Molly Anderson (left) on her first trip to Russia in 1997 at Center Sodruzhestvo's international economics camp in Ryazan.
Molly Anderson (right) and her friend, Natasha, pose in front of a statue of poet Sergey Esenin, who was born in Ryazan.
Published February 28, 2018
Molly Anderson’s Russian connection changed her life.
Back in 1997, Anderson was director of marketing and development at Houghton College when she received an invitation to speak at an international economics camp in Ryazan, a Russian city located about 122 miles southeast of Moscow.
The invitation came from Center Sodruzhestvo, an educational organization whose name, “Sodruzhestvo,” is translated into English as “cooperation and unity.”
“Center Sodruzhestvo is an innovative nonprofit educational center that teaches economics, finance, technology and English language,” says Anderson, now executive director of the Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness (CLOE) in the UB School of Management.
“I was asked to talk about economic education and share some of the resources we were using at the time here in the United States,” says Anderson. “I felt our work, as I presented it, was valued and appreciated. It was, almost immediately, a great connection.
“As a result, I returned six months later, and the year after that, and again the next year and on into a relationship that has spanned 21 years,” she says.
In that time, more than 40 professionals from Western New York have accompanied Anderson on her trips to Russia, as well as two of her four children.
“We have had business people from all over the region travel with us,” she says.
“This includes faculty from Houghton College, a human resources manager from UPS, the district attorney in Alleghany County, real estate developers, engineers, a journalist and not-for-profit leaders. It probably sounds like it was open to everybody, but we were very selective.”
And, Anderson says, the groups traveled with the purpose of business education and cultural exchange. “However, my invitation to others was more like: ‘Hey, do you want to go to Russia in the middle of winter? It might be 30-below, but you’ll meet wonderful people and have the trip of a lifetime.’”
The early years of the partnership, Anderson says, occurred during Russia’s transition to a market economy.
“There was a great need for resources to teach economics and English, so we brought textbooks, teaching materials and computers,” she says, “Most importantly, we brought people, so we could learn from each other.”
Anderson says that, over the years, the group of people she met in Ryazan became friends and extended family.
“Back in 2000, upon learning that I was planning to get married, my Russian friends wanted to host my wedding.
“It was warm, and touching, and it felt like family. We had a Soviet rented limousine, two bands, duck flambé for dinner … it was a special celebration for all of us,” she says.
“That was during a difficult time in their history, when there weren’t many available resources, sometime even for daily living,” she recalls. “And the wedding meant so much because of how deeply felt this was for them.
“While I am not of Russian heritage, I now have a Russian brother, a Russian sister, a Russian mother and a Russian father,” Anderson says. “I don’t have another way to express how close I am to them other than calling them family.”
When not traveling to Russia, Anderson has developed programs to build cross-cultural relationships and understanding, such as a global literacy program offered through AmeriCorps VISTA to educate young people in Western New York about life in Russia.
She also has sponsored trips for her Russian colleagues to the United States. Most notable was a trip Center Sodruzhestvo’s directors made to visit Anderson in 2001.
“I was a young mother, just making ends meet, with two small children. I was able to sponsor the heads of Center Sodruzhestvo to come and see the U.S. for the first time,” she says.
“We had the opportunity to participate in UB’s English Language Institute and they also visited the Pentagon and the World Trade Center,” Anderson recalls. “This was one month prior to 9/11.
“They were teachers, so imagine the impact it had when they went home and saw where they just were in the U.S. destroyed, on the news,” Anderson says. “They had the incredible opportunity to communicate to all of their students, hundreds of them, on what America really is like.
“What is striking is that while parts of the world were cheering at our tragedy, these friends — Russians, teachers — were saying something entirely different: ‘These are good people, and this is something that breaks our hearts, too.’ That makes an impact.”
Anderson says that many, if not most Americans today view Russia as a headline and a major topic. “Putting the past 21 years into context … I see it differently. I like Russian people. I want others to see the good,” she says.
“It’s sad to see us backtrack in relations between our two countries, but it won’t deter my friends in Ryazan and I, as people, from working to have an impact on each other’s lives.”
Broadly speaking, Anderson says it is important to seek out opportunities to understand. “We get caught up in perceiving what our governments are doing. People are not their governments.
“My friends in Russia work for great organizations, transforming their communities, leading at home and doing all of the same things we aspire to. They appreciate the arts, poetry and love their children, just like all of us do.
“It scares me to think who I might be, had I not had these experiences,” says Anderson, a former president and CEO of Leadership Niagara with extensive management and leadership training. “Because it really changes the way I see all people, from all places and at all levels.”
Moreover, everyone at UB can impact the lives of others, Anderson says. “We should think for ourselves, reach out to the world and share our humanity. If we don’t, the world will change based on the rhetoric of a few.”
Anderson has a waiting list of people who would like to go to Ryazan with her. But, she says, the last few years she has focused on getting her children back over there.
“My daughter, Catherine, who is now 17, has been to Ryazan three times, and she has been blown away by their openness, the friendships we have and their warmth,” she says.
“Michael, my oldest son, who is 23, has been there twice. Neither of my other two sons, Oscar and Richard, who are 15 and 7, have ever been to Russia.”
Anderson plans to return to Russia this summer with her children to celebrate a milestone for Center Sodruzhestvo’s international economics camp, which first brought her to Ryazan in 1997.
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