by Gregory John Orr
In 1987 I joined the United States Information Agency (USIA), a foreign affairs agency whose mission was to engage in public diplomacy with audiences overseas. We liked to say that we wanted “to tell America’s story to the world” via a variety of cultural, educational, and informational programs (e.g. speakers, exchanges, exhibits, and libraries). USIA had a corps of press and cultural officers implementing these programs as well as specialists in areas such as library science and English language programs.
As an English language officer, I was expected to promote the learning and teaching of American English as a means of developing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. I therefore looked forward to my first overseas trip to make contact with the English teaching establishments in Hungary and the Soviet Union.
While my visa was rapidly issued for Hungary, the Soviet visa was elusive even though applications were made both from Washington and from Budapest. I supposed that either I had run afoul of the glacial Soviet bureaucracy or the time had not yet come for a visit by an English Teaching Officer. The answer probably was somewhere between the two, and I despaired of making a visit in the near future.
Two years later, the situation could not have been more different. Whether or not due to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), a new application in 1989 produced quick results — a visa for a September visit that included lectures and seminars at educational institutions in Moscow and Leningrad, a meeting at the Ministry of Education, as well as participation in the Moscow International Book Fair. Embassy officers Ian Kelly and Jim Kenney, who arranged my schedule, felt that a significant breakthrough had been made with this visit that would set the stage for contacts and cooperation for years to come.
Moscow International Book Fair
First on my schedule was the 1989 Moscow International Book Fair which took place in a cavernous exposition complex. That year there was increased participation by American publishers who experienced none of the censorship that had occurred in previous years; for the first time American publishers were allowed into the main pavilion. Even atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair had a booth touting her atheist literature, although she was largely ignored by visitors much more interested in free copies of a new Russian translation of the New Testament. Also creating great buzz was Robert Slusser’s controversial book “Stalin in October: The Man Who Missed the Revolution”.
This was an open, freewheeling book fair and USIA’s exhibit “Pages of Learning” occupied prime territory. The exhibit was designed to resemble a university bookstore decorated with college and university pennants and posters and consisted of 1500 textbooks from a variety of academic fields. Unlike other exhibits at the fair, we were not selling these books but just displaying them before eventually donating them to the Institute of Foreign Languages.
I joined an illustrious group of USIA Soviet hands (Peggy and David Nalle, Yale Richmond, Susan Robinson, and Madeline Feldman) and embassy spouse Carole Bullock staffing our exhibit, which received 25,000 visitors over 7 days. What was surprising to my colleagues was how many of these visitors came just to chat, in Russian and English. (In the past, the only people who would openly talk to an embassy official were dissidents or agents.) They wanted to talk about everything from our books and English teaching to our opinion of Gorbachev, independence for the Baltics and technology like the new portable Macintosh computer. Some of the visitors were there just for the pins, posters, and pencils we were giving away while others actually presented us with snachki, tickets to the Tabakov theatre, a bottle of vodka and even baked goods. But most were bibliophiles who came to peruse the books, some spending hours reading them and, in several cases, hand copying pages into notebooks they had brought with them. And to add a little drama, one misguided individual even tried to defect to our exhibit!
The exhibit was a great success as nearly 600 books were “liberated” during the fair. Many of those we gave away to visitors who provided compelling reasons for why they needed them: a nutritionist, a communications specialist, an English teacher, a theatre manager, and even a group of military officers. Others just disappeared; we trust they found good homes.
One memorable individual we couldn’t initially help was Mark, a soulful academic who was desperately looking for a copy of Nabokov’s English translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”. He was in the middle of researching his magnum opus about the unity of all great art and was using Eugene Onegin as his example: it was a masterpiece in its original Russian, a masterpiece in its translation, and a masterpiece as a Tchaikovsky opera. He quoted passages from memory and even sang a few bars from the opera to show me. Sadly, the copy of Nabokov’s translation had disappeared from the reading room at the Pushkin library and his research could not continue. Although we had no copy at the exhibit, I was so taken with this man’s story and passion for his subject that on my return to Moscow two months later I presented him with a copy of the translation that my sister hand carried to my home in Budapest.
There was a lavish closing banquet for us at the end of the fair hosted by some Georgians and my USIA compatriots decided that if we were to survive the evening we’d have to set some ground rules. No more than three toasts would be allowed to help cut down on the obligatory consumption of alcohol. Our hosts surprisingly agreed and we were pleased with our negotiation skills until we realized during the dinner that our hosts thought they agreed to only 3 toasts….per person! Na Zdorovie!
Professional Contacts with Educational Institutions
USIS (the overseas name for USIA) put together an ambitious schedule of opportunities for me to meet with a variety of teachers and students at a cooperative language school, the Maurice Thorez teacher training institute, and the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow. And working with the fact that I had only 24 hours in Leningrad, USIS arranged a day-long seminar for teachers from eight institutions of higher learning at the residence of the Consul General; Consul Dick Miles and his wife Sharon not only provided lunch for the participants but mingled with them during our breaks. What I took away from the opportunities to meet with teachers and students was their high proficiency in English, their pride in their pedagogical traditions, and the desire for greater knowledge and experience with American English. Discussions at each institution inevitably led to the now-routine litany of stumbling blocks for the teaching of English in the Soviet Union: insufficient print, audio, and video materials, inadequate contacts with native speakers, and outdated methodology.
