The other day, reading another extrusion of anti-Russia propaganda (here’s the first example that comes to hand) telling us that Putin and those misguided Russians who support him are wholly and obdurately opposed to America and All It Stands For, I was reminded of Charles Heberle’s contrary experience with Putin and Russia two decades ago.
I met Charles nine years ago in Washington on a trip Sharon Tennison organised. Charles wrote up the following account for Sharon’s website Russia, Other Points of View and I referred to it in my Sitrep 20100506. ROPV is now defunct but Charles still had a copy and I asked him for it so as to reprint it on my site to keep it on the record.
In essence, he was invited to teach Russians how to do it the American way and his program was fully supported by Putin (who had just become President); he believes, and the evidence indicates, that the whole idea might have originated with Putin. It is distressing how much has changed in the 18 years since his story begins.
In short, 18 years ago Putin thought so highly of American democracy in theory and in practice that he supported an American program to teach Russians how to be American-style democrats. From Putin’s perspective, the years since 2000 have seen NATO expansions, broken promises, regime change operations, wars, sanctions, accusations and propaganda, none of which well illustrate the program’s citizenship skills. I rather doubt that he would be so confident today that the American Revolution had succeeded but maybe I’m assuming too much. At any rate, Charles assures me that the program is still being practised in Russia and still has official support.
If you watch his video interview, you will see that the program, while undeniably grounded in the US Constitution, is not exclusively American: it is applicable to most societies. It is a training process, a drill – Charles was in the US Army – that generates situations that force the participants to speak and think for themselves, but (this is the kicker) not in some vapid and complacent “self-esteem” way, but with a humble understanding of their imperfections, The program makes them cooperate with others in a spirit of respect and understanding in order to get the job done. Which, when you think about it, are the requirements for a real democracy to work.
But the main point of my reprinting this is to show that Putin, rather than being the fundamentalist anti-American that the anti-Russia camp tells us that he is, started out supporting the inculcation of what he saw as American virtues (values, if you will: “subjects becoming citizens”) into Russia.
I reprint Charles Heberle’s account as he sent it to me.
Transforming Subjects into Citizens – an Experiment in Russia by Charles Heberle
Many people, when they hear that I have been working in Russia for 9 years, have asked me about the intentions of the Russians. Are they going back to Communism? Do they hate us? Why are they going back to dictatorship? Of course I have no way of knowing the real intention of the Russians, but I get glimpses of it from my experience there. I am writing this article to outline my personal experiences in Russia to help shed some light on these questions.
It started with an email out of the blue in January 2000. It said, “Hello I represent the non-governmental organizations of Northwest Russia. We are unhappy with what your government calls democracy. Our analysis over the past nine years shows us that it will just trade one elite for another. We have had quite enough of this. We want to be country of, by, and for the people. Can you help us?” I was floored. I spent the next 4 months in negotiations with this mystery person, ending with trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. When I arrived I had no idea what I was in for. I quickly learned, however, that Russians don’t do things by halves. The organization consisted of some of the leading intellectual lights of St. Petersburg. They had set up a front organization, researched every web site in the world to find those that purported to teach democracy, invited them to St. Petersburg, and set up a rigorous testing process to make sure they knew what they were doing and that what they were doing would work. I was immediately put through a test where I had complete run of a Russian school for a week and the director did anything I said. I already had developed and copyrighted a civic education program for schools in the USA, so I simply copied the training. This process continued for a year. During that time I spent about 8 weeks in St. Petersburg attending conferences, undergoing a thesis type defense where I was grilled by 5 professors for about two hours, and then more demonstrations in different types of schools. I passed.
They then gave me my mission statement. It was “To help us build a training program that will distill the attitudes, understandings, and skills learned by the American colonists from 1620 to 1775 that made the American Revolution successful where others failed.” They said they wanted to inculcate those values and understandings and skills in their people too so that democracy could flourish in Russia. They felt that until the populace at large was trained no democracy was possible. They feared that simply creating a democratic form of government and some NGOs to work in the field would lead to a “velvet oligarchy”, or worse. They wanted to be a “normal”, that is western, nation of, by, and for the people but could not afford to wait 150 years for their people to understand the process. They wanted me to help them build a training system that could change the mindset of the entire Russian populace from being “subjects” to becoming “citizens” in a generation.
