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Reaching across a wide cultural divide worth it?

As I See It

My wife and I are serving as a “host family” for two visiting Russian doctors who are visiting the United States to study our health care delivery system.

The program is operated by the Mississippi Consortium for International Development. Our guests, Vitaliy Sergeev and Airat Shayakhmetov, have been with us about a week now. Vitaliy is involved with determining disability and placing disabled workers in productive employment while Airat’s expertise is in rehabilitation. Both of our guests are from Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russia.

Over the last few years, the Mississippi Business Journal has conducted seminars for various groups from the former Soviet Union. Mostly, our involvement has been to provide daylong seminars on some aspect of journalism or free enterprise economics. Having developed an interest in the program, we volunteered to serve as a host family.

The Russians are trying to break free from domination of the communist party that governed the Soviet Union from 1917-1991. Realizing that communism was failing, Gorbachev introduced the concepts of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an attempt to gradually modify the political and economic structure of the Soviet Union. Those slight cracks in the foundation quickly erupted into total dissolution of the Soviet Union and the attendant creation of 15 independent republics in December 1991.

Today, these 15 independent Russian republics continue to struggle in their efforts to build a democratic political system and market economy to replace strict social, political and economic controls of the communist period.

This experience has been an enlightenment for us. I have never thought much about Russia other than believing it to be an evil place and, presumably, populated by evil people. I should have known better. Once again I am reminded that people are people are people no matter where they are from. All have common aspirations and fears and all come with their own entrenched beliefs about how the rest of the world operates.

As a personal aside, I served in the army during a time when we believed that eventual war with Russia was likely. My guests are about my age and under different circumstances, we might have found ourselves meeting each other at the point of a bayonet. Now that I have become friends with my two guests, fighting with them seems incomprehensible. It is far better to develop friendly alliances with other countries than to promote distrust and war.

Our Russian guests talk freely on just about any subject except politics. To them, all evil can be traced to politics and the less said the better. I suspect this attitude was ingrained during decades of fear that a careless word could bring the KGB on the run, resulting in interment in a concentration camp. Whatever the reason, they don’t talk about it.

Religion is openly practiced and thriving in Russia today. The official atheism of the USSR is no longer present. Popular religions include Russian Orthodox, Islam and Baptist. My guests tell me that Baptist missionaries are very active in Russia and the church is growing.

All Russian doctors work for the government and their compensation is less than that paid to skilled workers. The government does not place a high priority on health matters and, accordingly, doctors have a very limited budget available for treating the sick. Not surprisingly, Russian life expectancy of 66 years is substantially less than ours.

One interesting statistic is Russian literacy: 98% of adults over the age of 15 can read and write. Perhaps they could teach us a thing or two about elevating the basic literacy of our population.

On a trip to the Wal-Mart SuperCenter in Clinton, my guests were surprised by the sparseness of police officers. In Russia, one is never out of sight of a policeman and it amazes them that we can function with so few lawmen. The police are closely tied to the Mafia in Russia and are feared by the citizens.

Should this column inspire anyone to want to get involved in the program, contact the Mississippi Consortium for International Development, 1225 Robinson Street, Jackson, Mississippi 39203, telephone (601) 979-8648 or fax (601) 979-8657. Serving as a host family costs nothing, takes little time and is an excellent vehicle for broadening ones experiences while helping make the world a little better place.

Da Svidania (“good-bye” in Russian).

Thought for the Moment – Having the world’s best idea will do you no good unless you act on it. People who want milk shouldn’t sit on a stool in the middle of a field in hopes that a cow will back up to them. — writer Curtis Grant

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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