One of the first pieces I posted on Mahlou Musings was about Peter Volkovich from Belarus. I have repeated it below since links sometimes break. I was reminded about it recently when I came across a site, Children of Chernobyl, sponsored by a non-profit agency, founded after the Cold War to help the children Peter, I, and others were struggling to help during the end of the Soviet Union days. The work, begun by Peter, who, I fear, is no longer among the living since that would make him more than 100 years old now, has been taken over by a group of people, led by a Catholic priest, Louis Vuitton, who has become well known for his social activism. I found it thrilling to learn that more people are now involved and more children are now being helped. (For pictures of Chernobyl today, here is one site to visit: Chernobyl Today: Creepy Story. Be prepared to feel some sadness as the reality of a city devastated and abandoned is revealed.)
Here is the original post:
I met Pyotr Volkovich, the vice-president of the Peace Committee of the former Soviet Republic of Belarus in Minsk, in 1989. He was clearly a man with a mission: to improve his community, that community being the greater part of Belarus, which had suffered severely from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in nearby Ukraine.
While I was there, he gave me a description and history of the problem in the area and a list of medical supplies and equipment needed to care for the ill children, nearly 25% of whom had died from cancer after the reactor accident, many more of whom are now ill, and all of whom remain at risk from the irradiated soil and the food grown in it. I published that article in an international journal I edited, hoping that perhaps something would come of it. However, I did not follow up.
I met Peter again a year later when he was the keynote speaker at an International Rotary Convention in Portland, Oregon. Although I was only there by incidental invitation related to establishing a school exchange program, Pyotr said that from the moment he reached American soil at Kennedy Airport, even though he did not see me anywhere along the way, including upon arrival in Portland, he nonetheless knew that I would be there. I am convinced that this kind of confidence alone was enough to influence the events in his life.
I probably paid more attention to his speech than I otherwise might have because when he was introduced to the audience, instead of turning to his official interpreter, he asked me to do the interpretation from Russian into English for him. He gave one of the most brilliant speeches about the need for peace that I have ever heard. At what appeared to be the end of the speech, he presented the Rotary Foundation with the serial plate (framed in plastic) of the last surface-to-surface missile disassembled under the SALT Treaty. After hefty applause had died down, instead of leaving the stage, he continued with a very disconcerting phrase, "vokrug mira est' kolyakola..." (all around the world are bells). Bells was the only meaning I knew for the world, kolyakola, but I was hesitant to interpret it that way since the concept of bells made no sense in the given context, but I had no choice. Pyotr then continued, and everything made beautiful sense and left me and others with a lasting emotional response to his words: "They are big bells, warning of pending nuclear disaster. I did not, however, bring you a big bell. I brought you a small bell. [Here he took a tiny bell from his pocket and jingled it.] To hear this bell, you need the silence of peace."
The beginning of Pyotr's speech had focused on the serious medical needs of the Belarusan children, so our second meeting resulted in my sending information about the situation to medical circles in various places. Again, bad Samaritan that I was, I did not follow up but simply hoped that there would be interested parties who would contact Pyotr, and apparently some did.
Three years later when I again met Pyotr in Minsk, he had managed to arrange for the children from Gomel and other affected regions in Belarus to go to Germany for the summer, away from the radiation that daily accumulated to ever higher concentrations in their bodies. Although I was there for very different reasons (as a consultant to the Academy of Science textbook writers on the development of new K-12 and university textbooks in a variety of disciplines), he greeted me as if I were a long-time friend and fellow activist and excitedly told me about the medical equipment that the Peace Committee had received in the last 3-4 years from many different countries, saying "We consider this a result of your actions."
I was one of the few outsiders at that time to whom Pyotr had had access. However, I had never followed up on anything, so I could not honestly take credit for anything. Nonetheless, Pyotr pressed his gratitude on me.
That time I did help a little more actively. I gave the Peace Committee a monetary donation from my institutions, a rather hefty one, in fact, that we should not have been able to afford, but miraculously we ended up with a sum of money from our Russian operations that we had to somehow leave in Russia/Belarus. What better recipient could we have had than the Belarus Peace Committee?!
Like one person alone, one donation alone was not enough to make much difference. However, Pyotr knew that monetary contributions grow geometrically when they are combined, just as the combined results of people's efforts is greater than the sum of the parts. He put our contribution together with a contribution from an organization in Germany, and that allowed the Peace Committee to move 52 families from a highly irradiated area around Gomel to a newly built and relatively safe village not far from Minsk.
Pyotr knew all about getting anyone to do anything for him and be happy about it. I am sure that each individual was treated in similar ways. My ability to help was limited, but there were others who could and did help more. Pyotr treated all of us as if we were miracle makers when it was he who made the miracles happen.
I have not seen Pyotr since. In 1995, he retired from the Peace Committee, but he continued to work very hard behind the scenes for some years.
If you were to meet Pyotr, he would surprise you. Barely five feet tall and well past seventy when I first met him, he seemed seven feet tall and 30 years old as he talked about saving his land and his people. His eyes sparkled with the energy of someone much younger. His intensity and enthusiasm would move anyone to help him save his beloved Belarus.
The Pyotrs of this world can get anyone to do anything because they have a clear and altruistic goal and undauntedly tread toward it, regardless of obstacles. In such cases, everyone wants to help, and everyone feels good about helping. As for God, in addition to obviously facilitating some of those miracles, such as the inflow of medical equipment and the sudden appearance of hundreds of dollars in my institute's coffers that had to be used in Belarus, I think that Pyotr must have been one of His favorite instruments. After all, Pyotr proved that he could spread the good just as quickly as God could deliver it!
Peter's story is excerpted and adapted from a story I published in a collection of vignettes, copyright 2003.
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