They then sent me to a province near St. Petersburg where we could develop this program without great publicity and opposition and where it could be tested and tried before taking it nationwide. I spent two years there in the capital city giving classes to teachers and monitoring the development of the lesson plans which at that point were all for schools. They gave me the head teacher of the province as my team leader and we rapidly developed a volunteer corps of 200+ teachers who helped develop the program. The program was enthusiastically received and fully supported by the Minister of Education whom I briefed regularly on its progress. Then an election was held in 2003 and the Governor of the province was re-elected. The Minister called us in the next week and the teachers were asked why they supported our program. They said, “Because it is simple, but wise”. The Minister said, “Fine, you are no longer experimental, have a 5 year plan on my desk by Monday.” It was Friday. This resulted in the approval of an official far reaching plan that went way beyond schools and was to end up training the whole population.
The next year our city had a forum, sponsored by the Russian Foreign Ministry, to explore ways that democracy could be furthered through people to people contacts. I was a featured speaker and the Russian NGO that we had helped form was in charge of a sub-forum on civic education. The next day, at that sub-forum, we had a large number of people. I was asking my staff where they were all from and they pointed out all of the visitors from Russia and other countries, except one. I said, “Who is he, a new teacher here?” My team leader, with a look of concern on her face, said “We don’t know.” Having learned that, in Russia, everything is known, I was a little concerned too. At lunch I approached the man and, in my halting Russian, thanked him for coming. He replied in fluent English and said he was President Putin’s personal advisor on civic education. We then had lunch together and I explained what we were doing, that I was here at the invitation of Russia and if he had any suggestions or wanted us to do anything differently to please speak up. He said he was very pleased with what he was seeing and that it was exactly what Russia needed. We then talked about things military and it became clear that he had a lot of high level and formerly top-secret information about the breakup of the Soviet Union. Without talking about things that were Top Secret on our side when I learned them, I can only say that his knowledge was far above that of a foot soldier. I have no doubt that he had good connections within the Kremlin at some time or another. He closed the conversation by asking if I would like to meet then-President Putin’s close associate Sergei Ivanov some time, as he would be glad to arrange a meeting. I said thank you, no as I felt sure Mr. Ivanov had better things to do. At the end of the day he came up to me again and gave me his personal email and telephone number in Moscow and said to come and see him anytime and to call him if we ran into any trouble.
I visited him in Moscow later and asked why they could not fund me directly if they were pleased with the program. He said that Mr. Putin’s team was performing a delicate balancing act between competing factions in the Kremlin and that they had to appear scrupulously neutral. Any outright support of a program run by an American would be seized upon as favoring one side over the other, and so, while they appreciated my work, they could not be seen to support it outright. I said that if they could at least give us a small amount of support to show the locals, some of whom thought of the program as “American”, that it was approved. Within a month we got a call directly from the President’s office to tell us we had been awarded a small grant to promote civil discourse and improve race relations in the province. It came down through channels signed, V. Putin. There has never been any political opposition to the program since.
These specific events and the fact that there has been strong and continuing official support of the program from the start have convinced me that the Russians do want to become a democracy. They also want to do it the Russian way, which is to say plan it thoroughly, follow the plan, and do it on a large scale. Nowhere have I seen them deviate from this in action. Maybe their words are confusing sometimes, and no doubt aimed at a particular audience, but their actions over time are entirely consistent with the goal stated to me in St. Petersburg in 2000.
In retrospect it has become clear that the Russian group was started at the request of Mr. Putin, who had just become President. This accounts for the complete and continuing support of the Russian governments at all levels which is key to its success there and why it delivers so much value for dollar. We were able to train a whole province for one-fifth of what USAID spent on one city in southern Russia. The fact that our program was born out of frustration with the USA’s then and current methods of teaching democracy, which had failed for them, accounts for the fact that it has a completely different basis from the current approved USA methods of teaching democracy – one that is much more useful and effective because it is designed by a first world, highly educated, group of former dictatorial subjects who know their problems in achieving and see this as the best way to solve them.
This makes it extremely difficult to get our part of it funded by the bureaucracy here in the United States. Our goal now is to get additional seed funding from this Administration and/or private foundations to help the Russians expand the program to about 40 million people in NW Russia over 5 years, which would then solidify it. It would also give us a tried and true and extremely well-planned and documented program to use in other former dictatorships. As it were, our program (and Putin’s too, as I have learned) is an attempt to “reset” Russians so that, rather than being resentful subjects of an inimical power, they become participating citizens of a res publica. They all need this before they can become true democratic republics.
All these experiences and watching the Russian hierarchy from the inside convince me that they are serious about becoming a normal western country and have a long term plan for doing so. Thus the current reforms come as no surprise. If my experience is any guide, the Putin/Medvedev efforts are part of a continuum. Maybe someday it will be Russia that teaches the world how to build a democracy.