An unprecedented visit was arranged to the Diplomatic Academy, the Soviet Union’s version of the Foreign Service Institute. The Academy had always been a source of both speculation and awe as the premier language training institute in the Soviet Union, whose graduates had acquired admirable command of whatever language they studied. It was a valuable opportunity to visit this school for an up-close-and-personal perspective. I addressed a group of about 20 English teachers on the topic of whether language teaching is an art or science (picking up on an issue raised at the book fair about the “scientific method of teaching”). The thesis that good teaching depends on a combination of teacher intuition and research was well received by the academy staff. One teacher asked what I thought of a new method called “sensory deprivation” which was reportedly producing good results. While I had never heard of it, my intuition told me it was a method I should approach with skepticism. Many teachers nodded in agreement.
Undoubtedly my most important meeting was at the Ministry of Education with Yuriy Burakov, Chief of Foreign Relations and Vladimir Krivosheyev, Director of the School Research Institute. The Ministry explained that it had two priorities: textbook development and teacher training. The Russian Republic needed a completely new series of textbooks for their primary and secondary educational system. They wanted the materials to be practical, pedagogically sound (i.e. “scientific”) and preferably in American English. After sharing some of my thoughts on pedagogy and textbook development, Mr. Krivosheyev surprised me by asking if I would be willing to join a major textbook planning session in December in Gorky. I accepted without hesitation and agreed to return with a team of academic specialists in textbook development.
Lipetsk Pedagogical Institute
Fast forward to December and the proposed textbook planning session in Gorky became instead a visit to the provincial town of Lipetsk in southwest Russia. What brought us there was not the metallurgical industry or mineral waters but the fact that textbook developers at the Lipetsk Pedagogical Institute were already developing American English textbooks for the Ministry of Education.
Our team of specialists met in Moscow at the Intourist Hotel to discuss our strategy for our visit. We were at a distinct disadvantage because we had not seen any of the materials being developed and we knew nothing about the textbook developers themselves. Nevertheless, recognizing the momentous nature of the invitation for American scholars to consult with Soviet colleagues, we wanted to be sensitive to Soviet pedagogical traditions and pride in their language teaching expertise while providing both an honest evaluation and constructive feedback. It was a balancing act that would be tested over the next few days.
Soviets had a way of disarming visitors with overwhelming hospitality and generosity, a practice exhibited upon our arrival in Lipetsk by overnight train from Moscow. We arrived to find comfortable accommodations stocked with food, drink, and gifts and a busy schedule of welcome parties, home hospitality, tours of the city, and even a visit to a Russian bath. We worried there’d actually be little time to work, but the opportunity finally came and we were shown their textbooks in progress.
On the positive side, they were well into the development of the series and the pedagogy used seemed to be sound. But we were dismayed that their idea of American English was to populate the pages with Disney characters without providing much useful American cultural and linguistic content. It was no surprise when we learned none of the team had ever been to America or consulted with Americans prior to developing the textbooks.
We were constructive in our evaluation, praising them on the scope and sequence of the language being taught while suggesting ways to make the content more ‘American’. I was able to speak about American cultural content while trying to discourage them from using copyrighted Disney characters throughout the materials. I think we struck the right tone; their initial wariness gave way to openness as they peppered us with questions, recorded us over several days, and gratefully accepted our materials, observations and suggestions.
Our visit culminated in a farewell party at a dacha in the forest that was both magical and overwhelming in the camaraderie that had developed among us. There was music, too many toasts, lots of laughter and even a few tears. (I’ll always remember our chaotic attempt at singing the “12 days of Christmas” and the admonishment that I should stop talking and start drinking.). At one point Ekaterina, the textbook artist and designer, stood up and “revealed” that she had been asked by the authorities to monitor our activities during our stay; she put together a dossier that she decided to give to me instead. The result was a humorous account of “Greg in Lipetsk” in words and amusing images.
I’m happy to report that within six months, USIA and US Embassy Moscow arranged for the entire textbook team to travel to the US to experience American culture, language and life for themselves. Their resulting textbooks were successful and widely distributed in the country. And I continued to travel to Lipetsk from time to time, once even with my parents, to visit and consult with my colleagues who had become dear friends.
Gregory John Orr began his international career teaching English in Kyoto, Japan and in Benin, West Africa with the Peace Corps. He broadened his African experience, first as Fulbright doctoral researcher in Malawi and then as a USIA teacher training consultant in the Cape Verde Islands and South Africa. When he joined the foreign service as an English teaching specialist for USIA in 1987, he reoriented his career focus to Central and Eastern Europe with postings in Budapest, Moscow, Kiev, and Bratislava. In retirement he moved to SW France for a decade before returning to live in Washington, DC.