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Joseph Brett: Teaching in Ukraine After the Fall of the Soviet Union, Arizona

As told by Joseph Brett
Phoenix, Arizona

Story Narrative:

Between December 2019 and January 2020 (just weeks before the pandemic), Smithsonian staff and their storytelling partners at the Peale, Baltimore, traveled to multiple states in the U.S. to ask residents of those states about voting experiences, the current state of American democracy, what issues brought them to the polls, how they made a difference in their communities, and what Americans' civic responsibilities were, among other complex questions.

Joseph Brett (00:00): So, I'm a Vietnam veteran and I was having issues with being a veteran. I had some drinking issues and some other issues that would now called PTS, but back when I didn't know what it was. Anyway, I got help and got my life together and I had some pretty nice jobs, et cetera, but something was missing. So I went to the Kennedy School. I went to Harvard to become enlightened, to find out what I didn't know, what was I missing. And I wanted to work overseas. So that degree allowed me to live and work in Indonesia, which I loved. And it also got me a job with USAID under a contract to work in the former Soviet Union, bringing public administrators from the United States to communities in the former Soviet Union, Central Eastern Europe. So I was recruiting city manager types to go to one-off communities in the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, et cetera.

(00:54): And then we also were asked to go teach for two weeks in Kharkov, Ukraine and Almaty, Kazakhstan. And I had to recruit teachers, professional political leaders in the United States. And so they suggested, the AID did, the State Department said, why don't you use their Sister City program? So Tucson had a Sister City program with Almaty, Kazakhstan and Cincinnati had a Sister City program with Kharkov, Ukraine. I was working out of Connecticut in this particular instance. I didn't know anything about Arizona or Kazakhstan or Ukraine. And so here I was flying, meeting these people. I recruited the former mayor and city manager of Tucson to go to Kazakhstan and a city manager and another PhD political scientist to go teach in Kharkov, Ukraine.

(01:50): And when I was in Kharkov, Ukraine, the people that I was with took me to their city hall and there was a legislative body conducting their course of governance and it was all noisy and [inaudible 00:02:06] and people were talking and he said, "Yes, these are our representatives and they're representing us and this is what they do and it was pretty chaotic." And so they were looking at me and they were kind of laughing, and I didn't really get what the joke was. But the joke was that these people were all assuming that they were leaders and they were representing their community. And whatever they did, however, in Kharkov, Ukraine, if they passed any legislation, it would go then to Kiev for final review and then the party would either can it or not can it. So they were pretending to have a governance democracy and then in reality, it was nothing.

(02:48): The elites that I was with, the political leaders, the communist leaders and the professors and the scientists, et cetera, were kind of looking at these people in the well, if you will, of this governing body kind of comically, you know. Look at these people. They actually think they're doing something and they're just spinning their wheels. And so I says, "Oh my God, that's pretty touching, isn't it? I mean, do people like that in my country have that same feeling that we hoodwink our citizens and they think they're being governed and we're really governing them really." So I took that to heart. That was really something. So I taught for two weeks and interestingly enough, when I was in Kharkov, Ukraine, we went to a building. It was for scientists, it was for professional scientists, and they had their own little building, meeting hall if you will, or department if you will, or clubhouse I should say. And in there, these guys were asking me questions. These are theoretical physicists, nuclear physicists, I didn't know.

(03:54): And they were asking me questions about what was going on, say in 1970 or 1980 or from history. This was like '92 to '94 when I was doing this. And I'm saying, "Why are they asking me all these questions from such a long time ago?" I'd give an answer and they'd said, "Aah." And they would point to each other. "Aah, I told you, I told you." Well, they were listening to Radio Free Europe and the BBC and they were betting and conjecturing who was telling the truth. Was it the BBC or was it Radio Free Europe? Or was it the Soviet Pravda, whatever was being broadcast. And these people were trying to discern truth from those broadcasts so they would have some idea what truth was because they were blocked from it forever. And so I was there to answer their questions. I was the first American, the first Westerner these people had met and they were alive with questions about history.

(04:50): What was it? What happened? Who was on the right side? What happened in Afghanistan? Their Afghanistan war? And I had answers and they hadn't heard those answers before. And they were all, "Oh, yeah." They spent their time questioning and debating the issues of the day without any information except from the BBC and Radio Free Europe. So interestingly enough, we brought those, the 200 or more people we taught in each place, we brought 13 of them back to the states for training, hands-on training in Tucson, Arizona or Cincinnati, Ohio. And so our delegation, I wasn't with them, but they were traveling around Cincinnati and they came to this big tower and it said, Radio Free Europe broadcast tower. And they went, "Stop the car, stop the tower, stop the car." They wanted to go in because they thought the announcers were inside that building and not in D.C, wherever Radio Free Europe was broadcast from.

