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MU Alum Recounts His Time in Russia
Eric Douglas has witnessed Russia change as a journalist and photographer since he first visited in 1993 - he discussed his trips with The Parthenon's Alaina Laster.
March 9, 2022
“For the last 70 years, we were told we had the best of everything. Now we know we were lied to.”
Eric Douglas Graduated from Marshall University in December of 1989. Since then he has traveled to Russia seven times between the years 1993 and 2010.
In 1993 Douglas was offered an opportunity to travel to Russia as a journalist covering a foundation that American teachers set up to help Russia modernize its education system.
“The Soviet Union broke up in December of 1991 and basically, they were looking at their textbooks realizing they were utter crap, they hadn’t been modernized, they weren’t using modern teaching techniques… So, they invited this group of educators back to Russia to help at least give them some direction on how to get started,” Douglas said.
After that first trip in ninety-three, “everything kind of snowballed from there,” Douglas said. Through his many years of Traveling there, Douglas has seen the country change from the struggling place that it was after the break of the Soviet Union.
“The first trip… You hear people tell stories that blue jeans were a commodity and there were lines for food and that sort of thing. I didn’t see a whole lot of that I mean… They were struggling. They were just realizing; they had been told they had the best of everything that nobody was beyond them and then suddenly they came to realize that they’d been lied to. The entire country was kind of in this mental state of shock, they were realizing that there was an awful lot that they had missed,” Douglas said.
What Douglas saw instead was described as a struggle for the people in Russia. When he traveled the first time there were restaurants there, but to eat at them, reservations had to be made days in advance. He said that this was not because they did not have enough food but because they only bought enough food to feed their reservations. Which is something that Douglas has seen change drastically in the fifteen years between that trip and his later visit in 2008.
“That’s been the transition is now there are all these commercial opportunities there’s food of plenty, I remember in the early nineties feeling that it was going to take them about twenty-five years to catch up with the western world. As far as goods and services and that sort of thing, and really, they did it in about fifteen years but there was a lot of struggle and a lot of internal strife and that sort of thing, so it was a difficult period for them. I think they are still trying to recover from that,” Douglas said.
The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a tough topic for Douglas, who has spent time in Russia watching them work to find their place once again. The program that was placed after the teachers helped the education system in 1993 was still in progress when Douglas returned in 1994.
“The teachers that went over there were all there to help, so we spent a lot of time in schools and that kind of stuff… and talking to teachers, that sort of thing, but it was also a pretty big cultural program too. They wanted us to understand them, so because of time and schools, we got to meet a lot of kids and their parents and understand their lives. We also spent times in people’s homes… and I was there as a photographer and I was there as a reporter so I had my camera everywhere I went,” Douglas said.
This led to the photo series and book Douglas produced after returning. His time spent there fascinated and inspired him to write about and photograph what he saw and learned.
“Everything was different, the people dress differently, the language is different the food is different. Even the signs were of course written in Cyrillic and so everything was unusual to me at the time. So it was really just a lot of inspiration for me just walking down the street seeing street signs,” Douglas said.
Douglas spent time with educators, children and families, getting to know their way of life. What he sees in the terror of the war saddens him. He describes the Russians as good, and warm people. He said that many in the general Russian population do not believe a war is actually happening. They do not believe that people are dying in Ukraine because of the control that Vladimir Putin has on the media there.
“I have seen several reports of reporters in Russia have gone outside of Moscow into some of the smaller cities and the people there, they don’t believe that there’s a war going on. They don’t believe that people are dying in Ukraine because that’s what they have been told,” said Douglas.
He said that the new law passed in Russia does not allow any of the media to use words like “war” or “invasion.” The use of either of these terms will result in a fifteen-year prison sentence. The last independent television station in Russia just shut down recently, and Douglas said he didn’t blame them.
“For most Americans, that is so far away from anything that we know. I mean there’s certainly a lot of people who would have a poor opinion of the press and whatever, but they’d still understand that free press is vital to a country. Putin has completely upended any of that mentality, they certainly don’t have the same history of a free press there that we do here but it’s very disturbing and very troubling what they are going through over there right now,” Douglas said.
Russia used to see itself as superior to all said Douglas, and now they are struggling to find their place back into the world. In the mid-nineties, he recalled a time when protestors were outside Red Square in Moscow, and they were protesting because they wanted the communist party to return. For them communism meant stability, said Douglas. They are still trying to get back to that sense of stability they had before the Soviet Union broke apart. Douglas said he believes the Russians are trying to figure out exactly what they are and looking back at the “good old glory days,” was back when the Soviet Union existed, and Ukraine was a big part of that.
“People my age refers to Ukraine as The Ukraine because it was just considered to be another region, like Southern West Virginia. It was a sub-region of Russia. Just in the last fifteen/twenty years have we started learning trying to unlearn that habit that no it is actually a separate country that stands on its own. So, kind of in the Russian mind, it seems that that’s the first step to getting back to their former glory is getting Ukraine back into the whole,” Douglas said.
Douglas feels there is no excuse for the horrors happening in Ukraine, and that the Russian leaders must be held accountable for their actions. However, he believes that when the Russian people find out what is truly happening, they will be appalled to know their nation was a part of it.