A Small Key Opens Big Doors: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, Volume 3 — The Heart of Eurasia
edited by Jay Chen (Kazakhstan 2005–08)
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975–77)
THE PEACE CORPS AT 50 PROJECT, that includes four volumes,* offers an unparalleled, operatic ensemble of voices, singing about the world. About two hundred men and women sing to us, describing 88 of the 139 nations served by the Peace Corps during the past 50 years. The voices are divided into four geographic movements. This book includes voices from those Americans who served in Eurasia — the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, its political satellites and periphery.
For those who only vaguely remember the destruction of the Berlin Wall (1989) or television film of the Russian army’s retreat as the empire dissolved (1991), this federation ruled the largest geographic area in the world for 69 years (1922–1991). Aside from its incredible physical expanse, the U.S.S.R. also controlled many neighboring countries to its west (formerly known as Central Europe) and southeast (Mongolia). Including the federation and political satellites, the U.S.S.R. controlled about one-fifth of the earth’s surface and since the Second World War, it was closed. For nearly one-half century travel to and from this empire was limited by a wall (in Europe) and troops (in Europe and Asia). When Russia retreated and its empire dissolved, the United States government immediately began negotiations for renewed trade with Central Europe and trade with many former republics which left the federation both in Europe and Asia.
Part of the American foreign aid package involved the entrance of the Peace Corps. Many of the former satellites and republics accepted Volunteers almost immediately. The Russian government was more difficult to convince. In June, 1991 at a summit between American and Russian government officials, Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh said, “Don’t insult us by mentioning the Peace Corps.” Seventeen months later, the first group of 100 Volunteers arrived in Russia.
There is an old saying about Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Those returning from Africa come home happy, from Asia philosophical and from Latin America impassioned. Beginning in the mid-1990s we had a new category — those returning from the former Soviet Union and its satellites. They seemed to return in shock. Whether they served months or years after Russian troop withdrawal, they found rampant unemployment, alcoholism, infrastructure in ruins, disease, violence and paranoia. In many places, Volunteers were witness to unbelievable ecological collapse caused by unmitigated industrialization. Giant lakes and even an inland sea had disappeared, forests lay bare and mine tailings rose into new mountains. A cruel, toxic wind blew.
Jay Chen edited this volume. A first generation American born of Chinese parents, he was finishing a very successful Volunteer tour of Kazakhstan (a former republic of the U.S.S.R.) when Jane Albritton contacted him about the project. It became complicated. He extended for a third year and the Peace Corps did not want him to be involved with literature while serving. Completing his service in 2008, both he and Jane thankfully persevered. He solicited, chose and edited the selections that Jane has generously published for us and future generations. From the political satellites, we have songs from Moldova, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Albania and Mongolia. From the former Soviet Union we hear voices from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We are also treated to voices from the periphery: Turkey and Iran where Peace Corps pioneers served beginning in 1962.
The 54 voices published in A Small Key Opens Big Doors are really a bit like old, thick phonograph records for although we can appreciate every note, many describe a world since gone. Our Peace Corps program in Turkey ended in 1972, Iran in 1976. The majority of Central European programs closed at the dawn of this new century after ten or eleven years. This is well-crafted history, told in first person.
All of the selections reveal far-off places and will serve future historians well. Several are haunting. Mark Lewandowski’s piece titled “Caroline” explores Polish complicity with the extermination of Jews. Of the three million Polish Jews in 1939, only about 200,000 survived the Second World War. Lewandowski begins with a trip to Auschwitz, accompanied by two reluctant American women. Halfway through the tour, the women began to sob and he realized that they were Jewish.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.
“We were advised not to tell anyone in Poland.”
The author then describes his work as an English instructor during which he became infatuated with one of his best pupils nicknamed “Caroline.” He guarded his emotions and served. One semester, he assigned award-winning novels written in English. First, his star pupil knocked on his door.
“I can’t read it,” she explained. “It’s a Jewish book.”
