I’ve always assumed that my interest in Russia came from growing up in the Army back in the 50’s and early 60’s. I remember hiding under our school desks in Panama for nuclear attack drills; and my father being on alert with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I distinctly remember both of those things as being the fault of the Soviet Union, so Russia was imprinted on my mind from a fairly early age. I don’t remember having an active interest in Russia though, but the imprint must have been there. Why else would I have chosen to take Russian during my freshman year at the University of North Carolina?
I don’t know how many other classmates of ours already had some college before arriving at West Point, but I did. I guess I wasn’t good enough the first time around straight out of high school, so I simply tried again. From about the age of ten I had decided I wanted to be an Army officer. My dad, who had been drafted in WWII and stayed in after the war, and then gotten a direct commission during Korea, had told me that if I was serious about wanting to be an officer, then West Point was the only way to go. So it never occurred to me to do anything other than try again; and the second time around I was accepted. By way of full disclosure, I should mention that I flunked Russian at UNC!
That’s probably why I didn’t get my first choice for language study at USMA. If I remember right we had to submit a first and second choice. I remember wanting to take Russian, but ending up in French, which I had taken in high school. With a name like Emile Dupere, I suppose it made sense to someone. Anyway, I did get some exposure to the Soviet Union though, when it came to the choice of electives. Because of going to UNC for a year, I got credit for some courses at West Point, and ended up with extra elective choices. So among other things, I think I took a course in Soviet history, and in Communist revolutionary theory … or some such thing. Anyway, Russia continued to be imprinted on my mind through our time at West Point.
The imprinting process continued with my first assignment as a young Infantry officer with the Berlin Brigade in Germany. How I ended up in Berlin is a whole ‘nother story as they say. Back at West Point I had volunteered for the 82nd in Vietnam, but then I met Avril Elizabeth Smith, the love of my life, at a Valentine’s mixer in Cullum Hall. Then during Infantry basic I made friends with a ROTC grad who had orders for Germany, but wanted to go to Vietnam. I had orders for Vietnam but wanted to get married and go to Germany. One thing led to another and we ended up swapping our orders and I ended up in Berlin arriving just before Christmas of 1969.
While in Berlin I served as an Infantry platoon leader, a company XO (executive officer), and even as a computer programmer in the Berlin Brigade headquarters. Together with the British and French, the Berlin Brigade was there to counter the Soviet presence in East Berlin. So there was no way to avoid further Russia imprinting with an assignment like that.
The imprinting sort of stopped though, once I left Germany. After eventually making it to Vietnam in 1971-1972, I ended up resigning my commission in 1973. The Army of the Vietnam era was not the same as the Army I grew up in. There were also some religious/spiritual reasons for wanting to resign as well, so I took the opportunity of the post-Vietnam drawdown to ask to be released from my obligation. My request was accepted, and in July of 1973 my wife and I moved to Vermont to take up positions as teachers in White River Junction, Vermont. While in Vermont I felt the Lord calling me into full-time ministry, which led us in 1975 to spend four years at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.
Fast forward 15 years to 1990. By then I was five years into my tenure at Church of the Open Door, a small Bible church near Bangor, Maine.
By then we also had two children, Jeremy, 13, and Lindsay, 8. In addition, I had asked for and had my commission reinstated and become a Chaplain in the Maine Army National Guard, and was assigned to an Engineer Battalion headquartered in Bangor. Lastly, through a series of circumstances, God had introduced me and my church to the opportunity of sending bibles and other Christian materials to believers in the Soviet Union. So after a 15 year hibernation, the Russia imprinting had started again.
In February of 1990, I felt a strong sense from the Lord to consider making a trip to the Soviet Union. Through my urging, my church had been sending dozens of packets of Bibles, New Testaments, and other Christian literature to believers in Russia; and we had been getting responses from people thanking us for the gifts. But the letters had all been in Russian, which forced me to have to get them translated. I found an old Russian lady who was the mother of a professor at the University of Maine to translate them. As I got to know her better, I asked her to give me Russian lessons, which she did.
At the same time I began to try to find a way to get myself to Russia. I wrote dozens of letters to various mission organizations in the U.S.
asking if they had any activities going on in the Soviet Union. Because of Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (“restructuring”) – dual programs initiated under Gorbachev in 1985 – I imagined that something must be happening. However, a year went by and I couldn’t find any connection which looked like it would lead to a trip for me to Russia; but a breakthough finally came in the Spring of 1991.
I was given the name of someone who worked with a Christian mission agency in California. He had already made several trips to Russia, so I began to correspond with him about the idea of me tagging along. One thing led to another and it was agreed that he would take me on his next trip. He helped me navigate the visa process, and the time finally came for my first trip to the Soviet Union. My contact flew in from California, I flew down from Maine, and we met at JFK Airport for a Saturday night flight to Moscow.
I have always said that that trip was nothing more and nothing less than a gracious gift from God. For as it happened, we arrived in Moscow on Sunday, August 18, 1991, the day of “the Coup”. God gave me a front-row seat for the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
To Be Continued…
Jim Russell C-3 Seattle says
Don’t delay Chapter 2! I’m on the edge of my seat.
Tom Reinhardt says
Good to hear from you. My wife and I are retired and living on the Boothbay peninsula in Edgecomb Maine.
Drop me a line to catch up