January 01, 2022

Undesirable Outcome

Last spring the Vermont nonprofit Project Harmony (PH International) was placed on the Russian government’s list of undesirable organizations. Apparently, a Russian nonprofit it supported was suddenly added to the Russian government’s list of “foreign agents” (see story, page 6).

Project Harmony was started by three good friends of mine back in 1986, at the height of the Cold War. We met in 1989 and I had the honor of serving on PH’s board of directors for 15 years. One of PH’s founders, David Kelley, cofounded this publishing company with me in 1990. It’s why we ended up in Vermont, actually, and our first offices were in their back room.

From the get-go, PH was all about citizen diplomacy – conducting student exchange programs, specifically choir exchanges. The US side would raise money for a trip of high school students to the USSR, and the funds raised would be enough to fund the future trip of Soviet students to the US.

Then one thing led to another…

As the world changed over the next few decades, PH morphed into a large, vibrant nonprofit offering a broad array of exchanges, educational programs, and training programs. It actually became one of the most knowledgeable and experienced nonprofits working in the post-Soviet space, and the US government turned to it often to fulfill USAID and State Department initiatives. Its mission? “To build strong global communities by fostering civic engagement, cross-cultural learning, and increased opportunities in the digital age. PH strives towards a world where individuals and communities collaborate across borders to resolve global challenges.”

Which is probably what got the Kremlin’s goat. Civic engagement, cross-cultural learning, and collaborating across borders to resolve global challenges could surely only threaten state control of political and social life.

Even before the blacklisting, PH was turning away from Russia and, like any good guest, going where it was wanted – to Georgia, Armenia, and Eastern Europe. Those countries’ gain is Russia’s loss.

The history of Russia since 2008 has been to repeatedly lop off appendages – nose, ears, digits – to spite itself. Obsessed by erroneous threats, it has invaded its neighbors, quashed all democratic activity, rigged votes, interfered in foreign elections, harbored and/or enabled international cybercrime… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The upshot is that Russia has made unequivocal decisions to cut itself off from the world. Which, as readers of this magazine will likely agree, is a shame. Because not only does the world have much to offer Russia, but Russia has much to offer the world.

How we back out of this dead end, I am not sure. But I do feel Russia needs to take the first step. It can start by deciding it wants to live in a world where civic engagement and the exchange of high school choirs are seen as a good thing for our mutual future, not existential threats.

Enjoy the issue.

The End. Or just the beginning?

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