Bobby, St. Petersburg, Russia, Maria Baranova, Hermitage, American Literature: 1865 - present
On 4/22/1991 Our son left to visit St. Petersburg, Russia
She was tall, blue eyed; her wispy thin white blond hair was pulled back from her already high forehead into a tight pony tail. She was slight of build with a propensity to carry weight in her backside and thighs. She displayed an air of superiority, spoke impeccable English and made fun of our attempts to speak Russian, especially when we said, Mikail Gorachov. Despite all this, she was awed by the standard of living in our small village of 500+ souls on the shores of the St. Lawrence River immediately bordering Ontario, Canada, and never got over her first excursion into an American supermarket.
Maria was a seventeen year old high school student from St. Petersburg, Soviet Union who had come with fifteen or so fellow students to spend a few weeks in our community and attend our local public school of 600 students K – 12. This was made possible due to Gorbachov’s implementation of Perestroika and Glasnost policies in the Soviet Union. Our School superintendent got the idea from a neighboring school who had implemented an exchange program with a school also in the Soviet Union. As with all student exchange programs, local residents were asked to provide room and board for one or more of the students when they visited. We offered to take a student and Maria was assigned to us even before her arrival.
After her time with us where she shared her knowledge of Soviet Union history but also exhibited a knowledge of American history to rival if not surpass that of our own children, it was agreed that she and her parents, she being an only child, would host our son, a senior student, at her home in St. Petersburg when we sent our students there to complete the exchange arrangement.
In the end, both of our families had a positive experience, the students living with each other, and we parents enjoyed sharing our homes and exchange of histories. So much so, that we made arrangements to bring Maria back to spend a summer with us. Of course this required telephone communication between myself and Maria’s father, facilitated with Maria as interpreter; her dad spoke as much English as I did Russian, that being very little. But we managed to communicate effectively even on the one occasion where he and I had to converse by ourselves, Maria having been admitted to the hospital for a minor surgery in St. Petersburg.
Maria’s father was a Captain in the Russian Navy. We discovered that we both had been in Viet Nam at the same time, obviously not on the same side. We, two former enemies, by sending our children to reside in each other’s homes thousands of miles apart learned that it was our countries and their politics that were enemies and not us and in fact shared more in common than one might think. By this sharing two families came to realize the similarities of humanity regardless of cultural differences.
On a concluding side note. Through our new found friendship, and contacts I had here in the States, we were able to secure a job for Maria, working for the USDA in St. Petersburg, Russia. A post that she still holds to this day.
For us Restructuring and Openness was the start on the path to peace; if only a small step, it was a major one for these two families.