This all began when I was on a group hike in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. The hike leader was photographer Tim Ernst. Tim was the founder of the Ozark Highlands Trail Association and author of a guidebook about the trail. During one of our breaks, Tim pulled out a letter that he had received from a Russian named Leonid who had somehow heard about Tim. Leonid, a resident of Moscow and avid wilderness hiker, wanted a pen pal in America who was also hiker.
Tim wasn’t interested, but I was. As a middle-schooler in rural West Texas, I had corresponded with school children from Singapore and Peru. I wanted more than anything as a child to see the world. And I ended up seeing quite a bit. Just how far away from home did I eventually go? In terms of miles (or kilometers), it’s tossup between Mildura, Victoria, Australia, and Zhou Zhi, Shaanxi Province, People’s Republic China. Both are really interesting places. Mildura is quite close to the world heritage Mungo National Park. Zhou Zhi is the míhóutáo 獼猴桃 capital of China - that’s kiwi fruit to English speakers. My fondest memory was hiking through a míhóutáo orchard to a tiny village where I visited the family of one of my ESL students.
So that day on the Ozarks trail, corresponding with a Russian sounded like fun to me.
This was 1989, and Leonid’s nation was just entering into a period momentous change. The Soviet Union had been America’s most significant Cold War rival for over forty years. This began to change when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began a process of democratization which led to considerable social destabilization in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. By 1991, the Soviet Union had dissolved.
But in 1989, one of the earliest signs of all this political change was the severe shortage of key consumer products, chief among them food. Leonid admitted in one of his letters that he was concerned about his little boy Oleg who just wasn’t getting enough to eat. I had a little boy who was 10 at the time so I felt a lot of empathy as a parent.
The food was a big, big hit. Interestingly, the peanut butter was the biggest hit of all. It was a food that the Russians had never eaten. Leonid wrote in his letters that it was “the food of the gods.” Oleg loved it! Of course, I had to recommend to them PB&J sandwiches.
Leonid knew from my letters that I was artist. So he came up a proposal. He asked if he could send some pieces of artwork from the children in Oleg’s school. If I would sell the artwork and send the money to him, he would see that the families of the school children got some food relief.
I immediately connected with some fellow Quakers who were living in Moscow and teaching English at that time. They checked everything out, and we decided to go ahead.
The opening was wildly successful. The gallery was standing room only. The local tv news reporter and cameraman came and did a live report. We had music. We had food. We had art. One of the Russian women told me that it was thrilling to her to see good news about Russian when the news had been mostly bad in those days.
At the end of the evening, we announced the winners of the artwork. Eventually I ended up with five pieces - one that I had bid on and won, and the others that had been bid on but that the winners never picked up.
We raised over $1,000 that night. I sent the money on to my Quaker Friends in Moscow. They saw that the money went for food purchases for the families of children. I hope they found some peanut butter to purchase in Moscow.
Ozark Highland Trails Association: http://ozarkhighlandstrail.com/
Photographer Tim Ernst: http://timernst.com/index.html
Dissolution of the Soviet Union: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissolution_of_the_Soviet_Union
1989 Soviet Food Shortages: https://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/182
Mungo National Park, New South Wales, Australia: http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/mungo-national-park
ZhouZhi County, Shaanxi, PR China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhouzhi_County
Quakers in Russia: https://friendshousemoscow.org/?page_id=83