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Douglas Mattern

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Citizens Diplomacy on the Volga River
By Douglas Mattern
Friday, April 06, 2007

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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Citizens Diplomacy trips to the former Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s

Volga Peace Cruise

The Citizen Diplomacy Volga Peace Cruise trips that were organized by Howard and Alice Frazier of Promoting Enduring Peace involved around one hundred fifty Americans and twenty or so Soviet citizens and speakers that had been selected by the Soviet Peace Committee. Promoting Enduring Peace organized and directed the trips, and co-sponsors included the Association of World Citizens (AWC), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and other peace groups in the U.S.


The trips began in Moscow and, after a few days, moved to Rostov on the Don where the participants boarded the passenger boat Alexander Pushkin for an eleven hundred  mile trip up the Volga River, all the way from Rostov on the Don to the city of Kazan.


The 1983 peace cruise was very special because of the Moscow peace rally and the various other peace rallies held along the Volga River. After Moscow, the next joint meeting was held in the City of Rostov and featured a highly decorated war veteran who gave an emotional speech on how he could never go to war against Americans because of his memories of serving with U.S. soldiers against the Germans in World War II. After departing Rostov, the peace boat sailed up the Volga River, stopping at times to hold joint meetings with Soviet citizens. This included stops at Volgograd, Ulyanovsk, and Kazan, the capital of the Tartar Republic. At all stops we were greeted with wonderful performances of folk music and dance. On the boat there was a very good rock and roll band that performed every night with people filling the dance floor. The band also performed every time the boat arrived at and departed from a town along the river.


The cruise ended at Kazan, and after a big public peace rally in the city park, the American group traveled by airplane to Kiev. After visiting the huge and very impressive war memorial in Kiev, the group traveled to the Bari Yar Memorial where the Germans had murdered as many as two hundred thousand people and buried them in a common trench. This memorial is highlighted by a mass of towering dark statues representing the victims. It is topped by a poignant sculpture of a doomed woman kissing a child with her hands tied behind her back, symbolizing a hope for the future.


The group then flew to Leningrad, which was later renamed St. Petersburg, for a joint meeting and a visit to the memorial cemetery where five hundred thousand people are buried in mass graves, all victims of Germany’s nine hundred day siege of the city. The city of Leningrad alone lost over twice as many people as our country lost in the entire war.


 


While Cruising on the Volga

On board the boat during the eleven days of sailing up the Volga River, we had a series of workshops on different topics led by invited speakers and open to full discussion by everyone attending. The discussions were informative as they included an exchange of views and perceptions, some of which had been badly misunderstood by both sides prior to the discussions.


On the 1984 Volga Peace Cruise, we held another joint peace demonstration in the city of Volgograd on the Volga River. This city was formerly named Stalingrad, the site of the famous battle that proved to be the turning point of World War II. The battle raged for 135 days from September 13, 1942, to January 26, 1943. The fighting was so fierce that the life expectancy on the battlefield for a Russian platoon commander was three days, and for a company commander, seven days. It was a devastating defeat for Nazi Germany, and it spelled the end of Hitler’s dream of conquest. The Germans would not win another major battle in the war. The casualties in the decisive battle of Stalingrad were enormous. The Germans lost one hundred forty-seven thousand men and ninety-one thousand were taken prisoner. The Red Army had as many as five hundred thousand casualties.


The memorial to the fallen Soviet heroes is stunning. The memorial park is seen from a great distance, as this is the site of the spectacular statue “Motherland,” also known as “Mother Russia,” by sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich. This statue is two times higher than the Statue of Liberty, and at the center of the memorial park is the Hall of Valor, constructed in the form of a cylinder. The walls are carved with the names of seven thousand people who died in the battle, which is only a small percentage of the total casualties. In the center of the hall, a huge hand emerges from the ground, holding a torch lit with the eternal flame. Around the top of the hall is the inscription: “We were mere mortals, and not many of us survived; but we did our duty to the Motherland.” The music of Schumann’s Reverie plays softly and continuously in the background.


