• Meeting Russians

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    ON June 12, both the Philippines and Russia will celebrate their national day.

    My first exposure to Russians was in Peking when then-Minister Rodolfo Severino, Jr. invited me to accompany him to get to know some Russian diplomats at cocktails in the latter’s apartment. This was in 1976 during the height of the Cold War when China was at odds with the Soviet Union, which allowed a thaw in relations between the United States and China. I experienced a strange feeling pleasantly exchanging points of view with them, Russians then being regarded by our then-American-indoctrinated society as the adversary. The world has since changed and, now, it is not unusual for Filipinos to meet Russians and interact with them.

    In Russia, it was an experience meeting Presidents Boris Nicolayevich Yeltsin and, later, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. On each of the official functions at the Kremlin, I wore a barong Tagalog to show the flag, even during wintertime. Yeltsin struck me as a very charming and nice person. The conventional wisdom about him in diplomatic and political circles was that his elixir was power, but he showed that he was, above all, a patriot by resigning and handing power to Putin on the eve of the 21st Century. Putin gives Russia a sense of confidence and optimism.

    Other political leaders I met were the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, and the charismatic General Alexander Ivanovich Lebed, who negotiated peace with the Chechens. I had the experience of engaging with oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky, whom I hosted twice for lunch at our Embassy, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, of Yukos, whom I met at a small roundtable dinner for eight hosted by the Doyen, the Swedish Ambassador. Although Khodorkovsky had an interpreter, he spoke in English with us on his political plans and answered questions. Both oligarchs sought to obtain political power and lost, and were subsequently banished into exile.

    On the other hand, Andrei Fursenko, whom I interviewed and inducted to office as our Honorary Consul General in St. Petersburg, became Russian Minister of Industry, Science and Technologies in 2003, after first serving as Vice Minister, and then served as Minister of Education and Science until 2012. Putin was Vice Mayor of St. Petersburg whose duties included overseeing a scientific organization headed by Fursenko, who was tasked with developing scientific projects for industrial purposes.

    Our diplomatic experience in Russia was more than the usual political, economic and cultural work. Moscow is host to one of the largest diplomatic corps and remains the top diplomatic post of the US. I had the satisfaction of meeting some of the most seasoned diplomats like Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, an expert on the Middle East who became Prime Minister, as well as US Ambassador Thomas Pickering. I was privileged to become the Doyen of the Asian Group.

    My work extended to meeting Russian lawyers at business forums sponsored by the Associates of American law firms, and distinguished professors of the Russian Academy of Science, which inducted me as a member. I gave talks to Russian students and enjoyed the tradition of Russian universities celebrating the first day of school as a festival to welcome their new students. The senior students take symbolic control of the school and each of the welcoming classes compete in song or dance presentations.

    Moscow is one of the great centers of culture in the world with its great theaters, concert halls, and museums. We had the pleasure of regularly attending ballet performances at the Bolshoi Theatre at diplomatic prices. During Christmastime, we noted that Russian children are treated to watching the ballet The Nutcracker at other theaters, and we observed how well behaved they are. Cinema was the favored art form during Soviet times. Russia has an advanced movie industry and hosts the Moscow Film Festival. We were present when the Philippines’ entry was the movie Saranggola.

    Sports is an important facet of Russian life because it develops character and discipline. Not long ago, the Soviet Union competed with the United States for the most gold medals in the Olympic Games. We were lucky to be invited to soccer games of the European Champions League, in Moscow, where we witnessed the admirable support of the Russian fans for their team. When their team is losing, they cheer louder and even louder when their team falls farther behind. At the end of the game, the Russian fans remain seated and leave by row when their turn to leave is signaled.

    The official visit to Russia in 1997 of President Fidel V. Ramos was a high point in our relations with Russia. My spouse, Conchita, met Mrs. Naina Losifovna Yeltsina, who was the gracious hostess of First Lady Amelita Ramos. In accordance with protocol, Conchita accompanied Mrs. Ramos in all of her cultural and social activities in the same way that President Ramos required me to be present in all of his official schedules.

    Conchita also met Mrs. Lyudmila Aleksandrovna Putina, who consented to be the Honorary Chair at the charity bazaar of the Women’s Council (WC) of Moscow. The WC is the largest organization of its kind in Europe devoted to cultural activities and charitable work, with almost a thousand members consisting mostly of expatriates, as its Charter provides that only 3 percent of its membership can be Russians. Conchita, who was the vice president and, later, president of WC, conversed with Mrs. Putin in Spanish. Through the WC, Conchita had the privilege of meeting his holiness, Alexy II, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

    Women’s day is a very special holiday in Russia when the custom is for men to present flowers to their spouses and dear friends and employees. Another interesting Russian custom observed at the beginning of the year, on the occasion of a religious celebration, is the practice of people going around to greet their relatives and friends and to ask for forgiveness. This way, Russians begin the year with a clean slate. The Russians celebrate Christmas a week later than we do and the Russian New Year is also a week later.

    During our time, the Diplomatic Corps was invited to diplomatic trips by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through UPDK, its unit attending to our housing needs. Our first was a boat trip along the Volga that made stops at towns with historic churches and monasteries. The Russian Orthodox Church has its own saints. Its priest can marry but those who do cannot rise in the Church’s hierarchy. Another memorable visit was to Tatarstan, a Muslim State and one of the most prosperous in the Russian Federation.

    The ASEAN Ambassadors also had separate organized visits to the regions. In one of them, our official program included a tour of the Railway University in Siberia, established to train personnel to run the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Russian railways are vital for Siberia and the Far East regions of Russia. Russian trains are punctual to the minute and special tourist trains can be inserted in certain sections of the railways without disrupting the regular schedule of trains. We visited the Academy town of Novosibirsk, where extraordinarily talented children from all over the Soviet Union were sent to study mathematics and physics. This town continues and serves as a center for S&T embryo projects.

    One of the most awaited events in Moscow is the annual military parade at Red Square to honor the sacrifices of the millions of Russian people who perished during the Great Patriotic War. It was fascinating to watch the way the parading honor guards tilt their heads sideward (taas noo) as they pass in front of the podium, conveying a sense of seemingly arrogant pride. Despite their pride in their military, it is difficult to imagine that the Russian people will want to relive the experiences of the Great Patriotic War.

    The Russians, while appearing at first sight to be aloof and cold, are really very warm and hospitable people like some Asians, once the ice is broken. At their receptions, they also serve food lavishly like us, unlike the custom in some European countries where receptions mean finger food and wine. Drinking vodka with them is a natural way of earning their trust and friendship. We have made it a point to serve vodka the proper way: both the vodka and the small drinking glasses must be chilled. We congratulate Ambassador Igor Khovaev on the occasion of Russia’s national day.

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