(05:43): By the way, that Radio Free Europe was the biggest, most successful, I guess, CIA operation of all time in that they told the truth openly. But these people wanted to stop and go in and see that person that they'd been listening to religiously, secretly, quietly, under threat of arrest, all these years. They wanted to meet that person. So we finally said to them, "Is there anything that you would like to see that we haven't seen you?" And they said, "Yes, we want to see a school." "A school?" "Yeah. We just don't want to announce. We just want to stop into a school." We said, "Okay." So then we drove around and we found a school in Cincinnati. It was a grade school, an elementary school, and we just pulled in. We introduced, we went to the principal's office, said, "This is a delegation from Kharkov, Ukraine. Can we see the school?" "Sure."

(06:32): So, we went in and there was the Ukrainians there. They knew that it was just ad lib. And they saw the students and they saw how we operate our schools so independent, our kids. There were just kids monitoring the hallways on their own. "Hey, how are you?" Walking up to them and being introduced. And there was a level of independence even and they said, "Ah, ah, now we get it. Because you teach it at this level. Americans are independent from their childhood. It's taught, this is how you govern. This is how your students are educated." There's a freedom here that they didn't have. It's pretty regimented in those other cultures. And here our elementary kids were our biggest sales force. The kids being educated were of interest to the delegation from this instance, from Kharkov, Ukraine.

(07:24): So, they understood. And when I was trying to tell them about our democracy, they were saying, "No, no, we'll never get it. We'll never get it. You have to have it. It's like mother's milk. You have to be born with it in order to get democracy. It's too late for us. We'll never be able to get it." And I was trying to teach them the business model. My part of the teaching was the economic development piece which I had done in New York state and elsewhere. And the others were teaching how to manage the city and how to collect taxes to pay for the social welfare programs, et cetera. And it was so corrupt. It was built in corruption. One story, if I may, I had to pay for translators. And this is '92. The wall had come down in '88, maybe '89, '89. '88? '89. So they didn't know. I was in Kharkov, Ukraine. There was no food, there was nothing. They were destitute, broke, nothing in the shelves, nothing in the stores, nothing.

(08:25): The whole reason for being had collapsed. The whole essence of their life had nothing. It just vanished. So I had like 25 grand in my jean pocket, in my pocket so I had to pay for our hotel rooms for the three of us, or four of us, whatever we were traveling with. Had to pay for the person who was working for us overseas, working for this International Executive Service Corps. And this fellow had been a teacher, the fellow who was working for us. He had been a teacher all his life and he had a pension reserved for his retirement. Well, by the time the economy crashed, he couldn't buy a pair of shoes with the amount of money in his pension. So I was paying him in dollar bills. I had cash and I had to pay for our translators, excellent translators. Their education system is awesome. So I had to pay for our translators.

(09:15): And so, I was brought into an office and I was brought into the office of a guy by the name of Mr. Starchevsky [inaudible], who was the head of the Communist Party for the region, for the county, if you will, of Kharkov. And next to him was a guy who was representing the KGB. Next to him was a mafia guy. Next to him was the guy who owned the construction company. And I was paying him because I was using his translators for my project in public administration. So there it was. I didn't speak a word of Russian, but I knew kind of who everybody was. And so here you had the Communist Party head who was approving my paying for the translators for the contractor who had his own company. But there was the mafia guy. And in the communist countries, distribution was a devalued, it was usurpation of workers because if you're transporting, you're not producing anything. Therefore, they didn't have any transportation system.

(10:26): It was command economy. Somebody would tell you what to make and where to ship it and what to do with it. There was no distribution. There was no free market. So the mafia came in to provide the human need of supply and demand. If you wanted something, these guys could get it for you. So there was this illegal thing that was built into the system and they needed protection from the KGB. So you had the Communist Party, the KGB, the mafia, and then the business guy who was trying to do legitimate business all in the same room and it was like a shakedown, the whole thing. And that system that they had is now the system that governs the former Soviet Union. It's heavy mafia. It's heavy muscle. It's heavy. It's heavy. They're not great at capitalism. And if they take a natural resource out of the ground there, they screw it up when they're trying to make it into something else, oil or tin or gas or whatever.

(11:21): And the minute they touch it in trying to make a product out of it, there's no export potential. They've ruined the natural resource that they've tried to develop. So we were trying to take all that into consideration and trying to teach and show them when we brought them to the state's factories and the work ethic and those types of issues. And obviously it didn't stick because, well, it's just going to take a while because they have to shake out their corruption before they can do anything. And that's the whole issue now in Ukraine. Now it's finally happening. And in the Soviet Union, if it ever will happen. So how you shake out the corruption that has the ownership of the resources and the minerals that the rest of the population is going to need if they're going to embrace a full scale, open capitalistic economy. So it was fascinating. So this country, we take so much for granted. After seeing what I saw and what other peoples have seen, it's incredible.

Asset ID: 2022.34.13.c-d
Themes: Veterans, School, College, Harvard, Soviet Union, Ukraine, Russia, Democracy, Teaching, Radio Free Europe, History, Freedom, Culture, Berlin Wall, 1989
Date recorded: January 25, 2020
Length of recording: 0:12:21
Related traveling exhibition: Voices and Votes: Democracy in America
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Arizona Humanities
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