Oct 2016

Standing at the Crossroad of Asia and Europe

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Europe and Asia divide in Ural Mountains

Europe / Asia divide in Ural Mountains

It was a warm September day when I stood with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia in the Ural Mountains near Yekaterinburg. This Siberian city has a long and rich history. It is where both a Russian tragedy and the birth of a modern Russian leader took place. Russia itself covers both Asia and Europe. The formation of Russia was Asian. They had Asian roots and Asian dress. As Russia covered more territory, they began to look west. Tsar Peter the Great decreed they could no longer dress as Asians at the court. They must look European in their dress. Thus began a new era of Russian history.

grave of murdered family

Burial place of murdered Tsar and family

While Yekaterinburg was not where the tragedy began, it’s where over 300 years of Russian history ended. The Romanov Dynasty was wiped out in the basement of a simple house in Yekaterinburg. Tsar Nicolas II and his family had been held prisoner here for about two months. Nicolas had abdicated the throne, the Bolsheviks had taken over. One night, on the pretext of taking a family photo before moving them to another place, they were taken to the basement and shot. The whole family, including, Nicolas’ wife, Alexandra, and their 5 children, along with several loyal servants and their medical doctor were killed that night. All eleven were shot, their bodies dismembered and buried in a field outside the city. You can still see their woodland graves today even though their bodies have

Church on the Blood

Church on the Blood

now been placed in the Cathedral at Peter & Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. They are considered saints in the Russian Orthodox Church. The house where they were murdered was torn down and is now a large and functioning Orthodox church: The Church on the Blood. I understand that some reading this blog may not consider the Russian Orthodox Church, well, orthodox in its practices, but yet we can detect the imprint of Christ upon its overwhelming use of icons, etc.

It is amazing to me how one of the most severe communist countries, that repudiated religion and made churches into storage facilities or museums, has now come full circle. The churches are functioning again. Karl Marx said religion was the “opiate of the people”, but today the Russian people are embracing their Christian roots and communism is a failed system. It gives me courage in this time of assault against the church in so many places, and proves true Matthew 16:18 — that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church.

The other amazing site to visit in Yekaterinburg was the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center. As an American, most of our presidents have a “library” so it was not surprising to me that Yeltsin’s hometown would have such a place. Boy was I surprised! This is no ordinary “Library” but an account of how the USSR became Russia. How do you take a country, that in one sense had been a country since 862AD, but in another sense, (that of governing structure) had only been a country since 1917, and break it into 15 countries. Each of those countries developed their own political system and structure; many had never been a country before. They went from one economic structure, (communism) to another (capitalism) without any prior experience. And, today, though we criticize Russia for many of the things they do (and we should): it’s only been about 25 years. How did they make such a massive change in such a short time? Yeltsin, for all of his faults, was the first president and the one who held the line against communism.

Yeltsin Library

Yeltsin Presidential Center

In 1993 I was in Moscow teaching entrepreneurship with a group of 12 Mennonite guys (yes, I was the only female, and the only one not a Mennonite). I’ll tell the whole story in another post, but suffice it to say, that in the middle of our time in Moscow, the situation deteriorated and parliament tried to go back to communism. Yeltsin called out the tanks, the troops and the KGB and began to fight back. In our hotel there were 100s of KGB soldiers (who knew that the KGB was an army and not just a bunch of spies!). They all had Kalashnikovs, some had vodka and some didn’t, but it sure changed the picture of what we were doing. Our students were very serious about continuing in capitalism even though some had been highly placed under communism (I did wonder, and still do, what business the nuclear scientist went into). Anyway, as a foreigner, I saw the fight with little clarity. I called the US Embassy and told them where we were. Foolishly they said to watch CNN and if they needed to get us out they would announce it on CNN. That only worked until the communist rebels took the Ostankino TV tower and there was no TV communication at all. It was a scary time and I was quite happy to leave Russia.

Going through the Yeltsin Presidential Center, I saw a wonderful display and explanation of that time and the courage it took Yeltsin to stand up to the communists. To allow the USSR to dissolve into 15 countries; to put bright, but untested, young people in place to sort out the economy. They knew there would be mistakes and some people would profit unfairly, but they knew that the only way was forward. I was very moved and impressed with the courage and leadership of this group of people.

From our western perspective, we were dancing in the streets happy when communism fell. The end of the Cold War, we would surely have a peace benefit when we didn’t have to have so much spending on our military. But of course that hasn’t been the case at all and our world feels more fragile than it did in the 1990s. We need to acknowledge the sense of loss and the times of privation and even starvation across the communist world. Whether it was Russia, Kazakhstan or the Eastern Bloc countries, times have been difficult over the last 25 years. They have done amazingly well with this massive economic and life change.

The economy of Russia restarted with small business: people bringing things to market in shopping bags. While the big, oligarchs did plunder the state treasure, individuals had to do some kind of business to survive, and so they did. Interestingly, 25 years later I see the same dynamic in Kazakhstan when I am there teaching entrepreneurship. It is mostly small businesses that people are starting. The big businesses bring little to the average person. My question is always: how do we help these businesses thrive; how do we help them get the expertise and resources that they need.

While we cannot, and should not, condone what Putin is doing today in Syria and other places, we can marvel at the courage of the Russian – and Central Asian – people to survive and even thrive.



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