Can you tell us a bit about the professional journey you took in engaging with U.S.- Russian relations?
I was awakened to the gravity of the nuclear danger by my mentor and professor Richard Falk as an undergraduate at Princeton and became deeply concerned about the risk of a nuclear war between the US and USSR. I had already fallen in love with the Russian language and was so taken by Russian literature, I wanted to go and meet the “enemy” for myself and made my first trip to Russia in 1978 at the height of the Cold War as an exchange student at Leningrad State University.
I made dear friends. They were not the enemy stereotype in U.S. media. They were people whom I found delightful, whom I came to love. Compared to life in the U.S., they were living in relative poverty, yet had a rich spiritual life. They showed me hospitality and generosity that touched me to the core.
I would leave my dorm and, with as much secrecy as I could, go to stay with my friends, a Russian family who lived in a tiny room in a communal apartment. To the fullest extent possible, I wanted to experience what life was like for a Soviet. I wanted all recognizable signs of being an American to disappear. I wore their clothes, the valenki (woolen felt boots) that they gave me. I literally put myself in their shoes.
At that time, my Russian friends met with me at great personal risk, as recurrent unofficial meetings with foreigners almost certainly meant a visit from the KGB. My friends paid a price.
It was at this moment that I realized I had to try to do something, I didn’t know how or what or where it would lead me, I just knew that I had to try to do something about this insane disconnect between my experience with my Russian friends and the thousands of nuclear weapons our two countries had pointed at each other.
What drove you to start the U.S.-USSR Youth Exchange Program? What was your ultimate goal, and do you feel you achieved it?
I returned to Russia for the second time in 1980 to teach American culture in Soviet schools. My Soviet high school students demonstrated an unbridled enthusiasm, dedication, passion and curiosity for learning about the U.S. and what life was like for their American counterparts. I could see that enemy stereotypes had not yet poisoned their minds. One day I showed my students a film about teenagers surviving together in the wilderness on an Outward Bound program. They told me they dreamed of meeting American teenagers, of joining them in the wilderness, and one day, maybe even traveling to the United States. At the time, such contacts were essentially forbidden, and foreign travel was reserved exclusively for officials, diplomats, top athletes or cultural figures. I promised my students I would do all I could to make this possible. They inspired me to start the first US-USSR Youth Exchange Program.
It took five years to fulfill my students’ dream, to win the trust of Soviet officials to allow Soviet and American youth to join together for a wilderness exchange experience, the first joint ascent of Mt. Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, 18,481’ located in the Caucasus Mountains of the former USSR.
I read in an article that when you were beginning this program people responded by saying you looked like “…a cute little girl, and it’s hard to be taken seriously in this field as a woman…” Have you been able to overcome this?
When I started out in the early 1980s, I was in my early twenties, and there were very few women working in the field of U.S.-Russian relations. Having been a student at Princeton, which had only recently begun admitting women, I was accustomed to being the only woman in the room much of the time, so this was not an issue for me.
But there were ingrained prejudices that women were not to be taken seriously in male-dominated professions – both in the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.
I was blessed to find extraordinary mentors in both countries who did not harbor these prejudices, took my work seriously, advised and supported me in carrying the work forward.
That said, I developed an exchange program with one of the most male-dominated institutions in the former USSR, the Soviet Sports Committee, where all of my counterparts were men who initially refused to see me and ignored all of my proposals for a very long time, not just because I was a woman, but also because I was an American, a citizen of a country that was the stated enemy of the Soviet Union.
It took five years of trust-building, knocking again and again on doors that were closed. It took persistence and patience, finding points of human connection,and the support of mentors and colleagues – men and women in both countries – to break through the barriers in the Sports Committee and finally become partners.
Spending much of your career engaged with global diplomacy, particularly in the shadows of a possible nuclear war, what was your experience as a woman in this field?
In the 1980s, the ever present awareness of the existential threat of nuclear war inspired millions of people around the world to join together to oppose the arms race and act to reduce the risk of nuclear war. So I found myself part of a global movement of men and women, youth and children that transcended gender, racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, socio-economic and partisan divides, one that unified into what mediation expert William Ury calls the “Third Side,” a coalition that acts to serve the shared interests of the larger community. We all had one overarching common goal in mind – preventing a nuclear war.
Today, the public has largely forgotten the existential threat of nuclear war. My prayer is that there is global awakening to the escalating nuclear danger today, and that a new Third Side for the 21st century emerges that once again brings people from all backgrounds and all walks of life together to act now to reduce the threat of nuclear war, to work to create a more peaceful world and eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.
