11 August 2022

More shorts: August dreams

Summer in Elektrostal. Videography and music by Sergey Kadyrov.

Dreams of my mother. 

Last week I saw my mother in a dream.

I dream about my father's parents fairly often. In one memorable dream, I was aboard a ship that came so close to shore that I could touch lampposts on land. I was not at all surprised when the ship slowly made its way past my grandparents' china cabinet in their dining room in Oslo, while I clung to the railing and reached out to touch the glass, and my ship then passed by the sofa on which my grandmother always sat.

But I can only remember two dreams before last week in which my mother appeared. In both cases, she appeared to be the age she was when I was a teenager, although I myself was an adult in those dreams. Both dreams were made memorable by fire. In one of them, the wall behind my mother was on fire, and in the other one, the ceiling and roof were burning. They were strange flames--no noise, no heat, and no sense of danger, although in both cases I was aware I needed to leave. Also, there were no interactions with my mother in either dream.

This last dream was very different. I was on the second floor of an apartment building, and I could see my mother on the sidewalk, approaching the entrance to the building. She was elderly and bent over, looking very much like she did the last time I saw her. I thought to myself, "We are so alienated from her, I am not sure I want her to see me." She climbed the steps and came into the apartment (apparently the second-floor apartment we lived in during most of my teen years, in Evanston, Illinois), and I held back. She saw me, I saw her, we both froze for a moment, and the dream ended.

No reconciliation, no resolution, but even so, in my long quest to grieve my parents, maybe this dream was progress.

More dreams. In many of my dreams, I'm driving a car that is forced to stop or change course for one reason or another. Sometimes the car becomes a motorcycle or vice versa. Sometimes I have to park the car, but other times I can keep driving up one side of an obstacle and down the other.

Konotop, Ukraine. (View from our train.)
In the most recent car dream, a couple of days ago, I find myself in some kind of zone where construction equipment and bulldozers are all around, and causing the open space where I'd parked to be smaller and smaller. There were tall concrete walls on three sides. In the little space that remained, I suddenly saw a group of sidewalk vendors, who were selling huge toy animals. I bought one of the animals--an enormous tiger--and made my way back to the car. As I was walking with my big purchase, I overheard someone whisper to someone else, "We get some odd people here."

When I woke up, I realized where the images of huge toys may have come from--a scene we saw through our second-class coach windows as we were traveling by train from Kyiv to Moscow back in 2009.

Occasionally, in my dreams I'm riding a bicycle through a city that is a combination of Richmond, Indiana, and my childhood Evanston, Illinois. Once I was riding a horse.

Basement nightmare. I once had a nightmare that seemed incredibly detailed and realistic. In this dream, a war was going on and bullets were flying. My child and I had taken shelter in the basement of a solid-looking brick building. To my horror, a bullet came through a hole in the basement wall--the above-ground part, near the ceiling--and struck my child in the forehead. Death was instant.

That dream came vividly back to me when I read this report on the death statistics from the Russian occupation of Bucha, Ukraine. 

After months of meticulous, painful and at times gruesome investigation, officials in Bucha said Monday that they had reached what may be the closest they will get to a final accounting of victims of the murderous rampage by Russian troops that set off worldwide outrage over alleged atrocities: 458 bodies, of which 419 bore markings they had been shot, tortured or bludgeoned to death.

As Liz Sly and Kostiantyn Khudov note in their article, these statistics mean that one of every ten of the 4,000 Bucha residents remaining in the town when the Russians took it over died violently during the course of the occupation. What will we find when places still under occupation are investigated with similar thoroughness? We watch and pray.

Adria Gulizia asks, "Do Friends still need the peace testimony?" She cites several examples of Friends becoming (in my words, not hers) more liberal interpreters of formerly strict disciplines. Wouldn't it be ironic that with this increasing liberalism in parts of our church, the commitment to peace became weaker?

It reminds me of a comparison I heard long ago--perhaps from Vail Palmer. Many Friends who applied for conscientious objector status had worked out careful rationales, but Vail remembered the simple statement of a Mennonite farmer's application: "I am a follower of Jesus Christ."

