Citizen Diplomacy Story Challenge 2016 Winners: Julie Ammons, Grand Prize

by Julie Ammons, Critical Language Scholarship to Russia, 2016


I had only been in Russia for a few days. I ventured out in the evening to explore my neighborhood. Walking along the main street, suddenly the power went out. Store windows became dark. Traffic lights dimmed. People began to spill out of cafes and stores onto the walking path.

Everyone was looking around and trying to get a sense of what was happening.

When I returned home, the electricity was out in my apartment. Only my host-grandmother was home. She was lighting candles in each room. She greeted me at the door, followed me into my room, and lit a small candle and set it on my desk. Having just taken a Russian poetry class, I immediately thought of Pasternak’s poem “Winter Night” from Doctor Zhivago: “A candle burned on the table;/ A candle burned.” Just as I thought of these words, my host-grandmother turned to me, began to smile, and recited them to me in Russian.

“I have this poem!” I exclaimed. “Let’s read it together!” I grabbed a folder of poems I had brought with me for the summer in Vladimir, and we went to the kitchen and sat down together at the table. In the candlelight, with summertime noise floating up from the playground below, we read through the poems together: Pasternak, Pushkin, Blok, Akhmatova, Gumilev, Mayakovsky… My host-grandmother’s face lit up with each poem.

She already knew them all. She knew the rhythms and many of the words by heart. We took turns reading. My heart raced with the excitement of sharing such an intimate moment with a woman who was still a stranger to me.

A few days later, it was the anniversary of the start of World War II. This is a heavy and sorrowful day in Russia. It is also my host-grandmother’s birthday. We did not celebrate. There was no cake and no singing. She sat in her room all day with the television playing footage of the official commemorations, and she cried. I walked by the door of her room, and she beckoned me to come in. She asked me to sit down next to her. She took my hand, looked at me with pain and tears in her eyes, and she told me her story. She was born on the day World War II started. Her father died at the front in the first weeks of the war. Her childhood was marred by hardship and hunger. She emphasized over and over that Russians do not want war, that Russians know war, and that every Russian family lost someone in World War II.

All of this happened in my first week in Vladimir, Russia. My understanding of the value of poetry in Russian culture and the painful memory of World War II in Russian society developed a personal significance that I had previously not experienced. These conversations occurred in Russian. The real connection between my host-grandmother and me occurred in the universal language of the human heart.