How, if at all, do you feel being a woman has informed or shaped the work you did (or the perspective your took) in this field?
I am a mother. I have carried in my own body a fragile new life. I have nurtured a new soul on this Earth. I have a visceral connection to future generations. Having lived through the Hawaii false ballistic missile alert, I have confronted in real time, my own death, the death of my children, the possibility of the end of human civilization, the mass extinction of life on Earth. I have been shaken to the core of my being. I would like that to happen with those who are engaged in nuclear war planning, abstract discussions of megadeaths, preparations for omnicide.
Have you ever felt undermined or silenced in professional settings purely because you’re a woman? How did you respond?
I came of age at a time when I didn’t know a single woman, including myself, who didn’t experience some form of condescending, derisive comments, sexual innuendo or harassment in the workplace, in public and private meetings with men. In these situations, I worked to steer such conversations and experiences back to the work at hand. I looked for and found support among men who did not want to be a part of a culture that perpetuated dominance and violence over others. Ultimately, it does not matter whether you are a man or woman, what matters is whether you embrace nonviolence, whether you have respect for the dignity of each individual human being.
What are the most important takeaways you want people to leave with after reading your piece, “Dawn of a New Armageddon”?
My prayer is that we all receive the wake-up call, the gift that I received during the 38 minutes of the false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii. My prayer is that without having to go through it themselves, in real time, people who read the story will come to know what it’s like to feel that you’re about to be hit by a nuclear missile, what’s it like to feel that the world as we know it might be coming to an end, that everyone we know and love, everything we cherish on this Earth could be vaporized in an instant. These are unacceptable stakes. It is omnicidal insanity to accept the nuclear world we live in. I pray that we act, as we did in the 1980s, to compel our politicians to change our nuclear policy, first to take the ten immediate steps to reduce the nuclear risk as outlined in The Nuclear Playbook on our website. I see these 10 steps as achievable, critical steps we can take now with the ultimate aim of creating a more peaceful world where we can eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.
How has your experience on January 13th impacted your life and/or professional goals?
A near-death experience, they say, changes you forever. For me and hundreds of thousands of others in Hawaii, living through the 38 minutes when we felt we were about to be hit by a nuclear missile was a deeply personal near-death experience. I felt the cell-splitting terror. We all felt the fear and it led us to reach out. We all called those dearest to say, “I love you.” The experience of feeling that you are about to be hit by a nuclear missile makes it absolutely clear what is most precious. I want us to be motivated not by fear but by love. To act from our love for this precious life, for the gift of this beautiful Earth, for the joy of sitting with a child who is asking you, “Momma, where did I come from?”
I do not want to live in a world where I have to try to explain to my daughter why we have nuclear weapons. Just try explaining MAD to a child. They look at you like you are trying to play a trick on them. They know that it is insane. They don’t have the sophistication to delude themselves. The 38 minutes brought me back to that child-like joy. I am here! I am still here! I am in this exquisite world. I want to take care of my children, of this Earth. I see the vibrant colors of life anew, the gift of this life. May the stories of all of us who went through the 38 minutes be heard, be taken to heart, be felt in the gut, and compel us to act now.
Those 38 minutes woke me up. I realized that we are in great danger and we have to do something about it – that responsibility as a mother, as a human being, is with me. And it will never leave me – until we eliminate this threat. That’s why I’ve joined forces with many others and started a campaign at nuclearwakeupcall.earth.
Cynthia Lazaroff is the founder of www.nuclearwakeupcall.earth. She is a U.S.-Russian relations expert and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Cynthia is engaged in Track II and Track 1.5 diplomacy and mediation efforts with Russia and has founded groundbreaking U.S.-Russian exchange initiatives since the early 1980s. She has spent the past year interviewing experts and officials in the U.S. and Russia on nuclear dangers.
Cynthia has developed numerous film and television projects related to Russia and nuclear issues including Mother Russia for HBO, The Cuban Missile Crisis for NBC, and the award-winning mini-series Hiroshima, broadcast by Showtime on the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb. Her producing credits include the prize-winning Challenge of the Caucasus, featuring the first joint ascent of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest peak, by Soviet and American youth whom she co-led to the summit.
Cynthia’s expertise on nuclear dangers made for a singular experience on January 13, 2018 when she received warning on her cell phone of a ballistic missile headed to her home in Hawaii. While the alert turned out to be false, it was a wake-up call for Cynthia, who is determined to share her harrowing, 38 minute near-death experience that day in hopes that it will inspire others to wake up and take action to reduce the escalating and existential nuclear danger that threatens the future of all life on Earth. Her article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about this experience is at this link.