Konstantin Kolesnichenko's blues harp at Pepper's Club, Kyiv, February 11, 2022.

04 August 2022

August shorts

Judy and I will be on the road most of August, so the next few blog posts will be briefer and less ornamented than usual. I plan to be back with normal format and content in September.

In the meantime, I hope you will consider subscribing to our yearly meeting's newsletter. It has begun a feature that promises to introduce you to Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends by way of introductions to some of the people helping shape our young yearly meeting.

The two introductions published so far are to Julie Peyton and Faith Marsalli. Through Julie, you'll also get a sense of what makes her meeting, West Hills Friends Church, such a welcoming and category-defying community. Faith's story is vitally important for this point in the history of our country and beyond: addressing the breakdown in communications that happens when people—citizens, neighbors, families—become polarized.

Speaking of West Hills Friends Church, for much of their recent history they have had two released ministers serving their community. (Follow this link for their explanation of the term "released ministers.") Mark Pratt-Russum continues to serve in this role, but Klarissa Oh ended her service last month. She plans to continue her active participation at the church side by side with other members and attenders.

I strongly encourage you to listen to her final Sunday message in that role, "Reflections on Released Ministry at West Hills Friends." With all the advantages and blessings of the church that she lists in her message, she still questions the sustainability of the model of church that West Hills shares with many other small congregations.

Among the factors that stress us is white supremacy culture, as she explains (starting about 16:43):

… The template of church, especially predominantly white churches, have templates, traditions, ruts, that often diminish rather than encourage the people inside of them. I want us to courageously, humbly, and even joyfully explore our culture and recognize the strengths, along with the hard spots. I want us to consider that our earnest intentions do not immune us from the toxicity in the water that we drink, specifically the water of white supremacy. White supremacy is not solely about the obvious and outspoken bigotry and hatred we see, but it is about the norms we set up, the way we do things. And white supremacy has its own power, impact, and authorization in churches that often hold an ethic of sacrifice at its center.

White supremacy culture habits such as prioritizing the comfort of white people over the equity of people with less cultural power, of being afraid of open conflict, of scarcity thinking, of seeing people’s work rather than their wholeness, of overworking—these can be interrupted if they are recognized.

In this political season, both in the USA and in the UK (and no doubt elsewhere), politicians are trading on the dislike of taxes to gain popularity. Republican opposition to Democratic initiatives are routinely blasted with the old "tax and spend" epithet, and the Conservative leadership campaign in the UK has featured competitions for who can cut taxes the most.

A biblical view of taxation might be hard to pin down. We have God's sour view of what a king would do to the people of Israel (1 Samuel chapter 8), but also the attributes of good rulers (Psalm 99:4; Proverbs 16:12). We have examples of the positive uses of taxation (to support the central institutions of the nation, particularly the Temple, and to prepare for drought; more generally, to maintain the nation's leaders so they can protect the people and serve justice). John the Baptist tells tax collectors to collect only the required amount (Luke 3:12-13). Jesus treats tax collectors positively (especially Matthew) and tells his followers to pay Caesar what is Caesar's (Mark 12:17 and parallels).

In the USA and similar democracies, the fundamental functions that governments must do, and pay for, are described in a constitution (written or unwritten) and in subsequent legislation. We vote for the people in the legislature and authorize them to draw up budgets based on the commitments we have made to each other, all based on those authorized purposes of the government. We then have to pay for those commitments that keep our nation viable and livable. The sum total of those costs represents the amount we have to raise, one way or another. 

Right now our national conversation seems to be "what commitments can we slash to save money?" A more honest conversation would admit that we're often actually asking "what commitments to others can we slash to save money, while keeping the commitments that benefit people just like us?" A popular variation: "What commitments can we privatize so that we can buy them if we want, and those who can't afford them ... well, we just won't worry about them."

The conversation I truly want to have across political lines is: "Who do we [and who do our critics] want our policies to bless, and who are we willing to leave out?" Once we've decided what we're willing to pay for these blessings to ourselves and our fellow human beings, we can then figure out how to divide the burden with equal attention to fairness. Evading our fair share is not an honest blessing.


Chicago blues, London style. Doc K's Blues Band, "Give Me Back My Wig."

