Ms. Nuland’s name came up again. During breakfast, a State Department official welcomed us to the program and stated that Ms. Nuland was his boss. After detailing how Fulbrighters have a long and proud tradition of furthering U.S. foreign policy, this man asked if we had any questions. I paused and took a breath. It’s here that I should explain that I have, as the kids would say, no chill. I raised my hand and he called on me. “Not to be overly confrontational, but you did say that your boss is Victoria Nuland,” I began, to giggles and titters around the room. “For those of us that genuinely believe in people-to-people diplomacy, your boss’s actions have made our jobs much more difficult. How do you recommend that we counteract this?”
And you know? The guy had a pretty good answer. He stumbled around for a bit, talking about how the U.S. doesn’t interfere in the affairs of other countries (ahem), but then he kind of stopped and said, “I honestly believe that to know us is to love us. So say whatever you truly think. Let them know the real you, because that is how we spread the notion that America is a good place. By sending Americans abroad to just be themselves.”
I don’t think he used these exact words, but he meant that it’s important for foreign citizens to see the the State Department doesn’t just send “true believers” on the Fulbright program; it sends its best scholars to go work with the best scholars of other countries. I should also note that the Fulbright program has emphasized to us that we can’t be disciplined for things we say or write; we can’t lose our grants because of our speech. So I vow to be the best little representative of the United States that I can be: an unabashedly critical U.S. citizen who nonetheless loves her home city with the power of a thousand hearts. I can’t undo the damage Ms. Nuland has already done, or may do in the future, but I can at least show that America has its dissenters. And that we are tolerated, even by the State Department.
Postscript: on September 30, 2016, I saw the following at the entrance to a cafe. The lower image is of Jen Psaki, former State Department Spokesperson and current White House Communications director. She’s almost as hated as Nuland for her social media attack on Russia.