There are many impressive statues in the memorial park, including a very poignant sculpture of a mother holding her son, a fallen soldier. Other displays depicting the horrendous battle are as impressive for the incredible courage of Soviet soldiers as they are sobering for the terrible waste of human life on both sides.


 


The Press Conference

The 1984 Volga Peace Cruise continued its way up the Volga River and ended at Kazan, where the American group flew back to Moscow. The following day, a press conference was scheduled at the Metropole Hotel to explain to the media the purpose of our trip, which was to build understanding and friendship and, most important of all, to accept our countries’ differences as well as their similarities, including the need for peace.


All the major U.S. media stationed in Moscow came to the press conference, including ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. It was a room packed with cameras and reporters. Three of us led the conference and explained the purpose of the trips, but it wasn’t long before the atmosphere became somewhat inquisitorial. At one point, the reporter for ABC actually asked us what side we would fight on if there were a war between our two countries. This infuriated everyone in our group, especially a contingent of World War II veterans, who came on the trip to participate in a joint memorial with Soviet veterans.


What is most interesting about this conference is that it was never reported in the U.S. media. We learned this before we arrived home, as there was a cameraman on the airplane out of Moscow from one of the TV networks. He told us that nothing would appear on TV or other media because, after we left the press conference, a New York Times reporter stood up and told everyone to kill the story. They dutifully followed orders, and the important story of Americans and Soviets working for peace was not reported to the American people.


This was the second time that the New York Times killed a story in which I was involved. In 1978, I drafted a resolution for the World Citizens Assembly in Paris that was addressed to the 1978 United Nations Special Session on Disarmament. I got forty-two Nobel Laureates to sign the resolution, and with a few colleagues, I presented it to the director of the Disarmament Center in a brief ceremony at the United Nations. The New York Times sent a reporter and cameraman and covered the entire story including a copy of the resolution with names of all the Nobel Laureates, but nothing appeared in the newspaper. This was all the more infuriating as the resolution was about the critical issue of nuclear weapons. Moreover, in 1978 there were not so many Nobel Laureates as today, and we may have gathered the largest number of Nobel Laureate signatures on any document up to that time. The United Nations accepted the document for its important conference, but not the Times. This ongoing problem with the press and its suppression of worthy news is even more extreme in this sixth year of the new millennium, as corporate America now owns nearly all the media. The press is only free if you own it, and that is not democracy.


Many interesting, and sometimes dramatic, events took place on the Volga Peace Cruises, on which I continued to participate as a speaker every year from 1983 to 1989. I should mention that the trips were handled through a travel agency selected by Promoting Enduring Peace and open to everyone interested in participating on a first-come, first-serve basis. The participants, with the exception of the trip directors and selected speakers, paid their own way, the cost about the same as regular visitor tours to the Soviet Union.


 


Meeting on the Volga

In 1985, another boat of the same size and carrying about the same number of passengers approached our vessel. At the time we didn’t realize that the captains of the two ships had communicated by radio and decided to tie up along side one another. It turned out the other ship was carrying tourists from West Germany. When the ships were side by side, we all eagerly talked to each other and exchanged souvenirs.


Suddenly, out of the blue, one of the West German men jumped down between the ships, and from one end, started walking with one leg straddling each ship. Soon afterward, a Soviet man did the same thing at the other end. It was a dangerous, spontaneous stunt, and the captains of the ships were understandably not happy about it. But after about five very nervous minutes, the two men safely met at the center of the boats and embraced. On both boats, we all cheered, including the captains. The drama of this story is that both men were veterans of World War II, on opposite sides of course, and this event took place with the site of the battle of Stalingrad clearly in the background.


Unforgettable!


 


From my book:  Looking for Square Two - Moving from War and Violence to Global Community


 

       Web Site: Association of World Citizens

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