28 July 2022

Neutrality revisited

The Middle East Dialogue Quilt at Ramallah Friends Meeting, Palestine.

Dialogue Quilt Description:

In 2006, Jimmy Carter may have been the first prominent American politician to use the word apartheid in connection with Israel's relationship with Palestinians. He faced accusations of antisemitism and was criticized for supposedly abandoning the neutrality he displayed by hosting the Camp David negotiations in 1978.

Since then, this word, apartheid, has often been regarded as an incendiary charge intended to attack Israel. Is this fair? Mark Braverman of Kairos USA defends the term in its literal and legal meanings, and says that its importance goes beyond the particular case of Israel.

The argument extends beyond the case of Palestine. To denounce apartheid affirms Palestinian experience and motivates the international community to explore, embrace and strengthen the framework of international law in a time when it is being eroded though systems of racism, authoritarianism, and other oppressions based on economic, patriarchal, political, and military power—including antisemitism.

Braverman's article marks the publication of A Dossier on Israeli Apartheid, which seeks to reinforce the use of that word as technically and theologically appropriate to the Israeli/Palestinian case. The "dossier" then goes on to confront the various reasons that churches (and here I would include Friends) give for not actively opposing Israel's apartheid policies. It's an effective list; I've heard many of these excuses myself over the years.

Perhaps the most frequent excuses for not participating in Palestinians' search for justice can be grouped under the heading of "preserving neutrality." Here's what the dossier says about neutrality:

How will your church, council, conference, region or synod respond? The biblical answer is clear. The theological answer is clear. Neutrality is not a faithful response. Denying or ignoring the reality of Israel as an Apartheid State according to the definitions of international law and ethical discernment is not a faithful response. Complicity with a situation of systemic oppression in the name of interfaith solidarity is not a faithful response. Theological and or biblical justification of oppression and injustice is both sin and heresy.

One of the reasons that some Christians have been reluctant to abandon neutrality is the cost in relationships. The Kairos dossier frankly admits this risk:

“Burns bridges and stops dialogue with partners”

It’s true. By taking a clearly expressed stand against systemic injustice, bridges will be burned. Treasured ecumenical and interfaith relations may be broken, especially with those who benefit from the status quo. But to seek to be more “diplomatic,” to seek conciliatory approaches in a situation grounded in asymmetrical power imposed economically and militarily, is to avoid the harsh reality of Palestinians. We can expect that taking a prophetic stance will be disruptive to the dynamic of traditional dialogues. Yet, it is faithful: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue… (Deuteronomy 16:20).” Churches are called to trust, in times like this, that new dialogue partners will emerge, that former partners may be fruitfully challenged, and that conversations—rooted in truth, compassion, humility and integrity—will realize the promise in Psalm 85:10 “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”

I very much appreciate this paragraph, especially the prospect of fruitfully challenging former partners.  Some aspects of neutrality would have to be abandoned as we acknowledge asymmetrical power and the asymmetrical suffering that results; but other principles of neutrality would not be abandoned. For me, those continuing principles would include:

  • No objectification or demonization of those whom we disagree with; no flattery or romanticizing of those whose just cause we seek to advance; no assertions that anyone involved is without flaw;
  • No use of inflammatory rhetoric whose main utility is to gratify those on "our side" rather than advance justice and genuine dialogue;
  • A recognition that the deeper context of any conflict may involve principalities and powers that seek to dominate both sides. Antisemitism has been—and continues to be—a blot on human history. What would happen if the forces opposing antisemitism and the forces opposing all apartheid everywhere joined hands?

It has been fifteen years since Jimmy Carter tried to use the term apartheid to break open the stalled conversations on justice in the Israeli/Palestinian context. Could the Kairos dossier help us make new efforts?

In 2009, I published these two posts on Quakers and neutrality. I'm linking them here rather than repeating all the points that came up at the time.... 

Please tell me what you think, in the comment window below, or on Facebook or Twitter. I hope that we can distinguish the features of genuine neutrality that are worth guarding, and learn when faithfulness is more important than neutrality. Also: how do you feel about the Kairos document?

