The Human Side: From Russia, with love

At a time when every value of their society was being questioned, we were there to teach “better” ways.

“Yankee, Go Home!” The voice, high-pitched and far away, caught me by surprise. I wasn’t a Yankee, but a noble Canadian — far different! I found the child attached to the voice on the fifth floor of another crumbling apartment building.

We were there, as far as I knew, providing a way for the nation to improve its quality of life. I hadn’t been expecting anyone to respond so negatively.

Naively, perhaps, I expected praise, not anger. Living for a while just below the Arctic Circle in the Russian city of Usinsk, I was spending twelve-hour days, seven days a week, trying to teach people, in a Canadian (gentle) way, how to lead the team who crossed the Circle daily and used old and old-fashioned equipment to drill for oil, supplying the energy needs. The praise didn’t come — certainly not from that childish voice floating down from the fifth floor balcony.

Living in an apartment over the open square, his was probably a superior home compared to mine. Cockroaches in mine fell out of the space under the wallpaper every time the door to the darkened hallway was closed.

Once I was over my shock at the shouted directives, I wondered. Questions rose in my mind. Who was the adult who created the anger in the child’s voice? Where had the English words come from? Why criticize a helper?

It was only then that I began to look at our presence through Russian eyes. I wasn’t impressed with what I saw. At a time when every value of their society was being questioned, we were there to teach “better” ways. They were incensed and humiliated.

We had brought the latest technology from Canada to the Joint Venture partnership, as did the British who were the third part of the deal that included a Russian company. The Russians had been using out-dated ideas and equipment we had long surpassed. The workers were doing a good job adapting to the increased level of technological understanding needed to effectively manage more modern stuff.

They had also been doing the difficult job of getting over their school history. They had been told they were morally and economically superior to all the other people of the world. That was a blind spot in their thinking when they looked at the several centimetres of oil that covered the earth, the rivers and the lakes, for kilometres all around. The absence of wildlife was never discussed. The dumping of old nuclear material into the waters around the nearby island of Novaya Zemlya, the world’s largest nuclear waste dump, was never mentioned.

What is it about us humans, that we maintain almost total blindness to the effects of our own behaviour? We only criticize those aspects of our own culture that create little inconvenience. Yet, we manage to remain aware of the faults of others from around the world.

I am fortunate. I have had the opportunity to see how people from many places live, to see their blindness and compare it to my own.

After all, we are all humans, making our way in the best way we know. We are all blind in our own way — there is more similarity than difference between us.

Fred Elford is a retired international organization development consultant, living in Invermere, where he spends his time with bonsai trees. He can be reached at fredelford@