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Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

How one woman’s citizen diplomacy has strengthened US-Russia ties for decades

Why We Wrote This

Sharon Tennison has been credited with helping to break the cold-war ice. And her mission isn’t over: She thinks the official rhetoric on both sides today is harsher than it was at the depths of the cold war.

Pavel Yakovlev
American Sharon Tennison (r.), who sets up exchanges with Russians, is part of a session in Moscow with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Since 1983, when cold-war rhetoric was at a fever pitch and the threat of nuclear holocaust looked all too real, Sharon Tennison has organized cultural exchanges between American and Russian citizens. The trickle of goodwill she started with her nonprofit Center for Citizen Initiatives eventually became a flood that is credited with helping to end the cold war. But in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Ms. Tennison was forced to shut down the whole project. Then Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Since then, Tennison says she’s had a terrible sense of déjà vu. She believes the official rhetoric on both sides today is harsher and more charged with mutual incomprehension than it was at the depths of the cold war. So Tennison began organizing groups using the model she started with 3-1/2 decades ago. “I remember how the Vietnam War ended, how blacks were finally integrated into schools, how the cold war was brought to an end,” she says. “It happened when enough Americans changed their minds and became vocal – and insistent. It came not from the top, but from the bottom. And that is what has to happen again.”

The group of 25 Americans ranged from a 19-year-old interested in filmmaking to a veteran firefighter to a recent retiree. There they were in Moscow in early September, having sessions with notables like broadcasting legend Vladimir Pozner and even former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Just as important, and probably more so, they traveled around Russia for almost a week and talked with university students, businesspeople, and many other ordinary citizens.

This was an attempt to bridge misunderstandings between Americans and Russians by bringing them together for grass-roots conversations. And the person making it possible? Sharon Tennison, an American, who believes that peace is too important a matter to be left to the politicians.

The trip in September was hardly Ms. Tennison’s first. She’s set up exchanges with Russians since 1983, when cold-war rhetoric was at a fever pitch and the threat of nuclear holocaust looked all too real.

“We aim to reduce disinformation, increase goodwill, and try to build a more sustainable future,” says Tennison, who started the nonprofit Center for Citizen Initiatives to promote this work.

Thirty-five years ago, when Tennison pulled together a group of 20 regular Americans and flew them to the Soviet Union, this kind of contact was unheard of. But they went ahead and hit the streets, buttonholing people they met and trying to begin conversations. After what must have been a nervous discussion in the Kremlin, Soviet authorities apparently decided to just let it happen.

In subsequent years, Tennison brought hundreds of US citizen-diplomats to the USSR, as well as large groups of Soviets to the United States. The trickle of goodwill she started eventually became a flood that is credited with helping to end the cold war.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tennison turned her efforts to bringing budding Russian entrepreneurs to the States to learn from their US counterparts. The US government supported the initiative with millions of dollars. When that funding tapered off, she made the endeavor self-sufficient by emphasizing the use of volunteers and putting visitors up with host families.

But in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Tennison was forced to shut down the whole project. She says her heart was broken, and she thought it was over.

But then the current crisis broke out in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Since then, Tennison says she’s had a terrible sense of déjà vu. The official rhetoric on both sides today is harsher and more charged with mutual incomprehension than it was at the depths of the cold war, she says. And the danger of nuclear war that first propelled her into action is still there, lurking just below the surface as the US and Russia maneuver against each other in Syria, Ukraine, or Russia’s frontier with NATO in the Baltics.

Time to act

“When all this started again in earnest about four years ago, I said to myself, ‘I can’t sit still any longer,’ ” Tennison says. “This confrontation coming back like this makes me so apprehensive and angry.... I need to start getting more Americans to Russia, and more Russians to America.”

So Tennison began organizing groups using the model she started with 3-1/2 decades ago. But this time she has a lot of friends in Russia to help out, and although she has no official Russian support, it looks as if these activities are pushing against an open door in terms of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

“I know Putin; I’ve met him,” she says. “I knew he wasn’t going to be a pushover for the West, but I think he understands what the dangers are, and I am sure he wants peace.”

From the beginning, Tennison has had to deal with official hostility and attempts to dissuade her from her course. In her book, “The Power of Impossible Ideas,” she describes several tense interviews in the 1980s with FBI agents, who warned her that she was interfering with intelligence work and that her “naive” people-to-people approach would only play into the Kremlin’s hands. In Russia in 2016, she was picked up in Volgograd by the Federal Security Service – a successor to the KGB secret police – and detained on suspicion of being a foreign agent trying to meddle in Russian politics.

“Apparently Russia had just passed a law aimed at limiting foreign influence, and the local security people thought I was some kind of threat,” Tennison says. “They were nice enough. They held me for a few hours, during which they apparently received quite a few phone calls, then let me go. It hasn’t happened again.”

In the Soviet era, many ordinary Russians embraced her efforts enthusiastically.

“At first the average Russian was a bit leery, obviously, about some chance encounter with an American on the street,” says Mr. Pozner, who has been friends with Tennison since 1983. “But it evolved fast and turned into a whole movement. She wasn’t the only one trying to do this in the 1980s, but she was the first, and she contributed enormously to breaking the cold-war ice and really changing the atmosphere back then.”

Some of the interactions had unexpected results. During a visit to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1985 Tennison, a trained nurse, was asked by an acquaintance if there were any effective treatments for alcoholism in the US. On her next visit, she brought materials from Alcoholics Anonymous to the Soviet Ministry of Health, which translated and distributed them around the country.

“That was the start of AA in the Soviet Union. I was told that Gorbachev personally greenlighted it,” she says. “Today, AA has become a really big movement in Russia.”

And Mr. Gorbachev is still very much a fan. He held a lively discussion with Tennison’s group in September.

“He strongly endorsed our efforts to promote visits between US and Russian citizens,” says Glenn Rennels, a doctor from Palo Alto, Calif. “Gorbachev emphasized that our nations should talk to each other face to face rather than through expelling diplomats and turning away.... Twice during his remarks tears came to my eyes.”

‘A win-win’

Nonna Barkhatova, director of the independent Center for Development of Small Business in Novosibirsk, Russia, has been working with Tennison since 2002. “For me, Sharon is a real phenomenon. She’s a person who has dedicated herself to peaceful cooperation between our countries, and she has done so much good. Her main idea is to bring ordinary people together to manage problems and improve relations, and that will create a win-win situation for everyone,” Ms. Barkhatova says.

Tennison notes that it’s hard to read in the US media some things routinely written about Russia that she considers to be deeply misinformed. Also, she bristles at suggestions that her work might be helpful to the Kremlin. “We aren’t playing into the hands of Putin or any other officials,” she says.

“I remember how the Vietnam War ended, how blacks were finally integrated into schools, how the cold war was brought to an end,” she adds. “It happened when enough Americans changed their minds and became vocal – and insistent. It came not from the top, but from the bottom. And that is what has to happen again.”

For more, visit ccisf.org.

Three other groups fostering stability

• UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

The HALO Trust is the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian land mine clearance organization. Take action: Donate $25 to clear 250 square feet in a post-conflict area.

BRAC USA aims to empower those dealing with poverty, illiteracy, disease, or social injustice. Take action: Pay for a safe space for a Rohingya child who has been forcibly displaced.

Let Kids Be Kids is an advocate for disadvantaged people, as well as animal species that are at risk. Take action: Support the survival of indigenous groups.

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