Finally: Three years ago this summer, I was preparing for my September departure to serve with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, Palestine. Here's a summary: Praying without ceasing in Hebron. And here's how Ramallah Friends Meeting—and a pair of kittens—helped me keep my balance.

Elena Marttila; source.
Jennifer Wilson on Alexander Pushkin, "the first Russian."

Being Black mattered to Pushkin—his own words attest to it. As another contributor, the Pushkin scholar David M. Bethea, put it: “Blackness was for Pushkin both something real, given (he cared about surfaces), and something styled, something to be worked with.”

Ira Rifkin on his seven years with the GetReligion project.

Viktor Orban and more evidence on the spreading popularity of christian nationalism and its variants. This relatively "neutral" Web site, RFE/RL, doesn't mention Orban's popularity among some in the USA's right wing. (PS: Orban is still coming to Texas. Dana Milbank on Orban's "true colors.")

A closed poll measures Russians' views of the war.

Artist Elena Marttila, eternal memory.

Here's a fascinating (to me, at any rate) time capsule gem, 27 minutes of The Johnny Otis Show from 1959, with wonderful performances by Lionel Hampton among others. I remember when television looked like this; even the cheesy ads felt familiar.

21 July 2022

"The beautiful Russia of the future," part two

Screenshot; source.  

If you watched today's hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives January 6 committee, you might be wondering why I'm not covering "the USA of the future" instead of returning to the theme of Russia's future. Fair enough. The comments that follow on Russia are a mixture of hope and apprehension, and I can honestly say that I have the same mixture of feelings about the USA. Both countries might be caught in extremely vulnerable historical moments. 

Historian and literary critic Dmitri Bykov says, "Russia is doomed to change. If she doesn't become different, she will no longer exist." Can we say with assurance that the USA can keep on the same fractious course we are now following and continue to exist?

My first post on this theme stressed the importance of keeping the vision of a "beautiful" and "free" Russia alive and circulating in the context of the war in Ukraine, the associated information war, and the cynicism that naturally arises when truth disappears from the public arena.

Truth is not served by spreading beautiful sentiments without also acknowledging the factors weighing us down. Here are a couple of examples of these mixed hopes and realities.

Independent network Dozhd' returns to the "air"; Tikhon Dzyadko opens inaugural YouTube telecast this past Monday. Screenshot; source.

On March 3, I described Russia's television channel Dozhd's last moments on air from Moscow. This past Monday I learned that the mostly exiled journalists associated with Dozhd' ("Rain," the "optimistic channel") were now relaunching their service as a YouTube channel, with a gradually expanding range of programs anchored by the signature daily news show "Here and Now," from facilities in Riga, Amsterdam, Paris, and Tbilisi.

I didn't catch the live stream that day, but replayed the stream that evening. One of the most moving parts of that initial program was its footage from Bucha, Ukraine. This documentary segment reviews the horrors of the Russian occupation, and the fresh evidences of killings and tortures found when the Russians left. We come to know the rector of the local Ukrainian Orthodox church, Andrei Galavin, who has become a sort of tour guide for visitors to Bucha. This town has become an obligatory stopping place for politicians and celebrities visiting from abroad—including, as we see, Bono.

Father Galavin on Russians. Screenshot; source.
The interviewer speaks to Father Galavin in Russian, but Galavin replies exclusively in Ukrainian. When he's asked about his relationships with Russian people, he is sad but unequivocal: now he avoids them. "Do whatever you want at home," he tells his Russian audience through the interviewer, "as long as here we don't see or hear you."

This response came back to me when I watched a new episode of the interview show "To Be Continued: People," also on YouTube. This time the hosts interviewed Dmitri Bykov, whom I first wrote about back in January 2016, and whose attempted assassination I mentioned here.

(Ironically, the theme of that first post was "Why are you still here?" That is, why are you still in Russia, in these apparently risky times? Now Bykov himself is at Cornell University, but as he says, he still assumes he'll be back in Russia when his contract ends. He also leaves himself an out: nowadays, he says, what does emigration really mean when you can live in one place, work in another, and move about more or less freely?)

Dmitri Bykov in Ithaca, New York, interviewed on the YouTube
channel "To Be Continued." Screenshot; source.

