Kimberly O’Haver attended SRAS’s Russian Civilization Summer in 1997. She has since gone on to a remarkably wide-ranging career working with NGOs and print media in Russia and the US. She offers insight and extensive advice for those who might be interested in similar career paths.
Note: All views expressed in this interview are solely personal and do not represent the views of Open Society Institute or any other organization.
SRAS: Your experience with the FSU-related themes has been remarkably diverse, ranging from politically-minded NGOs focused on Turkmenistan to charity film festivals in Moscow. What originally sparked your interest in the Russian language and the FSU?
Kimberly O’Haver: My parents took me to the Soviet Union the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. It was 1989 – perestroika and glasnost were in full swing. We went with a group from a dance school that I attended in Indiana. I was only 14 and it was my second trip abroad (the first being to Ireland when I was 11). Needless to say, I was enthralled/perplexed/confused by the experience. It really shook me up in that I saw a world so different from my own safe suburban mid-Western environment. Everything was different and new and unexplainable. I feel extremely lucky that I got to see the Soviet Union before it ceased to exist. We traveled to Leningrad, Moscow, and Minsk visiting all the usual tourist traps as well as several pioneer camps where we actually got to meet other kids our age. I remember Michael Jordan was a hot topic as well as Michael Jackson lyrics.
My next trip to the region was in 1992 with the geography department from Indiana State University. It was the summer before my senior year of high school. On this trip, I was able to visit Odessa and the Crimea as well as Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the two years between these trips, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and changes were already evident. After the second trip, I decided that I wanted to study Russian culture and literature and learn Russian. Looking back at my Russia experiences and given the obsession it’s become and all the worrying my parents have probably done as I’ve traveled around the FSU over the years, they are probably wishing that back in 1989 they would have taken me to Canada instead of the USSR.
SRAS: So when you were here the first time, were you able to communicate with the kids at the pioneer camps in English? Do you recall them having any strange or interesting perceptions of the West? Anything that they found strange about assumptions the Americans may have had about them?
Kimberly: No, we couldn’t really talk to them in English and since it was still the Soviet era, we had very little contact with Russians. Of course, we all wanted to talk to people, but the tour guides kept us from interacting with them, though as children I suppose we got more contact than the average adult tourist. I think their perceptions of the West were then much as they still are – foreigners are all rich; Americans only eat hamburgers and hot dogs and drink Coca-Cola; American parents kick their kids out of the house when they turn 18; etc.
SRAS: You recently spent a year researching Turkmenistan for Open Society Institute.* First, did you ever actually visit the country as part of that job? If not, why not?
Kimberly: No, I didn’t visit Turkmenistan. The job didn’t entail any travel – just monitoring of news sources coming out of the country. I was selected for the job based on my previous experience in journalism, my Russian-language skills and the fact that I had some knowledge of Central Asia from my undergraduate work in political science and Russian literature at the University of Chicago. Visiting Turkmenistan was never an option, and as you surely know, it’s nearly impossible to get a visa to visit. However, if I was able to easily get a visa and visit Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, I would do so in a heartbeat.
SRAS: So, from what you read about, how would you describe Turkmenistan in terms of how the average person likely lives (concerning human rights, education, economy, etc.)
Kimberly: I can’t really say as I have not been there, but I did read the Ashgabat-based Russian-language newspaper weekly (it is a daily paper called “Neitralny Turkmenistan“) for about a year and would venture to compare it to Stalinist times in the Soviet Union: cult of personality, shortages of goods, exaggeration of successes, failure to report shortfalls, persecuted civil society, lack of basic freedoms, etc.
Instead of building on what progress was made during the Soviet era, Niyazov succeeded in destroying much of the social services infrastructure, the education system, the economy, the healthcare system, and more. Under Niyazov, ethnic minorities (ie non-Turkmen) were greatly oppressed as were most religious groups. Based on these factors, I would think it safe to say that the average person probably does not live as well as he/she could and probably is even worse off than he/she was in Soviet times when basic healthcare was more or less available to everyone, pensions were paid and education was a top state priority. Niyazov may be dead, but it will take a while for his legacy to fade.
SRAS: Do you think there is a hope for positive change in that country with him gone? How do you think this will affect Central Asian politics as a whole?
Kimberly: Of course, it is a positive change, but to see just how positive, we’ll have to wait for the outcome of the February elections and witness what unravels after that.
