Rights Activist Makes It His Business To Help Russians

January 21, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

When Sergei Chernov came to America, the land of his dreams, he discovered a rude reality beyond freedom, rock music and designer jeans.

He landed in New York City on a blustery November day and immediately called his sponsor in California. But her phone was disconnected.

He turned to some Russian immigrants for help. They sent him to astreet mission in Harlem.

On his way to the shelter, three thugs jumped him at knifepoint. In a flash, he was stripped of his suitcaseand last $24.

"It happened very fast -- like in the movies," recalled the 22-year-old St. Petersburg native, now safely ensconced at the Arundel-on-the-Bay home of minister Jeff Collins.

Even after his harsh reception, Chernov still is bubbling over with excitement forthe United States. He shrugs off his misfortunes as "adventures" andtalks about the years he dreamed of escaping from Russia to freedom.He's learning English by memorizing books and speaks haltingly aboutstarting a chain of printing shops someday.

It's the kind of infectious enthusiasm that prompted Collins to found Project Friendship, a partnership to help small businesses in the former Soviet bloc.

The 43-year-old ordained minister, who has been active in human rights causes most of his life, wants to turn his energies to building a market economy.

"For 74 years, we as Americans have complained about communism and Marxism," Collins said. "Now is the time to help them. They're depending on us."

Project Friendship will match small businesses in the splintered Soviet bloc with American sponsors. The program also will provide loans and training for start-up companies.

Collins came up with the idea last fall after talking to a French couple on their way to Poland to help set up a butcher shop. Their plancaught his fancy; it seemed a chance to combine his interest in Eastern Europe with his dedication to helping others.

He became fascinated with Eastern Europe while hitch-hiking across Europe as a college student. In the summer of 1968, he went to Prague, Czechoslovakia, just months before the Russian invasion. Caught up in the excitement,the spirit of rebellion sweeping the country, he fell in love with the Czech people.

He switched his major at Faith Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school in suburban Philadelphia, to missionary work. Although he was ordained, Collins said his interest turned to helping Christians who were being persecuted for their beliefs.

In 1971, he was arrested on a train for bringing 15 Bibles into the Ukraine.

The laws forbade "vodka, gold, drugs or Bibles." Imprisoned for three days, Collins was questioned and then shipped back to the Czechborder, minus his Bibles and $3,000 in hotel vouchers.

His commitment to human rights causes led him to work for a California news service and then to direct the American division of Christian SolidarityInternational, a Swiss-based organization similar to Amnesty International.

Five years ago, he moved to Annapolis and founded Love & Action, a volunteer program to help AIDS patients. Now a nationwide program with more than 1,500 volunteers, Love & Action provides supportfor people diagnosed with HIV.

The work has taken its toll on Collins, who said he wants to focus on a new endeavor. "I have so many friends who died," he said. "I don't think I can handle it much more."

He expects his new project to be a chance to help people who wereoppressed for years build better lives.

Tomorrow, he plans to attend a conference in Washington on private-sector assistance to the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States. With some financial backing, he intends to begin matching up small businesses in the Annapolis area with counterparts in Russia.

Then he intends to return toRussia and start training sessions for people interested in buying companies the government is auctioning.

Project Friendship will offer the incentive for American business owners to enter into joint ventures with businesses in former Soviet bloc nations. The opportunity is ripe now, Collins said, with small shops being sold off for as little as $3,000 and restaurants only a few thousand dollars more.

Chernov, who used to own a printing and electronics store in Leningrad,now St. Petersburg, agreed. He said Russia is looking to the West for help in building a free-market economy.

"Everybody, the young people, we love Americans," he said. "The good music, good movies, the culture, yes. The California dream, I know that. America is the best country for Russians to come to."

Businesses interested in ProjectFriendship should call (410) 268-6811.

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