Galavin's words of alienation about Russians came to my mind when Bykov said, referring to the changes wrought by the current war, "It is clear that Russia crossed many red lines. It cannot live any longer as it did in the past. The world will no longer see [in Russia] a place of spirituality, a place of great culture, a place representing victory over fascism."

But there's more. 

I have another feeling that's even worse: it's the sense that nothing else was possible. Russia is developing in the only possible way, a way prescribed in advance. Vladimir Putin was not being deceitful when he said that Russia made its only possible move. Russia had only one way of preserving the form it has become, that is, preserving the Putin regime with its vertical structure, its unitary government, and so on—and that was to start a war. There was no other way; otherwise she would have to change ... and people would rather die than change.

... The vast majority of Russians, I think ninety percent as they appear now with their views and habits can exist one way or another only under the conditions of Putin's power. If the country starts to change, they would have to adapt. They are ready to die rather than begin to somehow evolve. Therefore, this sense that “this country is terrible, but it's the only place we can exist”—it is a fair statement."

Gloomy so far, but it's more complicated than that. Bykov actually gives Putin's regime only a few months to live; he says that it is unsustainable in the same way that someone who lights the world on fire for the sake of temporary warmth (for example, when threatened by the "cold winds of freedom") actually chooses self-destruction. As for the post-Putin Russia, he acknowledges that many predict a North Korean-style isolation that could last for years, but he feels that Russia cannot ever become isolated from the rest of the word. For one thing, its size makes it too porous, too much in contact with its many neighbors. For another, a country that can claim Tolstoy and Dostoevsky can never be permanently overcome by stupidity. Any attempt to freeze and isolate Russia will be wrecked by pressures both internal and external.

This site in Paris was one of the centers of Russia's
spiritual intelligentsia in exile during the Communist years.
On the subject of Russia's porous borders: resources for a sustainable vision of "the beautiful Russia of the future" in the face of today's crudity and cruelty include that part of Russia now living elsewhere. Bykov reframed the concept of emigration for today, and for his own situation, but the experience of a faithful remnant in exile is an ancient story, even a Biblical one.

In Russia's case, emigre communities in many countries (while never an orderly bunch by any means) helped preserve Russia's cultural and spiritual heritage in the years of official atheism at home. Today I have no doubt that today's journalists and artists in exile will bless the world as well as their homeland in ways too complex for us to trace at the moment. But as they do so, they will also have to face the costs imposed by history on all those who speak the same beautiful language that Putin and the departed occupiers of Bucha speak. They may never convince Father Galavin.

Ani Kokobobo on GlobalVoices: "It is completely natural for Ukrainians to have a certain attitude toward Russian culture in this moment." But ... 

Mary Raber translates a moving meditation on father-son relations torn by the war in Ukraine, including the intuition that the father actually knows more than he can face. (Here's the original article in Russian.)

Another theme entirely ... the Washington Post profiles the amazing blues guitarist and singer Christone "Kingfish" Ingram. I remember first marveling at Kingfish in his teens; he's just gone from strength to strength.

Nancy Thomas, from her "Old Growth Forest" vantage point, on the good death.

Kingfish! "Empty Promises." (Here's Michael Palmisano's enjoyable commentary on this performance.)

14 July 2022

Fertile conflict

Church of the Archangel Michael, Sorochinsk, April 2011. At top right: Vitaly Adamenko.

Church of the Archangel Michael

"The churches in the West reflect Western culture," said the priest at the Church of the Archangel Michael in Sorochinsk, Russia, speaking to us visitors. (I'm paraphrasing from memory.) "Look at the architecture—all straight lines and sharp angles." It's a culture of hard and fast judgment, he continued. "In contrast, look at our church. Round and organic—the culture of mercy."

It was a beautiful theory, and it reminded me of a Russian immigrant in the USA whom we know, who had once been a Baptist in Russia but had gone over to the Russian Orthodox Church. She explained to us that the Baptists of her youth were always in each other's business, gossiping and judging, but the Orthodox feasted and drank and enjoyed life.

