One of the few books I brought with me when I moved to Russia is called ‘All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’. I have had my copy as long as I can remember since first reading it as a kid growing up in the USA in the 1980’s when it was a national best seller. The book is a collection of short stories where the author, Robert Fulgham, shares his insights and experience on a variety of subjects.
Several years ago I lent my copy to a friend who afterwards asked me to buy her a copy on my next visit to the USA. She had really enjoyed it and was not able to find it for sale anywhere here in Moscow. That summer, I was only able to find the new 15th Anniversary edition in which some of the original stories had been removed and others added. Fortunately for my friend her favorite story was still included, the one that comically wonders how spiders might view us. It would have been awkward for me to have to explain how the book had been improved by leaving her favorite story out.
One of the stories that was left out, however, inspired me at the time to write a letter to the author. That particular story focuses on a sergeant major in the Soviet army serving in Africa and his love for his deceased wife. Eloquently written on just two pages, it concluded that we, as people, are really not so different despite the ‘rusting Iron Curtain’ distorting our view of each other.
The Soviet Union had collapsed since the story was first published so perhaps it was considered outdated for the new edition. In my letter, I expressed how I felt that there were other themes touched upon, such as media bias and racial profiling, that still gave it value for inclusion in later editions. I was naive enough to think our countries had moved on past Cold War mentality. I haven’t had a chance to look through the 25th Anniversary edition, but will be pleasantly surprised if that story has been included again.
It doesn’t seem like we’ve made much progress over the last thirty years. Rising tensions and mutual distrust has been disappointing and at times alarming. There seems to be an unstated but understood premise for many news programs according to which what ‘we’ want is good and what ‘they’ want is bad. ’We’ are right, ‘they’ are wrong and those who don’t agree with us either just don’t know enough or have ulterior motives for doing so. In an era where we have access to a wider variety of information than ever, it is unfortunate that most people just seek out those sources that reenforce their own views.
That story of the Soviet soldier, written so many years ago, begins with the words: “The Russians are a rotten lot, immoral, aggressive, ruthless, coarse and generally evil. They are responsible for most of the troubles in this world. They’re not like us. That’s pretty much the summary of the daily news about the Russians.”
What can be done to counter the decades of disinformation and stereotypes that have created such fertile ground for conflict? Well, for starters we can learn to listen and see the good in each other and teach our children to do likewise. If we are really committed to creating a world where peace can exist, we need to take the long view and see past the negative propaganda and focus more on our common humanity. Parents all over the world want the best for their children and try to teach them accordingly. Sometimes the most important lessons really are learned in kindergarten.