I was in Ukraine when Niyazov died, so I had the opportunity to watch both Russian and Ukrainian newscasts about the event. One popular show out of Kiev that discusses political issues is ‘Svoboda Slova,’ and I caught the episode on which Russians and Ukrainians spoke about their concerns for Turkmenistan. What surprised me was that both sides seemed to think that Turkmenistan would erupt in civil war. I am not sure why they think that as I never got the feeling that Turkmenistan was a nation divided in that way. It will be interesting to see how things work out. Already there are several presidential candidates who are supposedly on the campaign trail and holding meeting with the electorate across Turkmenistan. This is impressive since Turkmenistan has never had a multi-candidate presidential election. Citizens are voicing to these candidates such concerns as unemployment (rumoured to be as higher than 60 percent), inflation (about 9 percent), deep-rooted problems in the agricultural sectors, educational standards (Niyazov cut the required years of education to 9 years, leaving a generation of students less educated than their parents and even less able to keep up with their peers in other FSU countries), and healthcare reforms (Niyazov closed many rural hospitals, sacked scores of healthcare professionals and replaced them with army conscripts).
Just the fact that people are being allowed to voice their concerns in public is progress. Niyazov had made gas deals with China, Iran, Russia, and Ukraine though no one is sure that Turkmenistan even has the ability to extract the amount of gas that he promised to sell. All these countries will be vying for influence over Turkmenistan vast gas reserves, which are said to be the fourth largest in the world. The United States is also interested in Turkmenistan, not only for its oil and gas reserves, but also for its geographic proximity to Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, which loom large in George W. Bush’s foreign policy right now. Turkmenistan, citing its declaration of neutrality, had previously denied the United States permission to base troops or even to refuel planes on its territory. It will be interesting to see how the new Turkmen administration deals with US strategic interests there.
SRAS: Yes, it will be, and our newsletter will try to keep up with those changes. But for now, changing to a different interesting subject, you also served as an “International Film Festival Consultant” for the Breaking Down Barriers Film Festival, a regular event organized by Perspektiva, an NGO specialized in disability causes in the FSU. Can you tell us a bit about the films and the audience for in this international film festival?
Kimberly: All the films shown at the festival focused on disability issues in some way. There were documentaries, cartoons, short films, and full-length features. Several original films were sent from most FSU countries to be entered into the competition part of the festival. My job focused more on identifying films from around the world that dealt in some way with disability issues. I also assisted in securing permission from the appropriate filmmakers, producers, etc. to show these films in a noncommercial setting in Russia. The movies I requested ranged from box office smashes like Saving Nemo to “Harvie Krumpet,” a great animated comedy short by Australian Adam Elliot, to British-made full-length feature Sixth Happiness about a boy born with a disease that makes his bones brittle. I also assisted in trying to get films from Iran, France, and Finland.
The festival was held at a movie theater in southwest Moscow that allowed disabled persons easy access – ie. ramps or no stairs.
SRAS: You also volunteered at the Nastenka Children’s Cancer Foundation. How did you get involved in that and what did you experience entail?
Kimberly: I got involved with Nastenka through my Russian-language teacher Jamila Alieva. She started the fund after her own son, Murad, died from cancer. Jamila is an amazing teacher of Russian and has been hired by top firms such as Yukos to teach Russian to foreigners. She has an uncanny capacity to make you feel comfortable both as a student and as a volunteer among children with life-threatening illnesses. During her son’s treatment, Jamila took Murad to The Netherlands for treatment. There she was hosted by the Ronald McDonald House and though Murad did not recover, the experience changed her life. She was so impressed by the resources available in The Netherlands to children and their families, but also upset that Russian families didn’t have access to similar facilities and support. Eventually, she felt a need to do something to help the doctors, nurses and patients in the oncology department at the Moscow hospital where her son was also treated. When I expressed an interest in her work with the kids, she invited me to tour the children’s oncology department. I was really not prepared for what I saw there. There was no climate control in the bone marrow transplant ward and it was one of those sweltering Moscow summer days. There was no hot water in the bathroom. The mothers’ room, where mothers can stay while the child receives treatment, was a hodge-podge of broken down cots and a few hotplates.
