Shcherbinka in Russia, John Paul Jones is the man
SHCHERBINKA, Russia - The people who run this little city a few miles south of Moscow want to put it on the map and figure that John Paul Jones is just the man to do it for them.
Here - across from the railroad tracks, next to the new church built by a philanthropic entrepreneur, not far from the Otis Elevator factory, and about 500 miles from the nearest salt water - Shcherbinka hopes to raise a memorial to the fiery hero of the American Revolution.
John Paul Jones? The one who's buried at the Naval Academy in Annapolis? The one who had not yet begun to fight?
Yes, and there's no one better for the job, says Marat Salakheyev, a former Russian navy officer whose idea this was. Few Americans know that after the American Revolution Jones served for more than a year as a commander in the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, where he scored a minor but daring victory over the Turks. But that's all right - even fewer Russians know about it.
Seeing an opportunity
Salakheyev sees that as an opportunity. At a time when the Russian navy brass are desperately searching for proof that the submarine Kursk was rammed by an American sub, and during a week when the Russian air force was crowing about the fighter jets that buzzed a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan, Salakheyev is rowing in the other direction altogether.
He wants Americans and Russians - particularly Russians - to appreciate each other's history and to understand that the two countries' pasts are more entwined than many would like to believe.
And Jones, he says, would be the perfect symbol. But there's more - Salakheyev wants to open a "Brothers in Arms Museum," which would look at Russian-American connections down through two centuries and focus mainly on the Lend-Lease program of World War II. Between 1942 and 1945, the United States shipped a war's worth of trucks, locomotives, fighter planes and torpedo boats to the Soviet Union (and millions of cans of Spam), to help turn back Hitler's armies. But victory gave way to the Cold War.
"We repaid our debts," says Salakheyev, "but no one ever said thank you."
Supported by the mayor
He might be just another well-meaning dreamer except that Salakheyev has gotten the young mayor of Shcherbinka on board, and he also happens to be a political aide to Andrei Nikolaev, former chief of the Russian border guards and now leader of a parliamentary faction called the Union of People's Power and Labor.
Nikolaev, whose movement's emblem consists of a somewhat redrawn hammer and sickle, is backing the project - not because he loves America, Salakheyev hastens to say, but because he loves Russia.
The idea is that Russia will benefit from a more honest look back at history and from the goodwill such a project could generate.
Salakheyev says he would like to hear from Americans who took part in the Lend-Lease program. Mayor Sergei Dubinin, who has repaved the street leading to the John Paul Jones memorial site, says he would be interested in establishing a sister-city relationship with Annapolis.
If Shcherbinka puts up a memorial to Jones, he mused, would Annapolis be interested in one to a great Russian hero - Gen. Mikhail Kutuzov, perhaps, who beat back Napoleon?
"That would be a good exchange," Dubinin says. "If someone sees a monument with the name of an admiral on it, or a general - if he's an intellectual person he'll go home and open an encyclopedia and learn something."
(Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson says he would be open to exploring the idea of a sister-city relationship with the Russian town. "As far as I am concerned, the more [sister cities] the better," he says. As for a statue of Kutuzov, the mayor says that might be "appropriate to consider," but Kutuzov wouldn't be the first Russian with a special place in Annapolis. The only non-American buried in Annapolis National Cemetery is a Russian sailor killed in a bar fight in 1863, he says.)
Salakheyev says Shcherbinka, a city of 29,000 that is best known for its field-testing station for railroad equipment, is a natural site for the memorial to Jones because it was a reception point for American planes during the war. Dubinin says he thinks a museum would give people a reason to visit.
"We don't have any history to speak of," he says candidly, though there's an elegant 18th-century estate on the outskirts of town where the poet Alexander Pushkin lived for a while. Much of downtown Shcherbinka was built by German prisoners of war.
When the question is put to him, why put up a statue to a foreigner, he replies, "Well, you have statues to Columbus, don't you?"
The one thing Dubinin and Salakheyev haven't done is talk over their plans with the residents of the city.
"I'm against a monument to an American," says retiree Valentina Grankova, 59. "We're Russian people. I don't need any Americans here. As soon as I see this monument, I will destroy it."
A Lend-Lease museum, on the other hand - now there's a good idea. "They helped us during the war. They were our allies."
Andrei Karpenko, a railroad engineer, likes the museum and the monument. "Russians have always been open to good people," he says, "So if this Jones was a good man, he's welcome here."