Russia asks exiles to help restore culture AH Thousands invited to visit old home

August 07, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Russia is turning to the people it once scorned -- the millions of emigrants who now live around the world -- for help in restoring the finest traditions of Russian culture.

"Millions of the best citizens of Russia are now far from their motherland," Mikhail Tolstoy, chairman of a group called the Congress of Compatriots, said yesterday. "We appeal to all those whose roots are in Russia, who still speak the Russian language, who care about Russian problems."

Mr. Tolstoy's group, with the backing of the Russian government and President Boris N. Yeltsin, is holding an 11-day series of conferences here at the end of the month, to which thousands of emigres have been invited. About 800, from 36 countries, have agreed to come so far.

They will be taking part in discussions on everything from the modern Russian language to the "crisis in spiritual values," from the "Russian army and fatherland" to the "psychological problems in the Russian diaspora."

The Russian dispersal has caused pain on both sides of the divide. From Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn to the everyday auto mechanic, the emigrant has felt an acute sense of loss when cut off from the Russian world.

And those left behind are facing the realization that the 15 million people who have departed since the dawn of communism have taken with them much of the best of Russia, much that was dishonored for decades here at home.

"We need them and they need us," said Mr. Tolstoy, "in order to preserve our culture."

The congress will feature cultural and religious events and will travel from here to Novosibirsk, Perm, Sverdlovsk and Leningrad -- where the slogan is, "Find your place in Russia."

The congress has been attacked by Communists at home and by some emigrants abroad, many of whom are too mistrustful to attend, Mr. Tolstoy said.

But all are welcome, and the organizers have taken scrupulous pains to ensure that all emigres are treated equally -- something the emigres themselves, who left in three distinct waves, rarely do. The first wave left after the revolution, the next at the end of World War II and the last (mostly dissidents and Jewish emigres) since the 1970s.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn, the writer who was forcibly exiled and now lives in a Vermont hideaway, was invited to come but to no one's surprise declined. Some who will be coming have long taken an active interest in Russian affairs. But for hundreds of others, the congress is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to return to a land they thought they'd never see again.

One of those is Natalia Nikitin, 64, a Russian teacher in Salinas, Calif. Mrs. Nikitin grew up in the Ukraine, but with the advance of the Nazis in 1941 her family was displaced and they wandered across Europe, moving to Brazil after the war and later to the United States.

"The schedule is absolutely fabulous," she said of the meetings this month. "It is rich -- really rich."

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