The few mothers I met looked at me with disgust – as if I was just another foreigner come to witness their bad fortune and make promises that I wouldn’t keep. As a student, I couldn’t do much to help, but I did write an article about the hospital for The Moscow Times, which touched the heart and purse strings of several donors enough to send air conditioners, televisions and some food products. Jamila has invested her own earnings from teaching into the fund and has made great progress over the past few years – securing significant support of the United Way and other organizations in getting dialysis machines and even a modern kitchen and sleeping quarters for the mothers’ room.
My roll in the organization was pretty minor – I helped translate some emails and other texts for Jamila in addition to participating in a play group with the kids on Saturday afternoons. The kids, despite their illnesses, were generally a rowdy bunch. We would do small craft and coloring projects with them for a few hours. The mothers were thankful for even an hour of down time as they are generally stressed to their limits emotionally and physically. Seeing the kids – hairless and with IVs trailing them everywhere – could be pretty jarring, but cancer kids are an interesting lot. They are often mature for their ages. I remember a 12-year-old girl – Katya – who would talk to us like she was 30. It was really rewarding to see the kids every week, and they loved to have visitors – running up to us and laughing with delight when we showed up.
SRAS: Well, it sounds to me like you did accomplish quite a lot there even as a student. On the professional side, you have also served as a journalist and editor for The Moscow Times and Interfax – could you briefly describe, for those jobs for students who might also be interested, how you went about applying for these jobs?
Kimberly: My first job in Moscow was selling advertising for a small magazine publisher with offices in the crumbling Orzhonikidze factory and that job lasted all of three months: May-July 1998. It was an all-around bad fit, but like all things a learning experience. Plus, I met my husband there. Luckily, I left the advertising job and got the job at Interfax right before the financial crisis of 1998. Foreigners were fleeing left and right after August 1998, but my job in news was pretty secure. That said, Interfax didn’t pay us our full salaries for months and months following the crisis. The work was really pretty boring, but it did give me great exposure to basic copy editing principles.
These basics were what landed me on the copy desk of The Moscow Times, where I worked for a year as a copy editor, world news page editor and freelance journalist. My interests were mainly in writing about the arts in Moscow (especially dance), but I ended up writing for the business and community pages as well. I really loved the writing part as well as reading the news wires. There was always something to do at the Moscow Times. It was never boring. I also liked being part of making something tangible – like the newspaper – so I could say the next day: “Look, I helped create that.”
That said, Moscow journalism is a tough nut to crack and the long hours take a toll. My advice for anyone wanting to get into journalism is to plan on starting at the bottom and expect to get paid almost nothing. Also one should read the Associated Press Stylebook from front to back, and don’t be too proud to write about anything, anywhere, anytime. Some of my first stories were about pretty ordinary things: where to buy a turkey in Moscow for Thanksgiving and where to take break dancing lessons. Hardly great journalism, but you have to take the baby steps if you want to progress. There is no magic about it just a lot of hard work. For the Interfax job, I actually responded to a newspaper advertisement. For The Moscow Times, I just called the copy desk chief and said I had some experience. They gave me a copy editing test, I passed and then I had more hours of work than I could handle.
SRAS: Great advice for aspiring journalists. So out of curiosity – you mentioned your husband – is he Russian, or was he another expat there? If he is Russian, was getting the paperwork done and getting him to America difficult?
Kimberly: Dmitry is currently a Ukrainian citizen, but he was born in Kazakhstan and spent much of his childhood in northern Kazakhstan. His family relocated to Kharkov, Ukraine when he was a young teenager and he lived there until his enlistment in the Soviet army. His mom is Russian – from Kostroma – and his father is Ukrainian – from the area around Zaporozhe. They were Virgin Landers and went to Kazakhstan to build communism, which was a very romantic notion in the late 50s, early 60s. He is not sure who he is: Russian, Ukrainian, or Russo-Kazakh.
