Source: Pixabay/Evgeni Tcher
“The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!” Besides being the title of an Academy Award nominated 1966 American comedy film, these words in large part capture the psyche of an America being bombarded with “news” warning of an invasion by Russian operatives that, alarmingly and in no uncertain terms, intends to undermine its very existence. Significantly, the movie, which was released at the height of the Cold War, was one of the few American films of the time to portray the Russians in a positive light. Spring forward to the present day and it looks like the state of Russian-USA relations hasn’t changed very much over time because the negativity associated with the portrayal of Russia and the Russian people persists. So much for the Russian “reset” (remember the symbolic red button episode involving Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009?)!1
Russia did this, Russia did that. We constantly hear about such things as Russian collusion, Russian influence peddling, an anti-Trump dossier created by Russia, the insidious Uranium One deal with Russia, computer hacking by Russia; the list goes on and on. Indeed, if you listen to the mainstream media and/or rely on the entertainment industry for a picture of Russia and Russians, you can’t help but think that Russian society is a heartless monolith that can’t be trusted from the outside and is existentially empty on the inside. And whether one believes in, let alone trusts, the bombardment of information, fake news or not, that covers the media landscape across America, it is no wonder that most citizens are both ignorant and suspicious of what really lies behind the not-so-impenetrable iron curtain of the 21st century!
This is a sad commentary given that there was a time, during World War II, when the former Soviet Union participated as a member of the “Strange Alliance” with the United States and the United Kingdom in the fight against the Axis powers. In this connection, I have relatives, including my father, who fought bravely alongside Russian soldiers as allies against a common foe. It is a shame that the relationship between the USA and Russia, especially following the fall of the Wall, still begs to be improved, or at least reset, in positive, trusting, and meaningful ways. It is as if now we’ve entered a new Cold War period in the two countries’ histories and are living like the actors depicted in the popular television drama series, “The Americans.”
Although I find The Americans to be an intriguing, entertaining, and even educational program, I also view Russia and the Russian people through a very different lens and therefore don’t adhere to what sadly has become the narrative of the day. In general, I prefer to see the best in all people, as well as wherever possible to seek meaningful connections with them. Besides, to draw inferences about individuals from information collected on an aggregate or macro level, let alone information about a nation and its citizens that may actually be phony, fake “news,” would be both unwise (scientifically speaking) and inappropriate (humanistically speaking).
From a logical, scientific research perspective, this kind of deductive reasoning is what is referred to as an “ecological fallacy,” an inferential leap about the nature of individuals deduced from inference for the group to which those individuals belong.2 Considering that the current population of the Russian Federation is around 144 million, based on the latest United Nations estimates, drawing conclusions about individual Russians from how their country is portrayed in the “news” media, television, and movies not only is an error in thinking and judgment but also is unfair and unjust. In effect, from a humanistic perspective, it represents a form of ethnic profiling.
Against this backdrop, let me share that I recently returned from Moscow, Russia, where I participated in a conference speaking and lecturing on the search for meaning in life, work, and society. I should point out that the objective of this conference, in large part, was to celebrate the life and legacy, as well as to advance the wisdom, of the world-renowned psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl, M.D., Ph.D., author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning. I can say without reservation that my experience at the conference and in Moscow was both memorable and meaningful for me on many different levels, personally and professionally.
It was wonderful, for instance, to be among so many Russian attendees who were authentically committed to the human quest for meaning for themselves and, importantly, for others. Their enthusiasm (from the Greek, “manifesting the spirit within”) for engaging with both the meaning-focused subject matter and for connecting meaningfully with other conference delegates was contagious and heartwarming. It was evident that many new collegial relationships, as well as many new lasting friendships, were forged. More than simply an exchange of intellect and intellectual property, I witnessed the formation of a common bond that went much deeper even among—and especially among—people who had had no previous contact. To be sure, Dr. Frankl would have been proud to see such clear evidence of “meaning at work” as a foundation and driver for building bridges between people and nations!
To be able to record these observations was especially important to me since it was my first time in Moscow and it made my “entry” into Russian culture seamless and extraordinarily meaningful. Being an American of Greek heritage living in Canada I’m very sensitive to the value of hospitality afforded strangers, that is, the extent to which they feel welcomed. Indeed, to the Greeks, hospitality is built in their DNA! In Russia, based at least on what the mass media have chosen to report, I wasn’t sure exactly how I would be greeted. As it turned out, I did feel right at home, surrounded by like-minded and kindred spirits!
In our Greek-inspired book on the search for meaning, The OPA! Way, we discuss in great detail a “formula” for discovering joy and meaning in everyday life and work that includes the authentic connection with others as an integral part. In this context, “you can not connect meaningfully with others if you believe that you have a monopoly on truth.”3 Being open to diversity of thought, in other words, is as important in building authentic relationships as being open to other human attributes such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, culture, and so on. Had I relied solely on the image portrayed of Russia and the Russian people as my compass when in Moscow, I’m sure that my experience would have been very different—and definitely less meaningful. Instead, I had a chance to visit a country with a remarkable history and cultural traditions, learn a great deal about myself and the world around me through a new lens, and connect meaningfully with people whom I now call “friends,” not simply colleagues, in the process.
I am more than grateful for this opportunity to explore what essentially became an exciting new direction on my path to personal meaning. I would even say that I “loved” the experience because of the meaningful learning and growth that it afforded me. The relationship between love and the human quest for meaning was famously espoused by Dr. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: “The truth is that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.” Frankl’s holistic view on the importance of our intuitive capacity for love (and not just in romantic sense) offers great insight into how meaning in everyday life—and even at work—reveals itself. Our capacity for love, much like the Greek concept of hospitality, provides a platform for building bridges, connecting people by increasing their awareness of the interdependency of life.
“Love is the cause of unity in all things.”—Aristotle, Metaphysics
Increasing awareness of interdependency goes hand in hand with the value and objective of connecting meaningfully with others. My recent experience in Moscow, to be sure, served to underscore the fundamental importance of this basic premise in human dynamics—from interpersonal to geopolitical relations. During my visit, another significant event took place in Russia that also illustrates the importance of this simplistic sounding, yet very powerful, idea. The 2017 World Festival of Youth and Students, with some 30,000 delegates from 150 countries, was held in Sochi, Russia. At the opening ceremony, Russian President Vladimir Putin began his address by reminding participants that the event marked the 70th anniversary since the first World Festival of Youth and Students was held in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic. Putin emphasized that participants back then, like today, “…were united by the power of a dream and faith that the youth—their sincerity and kindness—can break the ice of mistrust and help rid the world of injustice, wars and conflicts…..They have proven that barriers are powerless in the face of true friendship, and that the warmth of human communication isn’t dependent on political, religious, cultural and other differences.”4
Let us have hope that President Putin’s meaningful remarks in Sochi take hold and inspire people of all ages and walks of life to build a more trusting, just, and peaceful world. Viktor Frankl wisely advised that the search for meaning is the primary, intrinsic motivation of all human beings.5 As such, let us recognize that it is the glue that connects us and do our part to make it stick.