The Russians are coming, but don’t be afraid

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You can chalk up one more conservative Trump supporter who got caught talking to Russians and then insisting it was just an innocent conversation!

Yep, yours truly spent an hour Tuesday afternoon in the company of five Russians. They grilled me with questions, and I told them everything they wanted to know.

In the end, they paid me off with a wooden spoon and a souvenir pen. Call Adam Schiff! Call MSNBC! Call the State Department! Someone needs to get to the bottom of this!

Oh, wait a minute, this meeting was arranged by the State Department. It turns out that facilitating an exchange of ideas between Russians and Americans is in the national interest — not just the Russian national interest, but our national interest as well.

The five Russian journalists I met with at the University of Montana were invited to the United States under the auspices of the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. They visited the Helena Independent-Record and the journalism school in Missoula through the coordination of Global Ties U.S. and World Montana, two non-governmental organizations dedicated to “fostering relationships through international exchange programs.”

I became familiar with World Montana through the efforts of Brian Gannon, a Lakeside resident who travels abroad on just such international exchanges and has written letters to the editor about the situation in Ukraine. Brian sent my name to Sasha Fendrick, the executive director of World Montana, who is herself a Russian from the Western Siberian city of Novosibirsk. At Sasha’s persuading, I joined the program in Missoula.

Why wouldn’t I? Russia, after all, is one of the most magnificent countries on the globe, with an illustrious and rich history that has contributed immeasurably to the brilliance of Western civilization. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekov, Solzhenitsyn, Rimski-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Eisenstein, Stanislavsky — the list is endless. A few decades of communism don’t wipe out the contributions of centuries, plus it is obvious to a serious observer that the Russian people are not unlike Americans in their depth of soul, their love of country, and their indomitable spirit.

Nothing in my meeting with the five journalism educators from Siberia lessened my appreciation for their country. Indeed, their enthusiasm, rigorous questioning and humor only deepened my appreciation for the Russian culture.

I have reason to think that our visitors also enjoyed our time together as well. One of the two translators kindly sent an assessment to World Montana, which included the following: “The most thought-provoking meeting was perhaps the one with Mr. Frank Miele, the managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, MT, who presented an analysis of changes in small city newspaper journalism.”

Many of the thoughts I shared are already familiar to longtime readers of this column. Suffice it to say that I was as straightforward with my Russian inquisitors as I try to be in this column. I am glad that Liudmilla, Oleg, Valerii, Pavel and Anastasia found the conversation as interesting as I did.

I will proudly treasure the pen that Sasha gave me at the conclusion of the meeting. Its inscription declares, “I am a citizen diplomat.” I think it is important for our national political discussion to remember that building bridges is a good thing, talking to Russians is not necessarily a bad thing, and pandering to stereotypes is a dangerous hobgoblin that hurts all of us.

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