Of course, being from the West and therefore predisposed to make sharp judgments, I couldn't help remembering our immigrant friend and the Sorochinsk priest the following year, when the Pussy Riot women were sentenced to prison. At that very moment, when mercy would have had a huge evangelistic impact, the church hierarchy chose to withhold it.

(And whatever you do, don't hunt Pokémon in church!)

A few minutes later in the conversation at Archangel Michael's church, we were talking about the church's struggle to attract young people. Only a small proportion of the city's adults are encouraging their young people to take an interest in spiritual values. What can the church do to engage with those who need her message of love and mercy? Later, I reflected that we had drifted into a theme where a hard distinction between East and West, between mercy and judgment, seemed unnecessary. We were talking about a problem common to much of the world.

Fr. Anatoly, Sukhorechka, Russia.


I wish I were able to go back and talk to that priest in Sorochinsk, and indeed the equally approachable and thoughtful priest we met in nearby Sukhorechka that same month. Much less likely would be a chance to talk to the most reverend hierarchs at the top of their system, to ask them whether they agree that Eastern spirituality is a superior expression of Gospel mercy and grace. Where, then, might that superior Eastern mercy be right now for the Ukrainians they were claiming to liberate? 

Back in October 2007 in Elektrostal, I was teaching an American Studies class, and I suggested trying to analyze history by looking at a specific conflict: the conflict between idealists and cynics (or, more gently, idealists and pragmatists). In one season, history seems to be driven by the passions of people who want something better. In the next season, the sensible people take over, the ones who will do what it takes to pay the bills, or to preserve their privileges. I asked the students to consider colonialism, the U.S. Revolution, the war against America's First Nations; the struggle for a constitution and bill of rights; slavery and the Civil War; the Gilded Age and the Progressives; Hoover's faith in business and Roosevelt's faith in government; and so on. 

Without pushing it too far, I also invited them to look at their own history and trace the ebbs and flows of idealism. There is no simple correlation between idealism and mercy, say, or pragmatism and cruelty. Idealists can be bloodthirsty, and pragmatists can show great kindness. Socialism in theory is the very essence of justice, of an ideal balance of individual and community interests; in practice, systems claiming that label have butchered millions.

In the current dramatic polarization of U.S. society, I'm so tempted to line up idealists like me with all those who are resisting "christian" nationalism and the coronation of the former president, and who uphold the values of kindness and interdependence. It doesn't help matters that some of our self-declared opponents describe us in vicious terms as seeking to take away their guns and Bibles as we force everyone into socialist reeducation camps where the only curriculum is critical race theory. Even though this correlation of "progressive = angelic" and "pro-Trump = amoral and cynical" may be emotionally satisfying to me, it offers no way out.

What if we could reframe the conversation the way we spontaneously did in Sorochinsk? Sure, the priest assumed that Eastern Orthodox Christianity was superior to the Western variety we visitors represented, but as soon as we got down to actual community problems, the conversation took off. The challenge I'd like to give those who represent one or another form of MAGA is this: how do you propose to bless our community and nation? Whom does that blessing include, whom do you propose to leave out? And it would be entirely fair if they turned around and asked me the same question. Even if our answers clash at first, it would be a conflict worth having.

Before our Quaker yearly meeting split over the issue of same-sex relationships, we had a ready-made arena for the idealists (as I dare label those of us who walked the plank) and the hard-liners to challenge each other—or, in other words, to keep each other honest. I love our new idealistic yearly meeting, but I also miss that challenge.


How recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions portend a "HUGE" legal rewrite on religion in public life.

The legal threats facing Ilya Yashin, one of Russia's few remaining prominent opposition politicians.

Recommended: Broken Ties, a documentary by Andrei Loshak on the divisive impact of the war in Ukraine on Russian families.

The voice of another idealist, Frida Berrigan, on what she still loves about her embattled nation.... (Libraries get a special tribute from her.)

A YouTube video by Scott Manley explains why, in his view, the James Watt Space Telescope's first images are so promising.

Part Eight of Becky Ankeny's series, "Jesus and His Bible": "Why do you call me good?"

Junior Wells pays tribute to Junior Parker: "Mystery Train."