The paperwork for our wedding and the immigration documents was time consuming more than anything. We started the procedures of getting a joint US bank account and some medical checks a few years before we even decided to get married. So when it came time to get married, we already had a history of a life together. The police checks in Ukraine and Moscow were the biggest pain as were the endless translations (Ukrainian to Russian to English, plus a Kazakh birth certificate) and notarizations. Luckily there weren’t any big problems at the US Embassy in Moscow. I had a friend working in the consular section at the time, and she gave us some good advice. Once my husband turned in his immigration visa in Dec. 2001, he had a green card in a month. It seemed unprecedented in efficiency to me. Though even after he had a green card, we lived apart for the better part of two years – him in Moscow and me in Cincinnati, where I was doing my masters. I went back and forth between Moscow and Cincinnati from 2001-03 and managed to arrange an internship at the MacArthur Foundation’s Moscow office one summer so that we could be together. He didn’t want to leave his job in Moscow, and I wasn’t going to force him. After graduation, I went back to Moscow and we carried on as before until he decided to quite his job in November 2004. Technically we were both foreigners in Russia and we both felt really increasingly trapped in Moscow, which seemed to be becoming more xenophobic than it had been in the Yeltsin and early Putin years. (I was even denied a housing permit based on my citizenship. That was the icing on the cake.) After 8 years of Moscow being home base, we decided to come to the United States. It was the hardest decision of my life; I had moved to Moscow straight out of college when I was 22. I didn’t know adult life anywhere else.
SRAS: Wow, so with all of this experience, and so much FSU- and Russian-language employment history, what are your long-term professional goals?
Kimberly: Six months ago I began a job in the Office of International Operations at the Open Society Institute in New York. I actively sought to find a position in a private foundation setting. OSI is exactly where I want to be. Currently I assist the director of international operations and the director of the Open Society Initiative for East Africa (OSIEA). Though I greatly miss being able to use my Russian language skills on a daily basis, the new challenges at this job are also exciting.
Much of the grant making world is shifting the bulk of its focus from Russia and the FSU to Africa, OSI included. What I mean to say here is that many foundations are backing away from Russia/FSU. They still fund there, but they are more careful about the grants they make and there is generally less money going into the region. It’s not the vats of cash like it was in the early and mid-1990s. Part of it is donor burn out. Part, in my opinion, is that Russians can be notoriously difficult to deal with. Even my husband laments the fact that while he was working as the editor in chief of a Russian photography magazine, foreigners were much easier to work with than his countrymen.
I see two things happening in the NGO world. First, donors just aren’t seeing that they get as much bang for their buck in Russia as they get in other parts of the world, ie developing countries in Africa. Second, donors are burnt out when it comes to Russia. After more than a decade of funding, many donors are tired of pouring money into Russia and not seeing significant progress. I also think that grantmaking in Russia has been affected by the current administration. It’s not worth it to set up shop and do grantmaking in Russia only to be accused by Putin of trying to undermine the regime.
SRAS: You mentioned that you regret not being able to professionally use your Russian-language skills on a daily basis. However, there are lots of other skills that living abroad in Russia can teach. Do you find you still use these skills professionally?
I was lucky enough to get to travel to Kenya in October 2006 to meet OSIEA grantees on the ground there. During that trip, I saw that the skills that I learned in Russia can be easily transferred. There are a lot of similarities between Russia and Kenya. Of course, there are important nuances that differ from country to country, but on the whole living in one transitioning country allowed me to develop certain skills to adjust easily to changing situations in other transitioning countries.
I say “transitioning” here but you could say “developing.” However, I like transitioning because the Kenya situation has more in common with Russia than you may think. Under the government of President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi, human rights abuses were prevalent. Under Moi, Kenya didn’t have a multi-party system of government and he was regarded by many nations as a despot. Kenyans told me that under Moi they would not dare to speak about politics in public due to fear of political repression which very often included torture at Nyayo House, which is kind of like Lubyanka and the KGB. By the end of the Cold War, foreign aid was being withheld from Kenya as scandal and corruption allegations mounted and several NGOs and the UN documented the widespread human rights abuses. Moi was replaced by Kibaki in a move that was a lot like Putin taking over from Yeltsin. Kibaki came in on a reform platform, promising positive change and more. There was great hope among Kenyans for the future after Moi. However, Kibaki has, like Putin, failed to deliver and has backtracked on his promises. Kenyan NGOs, especially those dealing with human rights, feel threatened.
Though I hope to begin learning Swahili in the near future, my first love will always be Russia and the FSU, and I would welcome the chance to return there to work again. My husband is a native-Russian speaker, and we strive to speak Russian as much as possible at home. I hope more of Russia is in my future, but for now, I am content to explore what lies beyond the borders of the FSU.
*Note: The Open Society Institute does not have offices in Turkmenistan, but operates the Turkmenistan Project out of its NY office. For more details about the Turkmenistan Project, please see its website.