Frank Thoms is the author of the new book Behind the Red Veil: An American Inside Gorbachev's Russia. An educator, his other books include Exciting Classrooms and Listening is Learning.
Q: You write, "A reader might ask, 'How will learning about Russians from thirty years ago have any meaning for me today?'" How would you answer that question?
A: We live with impressions of others from the news. Thirty years ago, the Russians were portrayed as “Communists,” “Reds” ––i.e. bad, evil.
By traveling back in my book (a safe way to do that these days) readers can look through the eyes of an American who sought common ground to connect with Russians, not to judge but to learn, not to bring America to them, but to be an American with them. The outer labels, “Communism,” “Reds” and today the pejorative “Russians” are stripped away.
Looking back also gives us time to build perspective toward our understandings, which can be difficult when caught up in the flurry of social media impressions.
Q: What first interested you about the Soviet Union, and what are some of the more memorable experiences you had there in the 1980s?
A: My first memory is from 4th grade when My Weekly Reader wall maps depicted the Soviet Union in red, the only color on the map, and by far the biggest country. In college, lectures on Russian tsars enthralled me.
In 1963, the breakthrough: I was asked to teach 8th graders Marxism and Soviet Communism as legitimate ideologies, not as evil. And that’s what I did through the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, each decade a different focus.
Memorable experiences: There were many. The first moments of my first trip, in October 1985: I was in Leningrad's international airport where I met a Russian mother and her two children before meeting my tour leader. The next day I met two people working in the black market who led me to two students I was looking for. A week later, I had a conversation with a young heroin addict in Kiev.
At the end of my first week in my first exchange school in Leningrad, Nº 185, in October 1986, children thanked me for being a teacher on the National Day of Teachers. And the last day’s two-hour concert was held in my honor.
In my second exchange school, Nº 169, also in Leningrad: I was labeled starjour [probationary teacher]. Here, I observed an assembly celebrating the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917.
In July 1990, I was a counselor at an international Pioneer camp for high schoolers from the U.S., Japan, and the Soviet Union in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. Two memorable experiences among many: a bus ride in the Turkmenistan desert in 114º temperature; being asked to eat a sheep’s eye at the closing banquet.
I was in Alma-Ata again the following year, this time as a teacher in School Nº 15. I remember discussing reincarnation with 16-year-olds while eating apples in class; taking a trip to the mountains with these same students and sliding down the trail on plastic bags filled with plastic bags; flying home with a Soviet passport.
Over my eight trips to Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and the new Russia, hardly a week would pass without something remarkable happening.
Q: Did you need to do additional research to write this book, and if so, did you learn anything surprising?
A: The additional research, if you can call it that, came from within my head. In the writing process––mine is sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph––I ponder a lot. Memories surface. Given that the book is about my perceptions of Russians and of myself, no formal research was necessary.
Q: How would you compare the Soviet Union of the Gorbachev era with Putin's Russia today?
A: I have largely stayed away from that issue. My book focuses primarily on the last days of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, which was in many ways a time of openness.
However, I do make a couple of references to Putin's Russia.
One of them: “As of 2019, Vladimir Putin has been elected to his fourth six-year term, sometimes holding an 80 percent plurality. The Russian people have been reassured. They now have, in Svetlana Alexievich’s wise words, ‘our collective Putin.’ And Putin’s pokazukha: a nuclear-powered Russia with an economy trailing behind Canada’s but an ideology equal to the West.”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am spending most of my time getting the word out about this book, keeping up my website, collaborating with the remarkable team at Books Forward (formerly JKS Communications), and doing interviews and book talks. I also have another book that I’ve been working on for years, my fifth one for teachers. It’s called Centering Amid Chaos: Wisdom for Teachers.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There is a contact form on my website, where anyone can get in touch with me: https://frankthoms.com
--Interview with Deborah Kalb