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.

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