A Personal View From Russia

Roger W. Koment, Ph.D.

BSEF Director

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It’s 5:30 AM as I grab for the alarm clock and look out the window of this train, which since yesterday has been rattling slowly toward the Ural Mountains of Western Russia. The dawn glows deep red and I fumble to reach my video camera as we begin crossing the Volga River. Several barges and small boats already active come into view. Moments later and I’m dressed and ready for the two-minute stop on the outskirts of Kazan, where both grandmothers of my interpreter will meet us. Although my Russian is still insufficient to understand all their words, their smiles and animated conversation convey all the warmth of family; and their gestures of communication clearly indicate I am included without question. As with grandmothers everywhere, they have brought packages of food, for which there is barely time to pass from their hands to ours before the train lurches forward once again. That morning we feasted on cabbage-egg-and-fish pie, still warm from the oven, and a sack of freshly-picked cucumbers. Twenty hours by train from Moscow to Izhevsk, a total emersion in the culture of a people.

How is it possible for me to convey merely by written words, the feelings I experienced traveling for three weeks this September to visit Basic Science Education Forum members in Russia? This is a country which stretches for 6,000 miles from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, traversing 11 time zones, and accounting for 20% of the world’s land mass! There is an old saying that the visitor must see Russia with his heart, and I am enough of a romantic to believe that is true. I am the type of international traveler who still carries a weather-stained backpack to Bed-and-Breakfast accommodations instead of high-rise Americanized hotels; and I arranged this trip to be no exception. I chose to take Aeroflot’s Ilyushin-62 jet service from Chicago to Moscow Sheremetyevo-2 for the shear experience, and to practice my Russian on a flight crew who spoke no English. For five days my interpreter and I lived in a small apartment in Moscow like tens of thousands of other Russians, riding the metro and trading our rubles for bread, cheese, and beer at the local markets. I walked through Red Square, where Communism fell, and viewed museums filled with the treasures of a people. So much has occurred just in this city alone that is inexplicably bound to the history of my own country. The Kremlin, Cathedral Square, the Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow Zoo, the Pushkin Art Museum, St. Lavra Monastery at Zagorsk, the Circus of the Animals — words fail me.

Then on to Izhevsk as I have described, where I lived for another five days with the family of my interpreter, all of whom spoke less English than I did Russian! But what did it matter when we gathered at table to begin the evening meal by toasting each other’s health with shot glasses of liquid fire? Vashe Zdorovie!! Boiled pelmeni with sour cream, pork-stuffed cabbage, blinis with a special treat of black caviar.., and the list of meals I consumed goes on. It was this wonderfully warm and passionate family who accepted me into their home that established most solidly the high regard for the Russian people I have today.

From Izhevsk I traveled to St. Petersburg (Leningrad), second largest city in Russia. This is the city which valiantly withstood the Nazi siege of nine hundred days at the cost of one million lives; a city where the visitor is awed by the grandeur of royal palaces, and the beauty of cathedrals. From 1712 to 1918 this was the capital of Russia and home of the Czars. I have been privileged to stand in Palace Square where the Revolution began on “Bloody Sunday” in 1905, when hundreds of demonstrating workers were killed by palace guards firing their rifles into the crowd; and where in 1917 Nicholas II, last Czar of Russia, abdicated his throne ending the 300 year dynasty of the Romanovs. I have been to the cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, where lie the mortal remains of Peter the Great who founded this city to provide his land-locked country its route to the Baltic Sea, Catherine the Second who made Russia a world power, and Alexander who defeated Napoleon. All the Czars but two, are here interred.

And everywhere I went, I met with basic science faculty, department heads, rectors (deans), and vice-rectors. Each spoke proudly of the history of their department and/or school. But on a lighter note, I was amused to find that frequently communications with faculty required no interpreter, as the frustrations over administrative authority, lack of money, equipment, and space transcends all language as constants of the universe! Each expressed a sincere desire to learn more about systems of education used in other parts of the world, with the same objective in mind — to find a new idea that would help them be more effective teachers within their own system of medical education.

But besides being just a traveler’s tale, why do I consider it necessary to tell you of this? Why is it important that we learn about each other’s history and culture as members of the Basic Science Education Forum? It is because the BSEF is not something you can touch or hold in your hand. The BSEF exists only as a concept in the human mind. It is a concept that binds people together through the very human quality of sharing with each other; sharing between medical disciplines and between cultures. BSEF members live in 21 nations of the world; each with a background as fascinating as I found in Russia And it is from their history that each country has evolved a system of medical education and a uniqueness for teaching the sciences fundamental to the practice of medicine. The richness of this variety like the richness of history itself, can benefit us all.

Seven years ago I created this concept of a Basic Science Education Forum to be a mechanism by which faculty could share current and innovative ideas for teaching the preclinical sciences; and the rate of our continued growth, both at home and abroad, confirms the need for such cooperation. I most sincerely believe that, regardless of geographic or political boundaries, every BSEF member has the desire to produce the best possible physicians for his/her community and country. The BSEF can, and does transcend all political boundaries; and my experiences in Russia have only strengthened my resolve to guide this organization to greater interactions with our colleagues in distant lands.

The more I travel, the more I learn that people everywhere are the same. They all have grandmothers, and they all enjoy companionship over a simple meal. All have a history of which they speak proudly, and all have hopes for the future. We who believe in the concept of an open Forum for Basic Science Education must recognize and grasp this unique opportunity of bringing faculty from different cultures together for a greater good through the simple human value of sharing. Understanding and helping each other through medical education is a significant contribution to a lasting world peace, and I know of no greater goal to which we could aspire.