Saturday, February 8, 2014

My History with Russia

I’m hoping that the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are successful. I enjoyed the opening ceremony last night, in part because it transported me back to the Russian History class I took as an elective while at the University of Charleston. The world has changed so much—and in such unpredictable ways—since the late 1970s!

The Cold War was still very much alive when my faculty adviser, Dr. Evelyn Harris, suggested I take this Russian History class. She was an incredible teacher (see my tribute to her at, and taught this class herself—but not on our campus. Instead, this class was an early attempt at distance learning. WCHS-TV Channel 8 in Charleston provided her with an hour of television time on Saturday mornings from 6:00 to 7:00AM.

As you can imagine, a 6:00AM Saturday morning class was not very popular among typical college students. I was the only person living in the dorms who took this class that semester (although she did have a number of residents within the WCHS viewing area who took this class for college credit).

I would set my alarm for a few minutes before 6:00 each Saturday morning, even though the preceding Friday night would often be fun-filled and end very late. I would grab an old-fashioned audio cassette tape recorder and stumble out to the dorm lounge, turn on the TV, set up the recorder next to it, and slump onto the couch. I must admit that there were several mornings when I woke up to find the Saturday morning cartoons had started because I had fallen back to sleep during her lecture—hence the audio tape recorder as my backup plan.

The audio tapes worked reasonably well since most of the hour was simply her lecturing into the camera. However, sometimes she would refer to a map of Russia behind her, so that became much harder to decipher. Video-cassette recorders (VCRs) were still years in the future, so when she veered from simply lecturing into the camera, I sometimes became lost when listening to my tapes.

Fortunately, the book she used was a valuable resource. Between the book and her lectures, I learned an incredible amount about the culture and people of Russia. Like most Americans, I knew nothing about Russia when I started, so I soaked it up like a sponge. The knowledge I gained that semester served me well over the decades.

Young folks today don’t really have a sense of what the Cold War was like. Back then, whenever the television or radio would be regularly interrupted by a test of the Emergency Broadcast System, you were instantly reminded that we were facing the threat of Soviet nuclear missile attack. Established in the early ‘60s by the Federal Communications Commission, the Emergency Broadcast System was designed to transmit messages on all broadcast stations (AM, FM, and TV), giving the President a way to address the American people in the event of a national emergency. The random testing sounded something like this: “This is a test. This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test. [At this point, a loud electronic tone would grab your attention.] If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune in your area for news and official information.”

We were also aware of those yellow and black fallout shelter signs, which I think were on the walls of every public school I attended (as well as other major buildings in the community). Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to be huddled in the basement of a school with lots of other people, probably eating saltine crackers that had been stored there in case of emergency. Yes, I was a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I sincerely hoped the Russians would never attack us!

However, this Russian History class opened my eyes to see how the Russian people had their own culture and background. All of them weren’t necessarily evil, and there were perhaps reasons (including geography and religion) why their society had evolved so differently than ours. I realized that in some ways, there was a mirror-image mindset on both sides, where each country attributed the other with bad things while only considering their own good points. Most importantly, I realized that—as with many aspects of life—things were more a muted gray than a stark black and white. In some respects, it is this understanding of the gray areas that is a hallmark of a good college education.

I’m glad that the Cold War is over. I’m glad that the Olympics are being held in Russia. And I’m glad that I broadened my horizons by taking a 6:00AM Saturday course on Russian History. Oh, and one more thing—Go Team USA!

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't help but think of this hallmark tune by Billy Joel