Whether or not we choose to admit it, relations between Russia and America are rapidly deteriorating into a new Cold War. Don’t believe me? Look at all of the signs: accusations of espionage, clashes over the Syrian conflict, the Edward Snowden affair, tension over Gay Rights, Russia’s anti-America adoption laws, President Obama’s refusal to attend the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, and numerous other examples. Clearly, America’s relationship with Russia is growing cold. So let’s make this new Cold War official. Let’s rebuild the Berlin Wall. What? Is rebuilding the Berlin Wall too controversial or far-fetched? With all of the mounting tension, is this not the course we are pursuing? Are we not already rebuilding the Berlin Wall in our hearts? At this point, a physical wall would be but a mere formality—an official declaration of how most Americans feel about Russia—right? Of course, when I say we that should rebuild the Berlin Wall I’m being facetious. But please ask yourselves this: What does it matter if we tear down one wall yet build up another, stronger one in our hearts? Our hearts are already at war with one another, are they not? Reinforced concrete is not nearly as strong as a hardened heart.
If I seem too sensitive about this issue, it’s because I have spent time on the other side of that wall. I know the Russian people. They are nothing like the the villainous Russians so often portrayed in our video games, television shows, or movies. They are not a cold-hearted people and they are certainly not our enemy. The Russian people are some of the most loving, caring, and compassionate people I have ever met. They are as dear to me as family. They are not our enemies; they are our brothers and sisters. But sometimes we want to be right so badly that we forget who we really are. I know I did. Seven years ago, while living in Russia for the first time, I became quite miserable. Despite the serenity of Nakhodka, the small port city in which I lived, I had taken offense towards the Russian people. Within my own heart, a Cold War had begun.
Later that year, I was overcome with a terrible fever. The intensity and duration of this fever was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I was absolutely delirious. My body was immobile, constantly drenched in sweat, and in the most excruciating pain. The Russians who knew about my condition did everything within their power to help me. During a three week period they visited me often and recommended a host of Russian doctors, medicines, and remedies. You would think that after weeks of enduring so much suffering, I would eagerly accept help from any source. But I didn’t. In fact, I flat-out rejected any help that came from Russians. Part of that rejection stemmed from sheer arrogance—wondering how could Russian medicines could be better than American medicines. But there was a different, more cynical reason why I rejected Russian aid. You see, I wanted irrefutable justification for my bitterness. I wanted to have some legitimate, inexcusable reasons to push Russians out of my life and prove that I was right and they were wrong. Instead of wanting to be healthy, I wanted to be right. As I gradually started to get better, I made the decision to leave Russia and return to the States. But despite leaving Russia behind me, a bitterness remained within me. Several Russians tried to contact me to see how I was doing. But still embittered by my past experiences, I did my best to wall Russians out of my life. I just didn’t want anything to do with Russia. But one day—and quite unexpectedly—a girl from Nakhodka named Galena sent me a very tender email. In it, she said this:
“Seth, I pray that you are healthy. Is everything ok with you? If you need any help or someone to talk to you can always ask me, the door is always open for you. I just want to be your friend.”
Imagine how perfectly rotten I felt after reading that! Here I was, earnestly laboring to reinforce a wall around my heart, and yet, on the other side of that wall stood a Russian girl who promised to leave the door of friendship open. I broke down that day; the walls around my heart began to crack and crumble. I accepted Galena’s invitation of friendship, and she has since become one of my best friends. I tell you that story because I want you to ask yourselves this: Are we building walls between ourselves and Russia? You may say that there is corruption and wrongdoing on their part. But even if that is so, are we to blame an entire country for the actions of a handful of people? To protest, demonize, and mock them is to encourage and provoke hostility from them. Instead of building a wall of hatred, let us open a door of friendship. Instead of searching for ways that we may have offended each other, let us remember how we’ve definitely defended each other. Let us remember that we were allies against a terrible evil in the Second World War. Let us remember the stars we can see from the space station we share. In 2013, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend Galena’s wedding. She married a kind and humble American man named Jake. The ceremony was performed both in English and in Russian. To this day, I believe it’s one of the most inspirational things I have ever seen.
Just a year after that ceremony, I held Jake and Galena’s newborn daughter in my arms. The tiny baby curled in, and quickly fell asleep. “Look at that,” said Galena with a smile. “She loves her Дядя Сет.” Luckily, Galena didn’t notice the tears that welled up in my eyes when she called me “Uncle Seth” in Russian. After seven years of friendship, Galena had given voice to a previously unspoken understanding: she’s like a sister to me. Galena is part of my family. I couldn’t help but think that these tender moments wouldn’t have been possible if walls hadn’t come down. I looked from the baby to Galena and asked myself, “Did I really almost deny myself of her friendship?” There is an indescribable power that comes to us when we choose to open a door instead of build a wall. It invites others to tear down their own walls, giving us the opportunity to create friendship and unity. Right now, the world is converging in Sochi to attend one of the greatest symbols of unity: The Olympics. Let us not turn this into a contentious geopolitical spectacle. Let us not mock and insult the Russian people. Instead, let us remember that “all men are created equal.” Let us remember that we are all a family. If we choose not to remember this, then we might as well rebuild the Berlin Wall and officially recommence the Cold War. The original Cold War lasted from 1945 until 1985. How much longer will this new Cold War last? Five years? Twenty? One hundred? Forty years was long enough. Forty years was too much. Please allow the light of these Winter Olympics to thaw the Cold War that is brewing in our hearts.
“Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last.”