On December 19th, 2013, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published an interview with M.G. Crisci, written by Alexander Sirotin. In, M.G. Crisci discusses Russia, his impressions of his visits, and his two books Call Sign, White Lily and Seven Days In Russia, with Voice of America.
Understanding Russia in Seven Days
By Alexander Sirotin
American journalist and award-winning author M.G. Crisci released two interesting books this year about Russia, its culture and its citizens. The first, Call Sign White Lily, is devoted to the life and times of Russia’s greatest female fighter ace, Litvyak Lydia (1921-1943). The second title, Seven Days in Russia, is a collection of essays with more than 150 photographs about the New Federation.
In his new book, Seven Days, the author tries to break the stereotypes and clichés by which many ordinary Americans still imagine Russians as bears with a balalaika and a bottle of vodka. “Now more than ever, it is important,” he writes, “for Russians and Americans to better understand each other. We are very similar in many respects.” Russians,” says Crisci, “have one foot in the past, and one foot that wants to step into a new world, but wish to avoid stepping into a puddle.” Which Crisci says is impossible in today’s fast paced world.
Recently, a reviewer for the well-known San Francisco Book Review, described the book: “Crisci’s engaging pictures, vivid description, wit and charm, made me want to travel to Russia.” The 200-page book was published in a large, unusual 11 x 13” format, with thick glossy pages, large print, and printed in English and Russian.
When asked if Seven Days was based on his recent itinerary, he responded “Yes and no. The book is more a compilation of multiple trips to Russia.” He also explained his interest in improving communications between ordinary citizens began after a casual conversion with a Russian taxi driver in Miami. According to the author, the cabdriver quickly made Crisci realize how little I knew about World War II and the unbelievable losses of the Soviet people. He decided he was like many ill-informed Americans and it would be good for them to know the truth…but he wanted to stay away from politics. That was a terrible mind field.
“As a businessman, I was known as an expert in consumer motivation and the behavior of the average consumer. My early research and my personal instincts suggested thought that the interests of the ordinary Russian citizen are not much different from the interests of the ordinary U.S. citizen. But we know very little about each other, and therefore poorly understand each other.
“Our views generated by the media, movies and television, are based on word-of-mouth stereotypes and clichés imposed upon us. This thought never left me as I worked on the book Call Sign, White Lily. As I traveled to Russia and Ukraine to assemble materials and gather insights, I made a lot of new friends in Russia and Ukraine, even while experiencing difficulty with the Cyrillic language,” laughed Crisci.
The book turned out to be a commercial success and gathered many good reviews. The English newspaper Russia Now, owned by the government news agency Rossiyskaya Gazeta, published my article, for which he won first prize and was awarded him paid seven-day trip to Russia. When he arrived, he again met with many of those with whom he met during previous trip, and made more new friends. It was also during this trip that Crisci decided I would write about Russia’s present transition into a social democracy.
“As an experienced photographer, I took lots of pictures, kept a diary of my meetings, conversations, impressions. To my surprisingly, Russia Now newspaper undertook to publish my notes in its publications worldwide. Once published, I began to receive feedback from readers. That was when I decided I wanted to create an unusual book about the daily life of ordinary Russians, using my photographs to help illustrate the material. Somewhere along the way I decided to make the book a dual language edition: one side in English, the other in Russian. Along the way, Valentin Sapunov, PhD, and son of Boris Sapunov, PhD, head of historical research for many years, decided he wanted to help with the Russian translation. Because he also wanted American’s to know the real truth. It was a wonderful collaboration. We had a great time at his apartment in St. Petersburg, and I look forward to the day when he visits me in the United States.”
We asked Crisci what cities he visited in preparing the book. He said he focused on city dwellers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “I feel these cities contain much of the current Russian middle class, so I wanted ordinary Americans who will probably never travel to Russia, to meet their counterparts. With all the cultural differences and misunderstandings I felt I needed to start somewhere. It’s certainly not a perfect assumption, and I am sure somebody will criticize my approach. My response, ‘it is easier to criticize the well-meaning than to do something well-meaning.”
Crisci also had some interesting views on Russia’s middle class. “There are signs of typical middle class growth everywhere one looks, but as I say in my book, it will be another 50 years before today’s Russia will evolve from a privileged communist society into a true social democracy. I am sure this will happen, just not in my lifetime. Unfortunately, even though Russia is changing every day, American’s don’t much notice. To many older Americans, Russia remains Doctor Zhivago. And, to many older Russians, America remains the “bull in a china shop.”
When asked why, he believed that to be the case, Crisci offered “The America and Russia middle classes have the same old baggage pounded into their heads again and again by the media. It seems to me, if a senior citizen like myself can accept unplanned change, others on both sides should be able to do the same. At some point somebody has to take a chance and trust somebody…learning to get along on the world stage is not rocket science!”
We also decided to ask Crisci if he felt the American press distorted the image of Russians, more than the Russian press distorted the American way. “It’s hard to accurately answer that question because my ability to translate Russian is limited to a few essential words such as skulka, spaciba, net Russki, dobry den, dosvidaniya, etc. But my intuition told me there was enough untruth on both sides. Few of the people I met in Russia, visited America. And those who did, were very surprised that most Americans were not as had been presented to them by their media in the Motherland.”
The irony is that the world would benefit greatly if our two countries interacted closely and openly. But the task is daunting because there is so much baggage to overcome on both sides. When Senator John McCain talks about corruption in Russia; that the entire system is built on bribes, my Russian friends ask me: “Are there no bribe and cheats in America? How do you explain Bernard Madoff, Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Kozwolski? Are we really so different from each other?”
“The bottom line is, despite all the words back and forth, we really do not know each other. As I often say in my lectures: Give me 10 minutes to talk with Vladimir Putin, and I will explain things as they are, simply and clearly with passion and honesty.” Explain what we asked? “That he is a man caught in the middle, between the world of the former privileged communist elite which carries his own baggage, and the new world of instant communications, open views and social change. But he’s a very intelligent man and must find way to maintain the trust of the old world while providing enlightened leadership in the new world.”
We asked Crisci two final questions? For what purpose are you really doing these books, these lectures? He paused, “At least I can tell my family that during my lifetime I somehow tried to make the world a better place for them and their children.”
Finally, does it not occur to you that the Russian authorities can use your good intentions for propaganda purposes? “Yes, of course I understand that. It is impossible to ensure that someone, somewhere will not pervert my words and my intentions. But, I trust my life is an open book, there are no hidden agendas. And, I truly believe mutual understanding cannot happen, if someone does not make an attempt to trust the other side, without demanding anything in return.”