Resetting U.S.-Russia relations, one hug at a time

A long, long time ago, in a country far, far away, a new president’s secretary of state presented her Russian counterpart with what clever minds at Foggy Bottom must have imagined was simple genius: a “reset” button, symbolizing the Obama administration’s desire for a fresh start between our nations.

We’ve seen how that worked out.

Anyone seeking an enduring USA-Russia reset needs to program his GPS for a low-slung block house off 20 Mile Level Road in Land O’ Lakes. There, amid the managed chaos and loving clutter of a makeshift family, is the nerve center of a genuine international coming-together.

Daniil Shcherbinin and Sam, a rescue coonhound mix, in the woods near their Land O’ Lakes house. (Photos courtesy of Eric Wilson)

Daniil Shcherbinin and Sam, a rescue coonhound mix, in the woods near their Land O’ Lakes house.
(Photos courtesy of Eric Wilson)

Four boys from St. Petersburg, Russia, have spent their coming-of-age school years here under the guidance of transplanted Hoosier Eric Wilson. And, they enjoyed value-added assistance from the village network that is nearby Academy at the Lakes, the lads’ welcoming school.

The quartet — Gleb Barkovskiy, Maxim and Tioma Stepanets and Daniil Shcherbinin — has shrunk, through graduation, to a duo of Tioma and Daniil. By late August, the household will shrink again to Wilson and Tioma, plus languid Sam, the rescue coonhound mix. By then, Daniil, 18, will have been dispatched to Springfield, Ohio, and Wittenberg University.

How are the other alumni doing?

Barkovskiy, the son of a former Soviet nuclear submarine captain and a rising senior at Bucknell, is interning at Goldman Sachs. Max Stepanets is a rising sophomore at Alma College in Michigan, where he’s a member of the football team and majoring in business.

As for Shcherbinin (“Sher-ben-in,” but for simplicity’s sake, hereafter Daniil), he anticipates a summer of unofficial occupations. Here on a restrictive student visa, this perfect prospect for stocking the top shelves at Publix — he’s 6 feet 5 — ruefully concedes he can’t collect “a regular paycheck,” but he needs to save for college expenses.

So he’ll mow lawns, paint houses, help out with the household’s pooch-sitting operation, “move really heavy furniture” and do whatever other honest odd jobs come his way. After all, if he’d wanted to be idle and tempted into troublemaking, he could have stayed in Russia.

That depressing prospect is the future Katerina Ilina, a real estate agent in a perpetually tough market, was hoping her only child could avoid when she presented him nearly 10 years ago for evaluation by an associate of the Renaissance Project.

The plan was to identify promising St. Petersburg boys and invite them to attend a posh private school in Boca Raton, where they would be groomed to become citizen ambassadors for America back home.

Daniil Shcherbinin with his mom, Katarina Ilina, at an airport.

Daniil Shcherbinin with his mom, Katarina Ilina, at an airport.

Alas, the original plan soon collapsed. By then, however, Wilson wasn’t just on board, he’d become a passionate believer and the boys’ best advocate. Long story short, he found a like-minded administrator at Academy at the Lakes, and through a combination of scholarships, fundraising schemes, donations, a generous landlord, philanthropic medical professionals and stretching Wilson’s teacher’s paycheck, they’ve made it work. (Read more about their efforts here: http://renproject.org.)

It hasn’t hurt that each of the Russians has been an exemplary student and — as much as any teenager is capable — a model citizen. Daniil captained the football and basketball teams, served as student body vice president and played Mr. Darling in the school’s springtime production of “Peter Pan” — notably, without attempting a British accent.

The amateur thespian explains: “When I try to do an English accent, my Russian really comes out.” (Not that he hasn’t waxed the Volga boatman when it might charm an American girl, or get him out of a tight spot with a teacher, he concedes.)

Otherwise, looking for highlights in an eventful senior year, two stand out: First, the March afternoon he learned he’d been accepted, with generous underwriting, at Wittenberg. Second, the recent two weeks he spent here, with his mom, during Katarina’s first visit to America.

What did she learn? Americans are uncommonly welcoming to newcomers. “Everyone is so friendly,” she says. “Everyone wants to hug.” Maybe, she says, it’s the residue from Stalin, an era of suspicion, but Russians are rarely so open to strangers.

Experiencing it for herself, Katarina came to appreciate how this kid from a factory district —where V.I. Lenin once lectured on communism — had become upbeat and open-hearted, phonetically, “dobriy” in Russian. What a contrast to his somber, pessimistic peers back home.

Here she saw real evidence of that elusive reset. And, for those back home who fret their countryman has gone native, not to worry. When he’s not fetching and lifting this summer, Daniil will be immersed in Russian literature, Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy parable, “The Master and Margarita.”

“I am proud to be Russian,” he says flatly. “I never want to lose that.” Neither does anyone else in the Renaissance Project. They like him just the way he’s turned out.

And, so this happened. On the day of the open house on 20 Mile Level Road, when teachers and friends came to celebrate Daniil’s graduation, they brought presents for him, and for Katarina.

Gifts for the graduate Katarina understood. But for her? Why? “We brought you gifts,” explained one of the moms, her eyes shining, “because you shared your gift — your only son — with us.”

They hugged and wept happy tears. Because that’s what moms, wherever they’re from, do.

It’s from such embraces, real, lasting resets emerge.

Tom Jackson, a resident of New Tampa, is interested in your ideas. To reach him, email moc.s1503046138wenzt1503046138ulrek1503046138al@no1503046138skcaj1503046138t1503046138.

Published June 15, 2016

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