07 July 2022

"Welcome to Russia"

Back in 2010, the board of Friends House Moscow met in our living room in Elektrostal, Russia. Housing those board members during the days of our gathering proved more complicated than we had anticipated, as I reported at the time:

Two weeks ago we housed two American citizens, members of our yearly meeting, in a local hotel here. No apparent problems (and I've stayed in that same hotel a number of times myself). A couple of months ago, we asked about reserving a block of rooms for a larger group, a mixed group of Russians and foreigners, participants in Friends House Moscow's annual board meeting. No problem! But just three days before the sessions were to begin, we were told that the hotel could not accept foreigners after all. The only explanation we could get was that it was not really a hotel, it was a "dormitory of the hotel type." Our international guests stayed at another place at three times the price. As one of our local friends said ironically, "We have a term for this: 'welcome to Russia'."

I've had my share of "welcome to Russia" moments, but nothing at the scale of Patricia Cockrell's experiences in her many years of visiting, living in, and building institutions and relationships in Russia. Her book, Sketches from a Quaker's Moscow Journal, crackles with vivid examples.

Patricia Cockrell's adventures in Russia began with a twenty-year campaign at home in Exeter, to set up exchanges between British and Russian schools—the sort of exchanges that were routine for students of other languages. After her breakthrough in that campaign, she received the first of a series of grants to establish hospices in Russia. That first grant came in 1992. Soon afterwards she was serving the Friends movement in Russia under the sponsorship of Britain Yearly Meeting of Friends, and she played a central role in establishing the Quaker nongovernmental organization Friends House Moscow. In fact it was the early board meetings of Friends House Moscow that gave me my first opportunities to see Patricia in action.

Those board meetings, and all the practical complications of setting up this new Quaker body in Russia, provided plenty of chances to witness Patricia's energy, persistence, and quiet humor. However, until I read her book, I had no real idea how much more she was doing outside Moscow, particularly in the dozen or so years after the end of the Soviet Union. She and her husband Roger lived in Exeter in those years, and Exeter's sister city Yaroslavl was the site of the first hospice in Russia that Patricia helped establish, and only the third hospice in all of Russia. She traveled far and wide in Russia's Caucasian republics on behalf of Alternatives to Violence. She was involved with Russian and Ukrainian organizations for children with cystic fibrosis, for refugees and "rehabilitated" political prisoners, and the list goes on.

Many of these involvements were not planned in advance; they were the consequence of the crosscutting networks of relationships she developed with Russian educators, doctors, journalists, and activists, most of whom were just learning the rudiments of civil society as, for those brief years, Russia experimented with democracy. Her stories include hair-raising tales of bureaucratic incompetence, but also the phenomenon Judy and I experienced as well: sudden miracles of unexpected coincidences, help coming from the most unexpected places, obstacles melting away, and former skeptics turning into avid fans.

Another aspect of those heady years of hope, frustration, and chaos: the sheer difficulty of planning a sane workday, when people we were counting on seeing turned out to be in another country, or phones were not answered (this was before ubiquitous mobile phones and Internet service), or they didn't turn up at the promised meeting place, and of course that constant trading of favors that was the way things were often done. For just about every nightmare situation Patricia describes, there are amazing examples of Russian hospitality, generosity, and inventiveness. She conveys all this with a sweet mixture of affection, exasperation, and deadpan asides that all make for compulsive reading.

A woman rang the hospice: her father is dying at home and his passport runs out next week. The woman is desperate. Her father must apply in person for an extension, but he is too frail now even to be transported to the office. If he dies within five days all will be well, but if his passport runs out before he dies, it will be impossible to bury him, and there will be endless arguments over tenure of their flat. A notary has agreed to come to the dying man for a fee so long as he is transported there and back by a person connected with the case. The man is not our patient and we have only one vehicle, but how can we refuse? The essence of life in Russia is still to be found in the classics: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and above all Gogol. Here Gogol and Dostoevsky meet Thomas Hardy.


