By Siberian Bridges Founder & President, Tom Dickinson
It all started in December 1988, on a train in northeastern China, where I found myself sharing a compartment with six Russian trade officials from the eastern Siberian city of Chita. Although their home was relatively close (12 hours by train) from the Sino-Soviet border, their presence that Chinese train had only recently become possible, the result of momentous changes occurring in the Soviet Union. As a key military center and repository for nuclear missiles aimed at the US and China, Chita and the region had been closed to the outside world since shortly after Russia’s 1917 Revolution. Travel to and from the region was quite restricted—even for citizens. But thanks to Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’ and the dismantling of its nuclear arsenal through nuclear treaty, the border, region and city were opened to the world in August 1988.
Boasting shiny new passports, these Russians were on their very first foreign journey. You can imagine their surprise to encounter me—the first American they had ever met—on that Chinese train! When they learned that I was also a concert pianist there arranging a series of concerts in China, they encouraged me to come perform in their city–it was now possible. I would, they said, be the first foreign artist to perform in Chita in nearly 70 years. Who could resist that?
Arriving in Chita for concerts in 1989, I was amazed by the overwhelming hospitality of my hosts, the incredible beauty of their land, and the kaleidoscope of ethnic cultures there. I was hooked. After another concert tour in August 1991–just as the Soviet Union was dissolving–I returned to Chita in 1992 to teach music and English for a semester, becoming the first foreign teacher at its Music College and first native speaker to teach English at Chita’s Pedagogical Institute. The almost desperate appreciation for my visits made clear to me the power of three generations of restricted access combined with the geographical isolation of this remote part of Russia. Everyone I met wanted contact with the rest of the world, contact my visit represented.
And so Musical Bridges, now Siberian Bridges, was founded in 1993. Over the years, we have sent more than twenty teachers of English to village schools and urban academic institutions in and around Chita, mostly for stays of a full academic year. Among other projects, we have fostered sister relationships between U.S. and Siberian universities, sent over 5000 books shared by the region’s main library and educational institutions in Chita and villages in the region, as well as used computers and other materials.
Today, Siberian Bridges continues its traditions of cross-cultural friendship and cooperation with the people of eastern Siberia, and of fostering collaborative programs between American and Siberian organizations and institutions. Currently, our primary focus is working with Siberian Bridges–Russia to support a Children’s Home in Petrovsk-Zabaikalsky.
Allow me to take this opportunity to thank you for your interest in Siberian Bridges. I hope that what you discover will inspire your support for our cross-cultural mission.