At the age of fifty-seven, I was accepted by the Peace Corps for volunteer service in Russia. We were the eighth group of volunteers to go to Russia after the Peace Corps established a relationship with the Russian government in 1993. Our class of seventy-nine volunteers arrived in Moscow on a hot afternoon in August 2000. We would spend ten weeks in a suburb of Moscow, Zelenograd, each living with a host family and attending Peace Corps training five days per week.
By far the most valuable training was the four hours per day of language training with one teacher for each group of six volunteers. By the end of training, we all had at least what the Peace Corps calls “survival Russian.” At the end of ten weeks, each of us traveled to our assigned city to work for our host organization. For me, that meant a train ride half way across Russia to a city of a million people in the middle of Siberia, Krasnoyarsk, to teach business courses at the Siberian Aerospace Academy’s International Business School. I was provided an apartment within walking distance to the main building of the Siberian Aerospace Academy (SAA) and I was a bus ride away from the building where I taught classes.
To qualify for the International Business School, the students had to be bilingual and most of them chose English as their second language, making teaching in English possible for me. The experience of living in Russia and teaching young Russian students business courses is simply indescribable. The Russian students, the administrators at the SAA and virtually all the Russians I met while living in Krasnoyarsk were friendly and unbelievably generous to me during my stay.
Living in the middle of Siberia is not an easy life. The coldest temperature I experienced was minus 50, and during the first two weeks of January the temperature never got above minus 40.
The transition from communism and a system where literally everything was controlled and managed by the centralized government to an open free market system was a painful process for the Russian people. During the year I spent in Krasnoyarsk, Russia was still evolving through that transition. Jobs were hard to find, pay was not keeping up with the cost of living and alcoholism was a major epidemic for the country, but in spite of all the problems the Russian people had a smile on their face, even when it was 50 degrees below zero.
The Russian government granted one-year visas to Peace Corps volunteers, which made it necessary for the Peace Corps office in Moscow to request visas for all the volunteers at the end of their first year of the regular two-year volunteer period. This procedure required all the volunteers to travel to Moscow near the end of their first year, depart Russia by train to Riga, Latvia, and return with the appropriate stamps in our passports.
A few days prior to the planned trip to Riga, we all gathered in Moscow. The country manager for the Peace Corps informed ten of the volunteers, including me, that there had been an administrative problem and our visas had not been approved. He assured us the problem would be fixed and not to worry. The problem was not fixed and ten of us had to rush to leave Russia just before our visas expired. We all went to Riga and stayed in a small hotel while they continued to work on getting our visas. After a few days, we were informed that it had not been an administrative problem, and our visas would not be approved. The Peace Corps offered us the choice of being reassigned to another country for our second year or to terminate service and fly home. They would arrange to have all our personal belongings packed and shipped wherever we were going.
I decided to terminate my service, but I was not satisfied with the arrangement the Peace Corps proposed. Leaving Krasnoyarsk and expecting to return for another year had provided me no opportunity to say goodbye to all the friends I had made during my year living in Krasnoyarsk. This was simply unacceptable to me. So I took a chance. I went to a travel agency in Riga and requested a tourist visa to visit Russia. A few days later I had a thirty-day tourist visa to visit Russia. The Peace Corps management in Moscow was not happy with my plan to re-enter Russia, but they knew I had terminated my relationship with the Peace Corps so they had no control over me.
The risk I faced was with the Russian immigration people at the border when I arrived by train. If their computer system was efficient they would see that I had been denied a visa to work in Russia for the Peace Corps. I had to hope their system was not that advanced and that the immigration official would accept my tourist visa at the border crossing. I sailed through immigration without any problems, arrived in Moscow and caught a flight to Krasnoyarsk. I had a wonderful couple weeks in Krasnoyarsk with many going away parties. But most of all, it gave me the opportunity to say my goodbyes to all the friends I had made while living in Krasnoyarsk. Finally, I packed my bags and the Head of the International Business School drove me to the Krasnoyarsk airport for one final goodbye. I still get a Christmas email from him every year, and he has tried several times to get me to visit Krasnoyarsk to participate in programs at the Siberian Aerospace Academy.
A few years after our visa incident, the Peace Corps terminated its Russia program because of government-to-government disagreements.