Recently in Moscow, Russia, for a family visit (my daughter has lived and worked there for 10 years), I spent most afternoons in neighborhood parks with my 4-year-old grandson. Picking him up after nursery school, it being May and warm and sunny, and given his fascination with moving water, he would invariably ask to go to the ‘waterfall’ – two of the large parks in the area had small locks where the water rushed forcefully down an incline. Watching the flowing water and throwing various natural found objects into the water kept him busy for ages. This gave me time to observe and reflect on my surroundings with uncommon leisure.
My thoughts drifted to the current state of the relationship between the US and Russia, to the discord and mutual recriminations surrounding the US 2016 election, and the resulting economic and diplomatic retaliations (it now takes 300 days for a Russian to get a visa appointment at the US Consulate due to staff being cut to bare bones). The cold war is revived. And along with this polarization comes the predictable deterioration in trust and communication, along with direct attempts to cause mutual harm. This deteriorated relationship ripples out and affects in various ways the citizens of each of these bumbling and blustering countries.
I felt a sadness in reflecting on this international conflict. Russians, even in Moscow, are not used to hearing English so we stood out and people were curious but never in an unfriendly way. Some, mostly young people, would initiate a conversation and welcomed the chance to engage with the foreign and the new.
Looking around at the people in the park, I felt a commonality and connection in our shared needs and pleasures – enjoying the warmth of the sun after a long winter, adults and children playing and relaxing in pairs and groups, teenagers and some brave adults swimming in the still cold water, bikes, scooters, roller skates, volley ball, sunbathers, ice cream and picnics, laughter, lively conversations. And expressions of concern, language barriers aside, when my 4-year-old tumbles off his scooter.
The contrast between the international and local dynamics struck me. The leading elites battling it out in distinctively unconstructive ways with predictably destructive consequences to relationship. On the ground, my grandson and I were enjoying and sharing a variety of simple pleasures alongside strangers despite our vastly different languages, histories and cultures.
The roots of these conflict dynamics plaguing Russia and the US these days are multiple and go back a long time. What saddens me is that it doesn’t have to be this way, there are ways to manage differences, however great and whether they are between nations or within families or the workplace, that lead to constructive and healthy outcomes. Not always easy, but possible. What is needed is the will, the patience, and the skills to make it happen.