Then, another student knocked. She also requested another book to read. “It’s a Jewish book . . .” Lewandowski concluded that “maybe those two Jewish American women I once toured Auschwitz with had reason to fear after all.”
“Losing Veronica” by Jennifer Meleana Hee is also an unusual anecdote about the limits of kindness. She befriended a former orphan who had previously lived in a Bulgarian orphanage. When she invited Veronica to a seaside outing, she quickly surmised that something was very wrong. Her Bulgarian friend folded and refolded her clothing, insisted on taking left-over food back to other orphans immediately and finally, disappeared. Jennifer found Veronica disoriented and unable to explain what had happened. They left early.
We had to wait until the next morning for the bus. All night, Veronica mopped, scrubbed, shook me awake and wished to call her friend, Veli.
Back home, Veronica was diagnosed as schizophrenic and hospitalized. She eventually returned to an uncle’s house where she watched television all day under heavy medication.
Alexander Briggs confesses to frustration in his essay titled “Unarmed Man.” While working in Kazakhstan, he daily passed a local drunk who insisted upon calling him by the last Volunteer’s first name, John. Each time, the man stepped in front of Alex and began a sort of ritual, “John, hello! Do you speak English?” Then, proceed to bump Alexi with his shoulder and continue, “A…A…American. Y…You, J…J…John. Hello. Speak English.”
For more than one year this was repeated every few days until one early morn before the sun had risen, it was repeated once too often on an iced sidewalk. Alex stiff-armed the man who fell in a heap. For the first time, Alex reveals that he struck a man with no arms.
“I helped him up and apologized profusely,” he explains. The drunk responded, “Fuck you, Alex.”
Sometimes, going native takes very strange routes. Joel McClurg detailed his Romanian path in “Mushroom Hunters.” He and his friend Doru drove in a tiny car “as the shadows were still long and cold.” They parked alongside a river and began to hike. “Each step I either sunk four inches into wet moss and pine needles or slid down a half meter over wet branches.”
They began collecting mushrooms and soon, his friend instructed him. “These aren’t good . . . look.”
Three hours later, they “wandered out of the forest with two heavy bags, both two-thirds full.” On the trip back, Doru sold the most valuable mushrooms to “a group of hard-looking men . . . mushroom gangsters.” They earned enough from the four most valuable mushrooms for two beers. “I suddenly realized how sleepy I had become and told Doru we’d have to save our beer money for another time.” His friend dropped him off at home and explained, “I’ll clean the mushrooms and give you some.”
Lisa Swaim also describes her first attempt to go native “On the Rails” in the Ukraine. In a nation suffering, everyone was searching for creative ways to survive. Since train conductors often let ticketless passengers board over-crowded trains at a discounted rate (pocketing the money), Lisa decided to try her luck. For many hours, train after train stopped and conductors shook their heads at the woman who spoke poor Russian. Near midnight, a female conductor took pity on her.
As Lisa stood in the train corridor, the conductor opened a sleeping booth. A man called out in Russian, “Is it a boy or girl? If it’s a girl, young, we’ll take her!” Fortune smiled. She ended up with a Ukrainian drunk accompanied by his daughter. The man talked most of the night in Russian while simply holding her hand.
The series editor, Jane Albritton, has done a great service for our nation by arranging the publication of the Peace Corps at 50 Project: four volumes of the most mature and honest personal experience essays in print. Any Peace Corps aficionado should buy this book as well as the other three volumes for these are the finest non-fiction Peace Corps anthologies to date.
Lawrence F. Lihosit is the author of various books including essays, short stories, poetry, history, memoirs and travel narratives. His latest book, Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir will be published in April.
Gather the Fruit One by One: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, Volume 2 — The AmericasA Small Key Opens Big Doors: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, Volume 3 — The Heart of EurasiaEven the Smallest Crab Has Teeth: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, Volume 4 — Asia and the Pacific