Last week, a Russian leader vehemently opposed to Vladimir Putin was gunned down in the center of Moscow. In news photos, I recognized the bridge Boris Nemtsov he was walking across when he was shot. It was the bridge I walked across daily from Red Square to my hotel on my last trip to Russia six years ago.
We have become accustomed to hearing stories of Putin’s more outrageous attacks against those in Russia who would oppose him. Several of his most vocal critics either have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges or have died under highly suspicious circumstances. There was no doubt about the cause of Nemtsov’s death: He was killed just two days before he was to have lead a large protest against Putin and his despotism.
It is sad to see the Russia that was emerging in the 1990s and early years of this century revert into a retrograde Soviet-style country. In today’s Russia, free speech and free will are not tolerated by a president who sense of power seems to come from his exercise of iron control and subjugation of his citizens.
It is particularly poignant to think about the former Russian high school students, now adults, who came to Columbia every spring for several years in the first-in-history presidential exchange program originated by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. I often wonder about their lives now in Russia, and wonder how much of the freedom and career opportunities they had the promise of enjoying are squelched by the current regime that Putin has imposed on his own people.
The citizens of Columbia had a high level of participation in the first years of the exchange program. When 15 students and their two teachers would arrive from Russia every year, Columbia welcomed them enthusiastically and abundantly. Visitors from Russia were rare in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially young people, and Columbia threw off any mantle of cold war reluctance and warmly made these young Russians a part of the city during the month-long visit every year.
Each was given a key to the city. Businesses hosted them. Local universities set up special programs for them. The Legislature welcomed them to special sessions, and Gov. Carroll Campbell did his best to describe how our state government works. I remember fondly during visits to the SCANA boardroom how Lawrence Gressette, then CEO, would explain to the Russian students how the stock market operated. Many of the students went back home to a Russia that was filled with opportunities for them, and many of them, after completing their university studies, went to work for U.S. firms that were establishing Russian offices. Others found jobs with newly emerging Russian businesses, especially technology firms.
They stayed in touch with their Columbia host families; communication was not hampered, and via phone and eventually email, long-distance connections were nurtured easily. I kept in close touch with Russian teacher friends and, through subsequent trips to Russia over the years, got to visit and see them easily. It was a time of openness and hope that our two worlds would become increasingly linked in a natural progression of global cooperation and connection. Tragically this has not happened under Vladimir Putin’s despotic presidency, and very often now, communication with those in Russia is difficult or impossible.
Much of the freedom and many of the opportunities for Russia’s citizenry have come undone, and I worry about my friends there. I worry especially about all those Russian students who came to Columbia over the years full of a sense of promise and adventure about the adult world they would be entering back home.
When we hear about Putin and his iron-fisted rule, we shouldn’t just shake our heads and think about how unfortunate it is to see the return of such draconian Soviet-like government. Instead, we should remember that 26 years ago this month, Columbia welcomed the first group of Soviet students to America and that through the subsequent years, many more Russian young people were our guests. They still have they keys to our city somewhere in their homes. We should mourn the fact that their dreams of good jobs, their ability to travel freely and maintain open communication with their friends here in South Carolina and their right to live in a country where intimidation is not the norm have all dissipated in the fog of Putinism. They deserve so much better.