Patricia Cockrell, Galina Orlova (2004)

Well, who'd have thought it? Here I am in the baggage check shed at the airport in Ingushetia being challenged to play my recorder! London's Burning does not seem quite right, nor does Jingle Bells. I strike up a hearty rendition of The Bells of Norwich. We danced to this tune with the children and with the AVP participants. In two ticks we'll have the border guards dancing right here round the conveyor belt and the buzzing arch. Normal life—tickets and visas and 'empty your pockets'—is suspended for a moment. Galina was asked my name, so now I am on first name terms with the officials in this busy little transit zone, including the woman who had discovered the rogue instrument (could it be a weapon?) in my shoulder bag. She takes me by the arm and introduces me to the ticket lady. 'This is Patreesha. Can you stamp her ticket, please?' Meanwhile, the baggage lady has become anxious: 'Patreesha, don't forget your rucksack!'

Patricia's book should be required reading for anyone who works in NGOs involved with grants, to see exactly how difficult it can be to match grant requirements with the actual situations of desperate people whose voices are not heard in Brussels or London, and to add another layer of complication, who actually do not expect their voices to be heard. In one fascinating example of NGO culture, 

"You have no idea..." (my bookmark)

In Yaroslavl is another group of people waiting to hear from Brussels. We had applied for a grant for a 20-bed hospice unit in January 1998, and we heard in December that we had been pre-selected. Nearly a year later, all we have is a file of correspondence. We have had to justify a), b), and c) and explain why we did not ask for d) for example, interpreters' expenses, which we don't need. We were also warned to increase the per diems for the European 'expert', i.e. me, otherwise the grant will not be taken seriously. But I have no need of taxis or of accommodation expenses, as I have plenty of friends, and we eat simple home cooked meals, with ingredients from the market or from somebody's garden.

Marc Delmartino from the EU in Brussels asked me to meet him in Moscow and he showed me what other Europeans claim in per diems—300 euros a day each for hotel expenses plus three meals/day. I had claimed 15. I added a zero on the end and, in due course, gave the extra cash to the project, though we did have one multi-course hotel meal to celebrate.

You have no idea how hard it has been to select these few excerpts from all these raw and revealing eyewitness accounts of a unique period of recent Russian history. You obviously have no choice—buy the book!

(Profits from the sales of this book will go to Friends House Moscow.)

Vladislav Zubok: What does the Soviet collapse tell us about Putin's prospects?

Friday PS: Meduza rounds up the most significant anti-war initiatives.

Paul Ladouceur on Russia's own variations of "manifest destiny."

In this final mutation of the Russian idea, its promoters have learned from the Bolshevik consolidation of power after the Revolution and from World War II that persuasion and propaganda are of little use in spreading their ideas and ideology, that the only truly effective way is the use of force, brute, unrestrained military force.

Palestinian Christians on the applicability of "apartheid" to Israeli policy.

In memory of Maurine Pyle, the blog What Canst Thou Say? is republishing her 21 contributions to the blog. Here's one: Who Is Sitting on the Facing Bench?

Mark Russ explores vocal ministry (referring to what non-Quakers might call sermons, although they're often very brief).

It might be reassuring to know that Quakers have always struggled with the giving of vocal ministry, and how to foster deeply rooted, authentic vocal ministry in our Quaker communities. At times Quakers have been so afraid of wrongly discerning the call to minister, that meetings have become totally silent for weeks, months on end. At other times, Quakers have felt so free to speak, that meetings have become a continuous babble of almost incomprehensible speech. In her book ‘Victorian Quakers’ (1970), Elizabeth Isichei writes ‘the Victorian Quaker meeting was rich in possibilities of disorder. Eccentric or incongruous ministry was always a problem… The state of the ministry at Bull Street Meeting [in] Birmingham, was so unsatisfactory in 1867 that outside intervention was needed.’

A way to avoid frightened silence on one side, and uninspired words on the other, is to talk about vocal ministry. What does it feel like to give ministry? How does the vocal ministry of others speak to you? In my experience, vocal ministry is a skill that can be learned and improved. Skills are best improved when we’re given permission to practice, and to reflect on that practice.

An announcement from the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative and Beacon Hill Friends House: Jen Higgins-Newman and Greg Woods will lead a retreat on "Living into Your Call: Vocational Discernment." Introductory session, July 11; the online retreat is on July 27-28.

"Key to the Highway," Tedeschi Trucks Band with Jorma Kaukonen.