Saturday, April 25, 2015

Distressing news from Vladimir, Russia

I can’t imagine where I would be right now without The American Home in Vladimir, Russia. It is unlikely that I would have a Master’s degree in TESOL and be teaching English to international students at a highly respected university intensive English program. I wouldn’t have taken my three most recent trips to South Korea, and I would never have been to Kyrgyzstan once, much less twice. Where would I be? What would I have done over the past ten years? I’ve no idea, but I am sure that my life would be incredibly different.

My Bachelor’s degree was a double-major in Political Science and Russian. After graduating, I did some traveling to South Korea and Costa Rica. Following that, I spent two and a half years in a political science related job in California, which I didn’t find personally satisfying at all. I realized that my coworkers who were nearing retirement were performing the exact same tasks as I was, and I could not imagine spending the next 30 years of my life doing something so unsatisfying. Since my political science related job just wasn’t doing it for me, I thought that perhaps I should apply to a Russia-related grad school program. The problem with this, however, was that since graduating, I had neither spoken nor studied Russian for several years. Additionally, during that time I studied both Korean and Spanish. While I still maintained rudimentary Russian skills, I knew that my Russian ability was not sufficient to enable me to gain admittance into a Russian-related grad school program.
 
I knew that the best way to re-gain my Russian skills was to return to Russia, but I needed a way to make doing so financially viable. I didn’t need to make a lot of money while there, but I did need a place to live and a way to support myself while rebuilding my Russian. After looking at various options, I applied for a position as an English teacher at and English language school called The American Home in the Russian town of Vladimir. The AH provided its teachers with homestays and private Russian lessons; this seemed like the best way to support myself while in Russia, and the private Russian lessons were the icing on the cake. I moved to Russia in August 2005 with the intention of teaching English for a year and then applying to various grad programs in Russian Area Studies. Instead, after my very first class, I knew that teaching English was exactly what I wanted to be doing, and I’ve been working in this field ever since. (My experiences at the AH and in Vladimir are documented online at From Russia With Blog.)


Me, on my first day teaching at the AH

So what is The American Home? Well, for one thing, it looks like a typical American house, which (if you know anything about Russian architecture) is quite an aberration in Russia:


The AH is American owned, and was built in 1992 as a way to facilitate Russia-American relations in the post-Soviet era. Over the years the AH has been involved in a large number of development activities in the Vladimir region, international relations programs and exchanges between the Vladimir region and the US, and most successfully, it has offered English classes to hundreds of students a semester for years. The complete history of the AH is available on its website, if you’re interested.

Fast-forward to 2014, when tension rose between the US and Russia over the events in Ukraine. The AH had weathered periods of US/Russia tensions before, but this time, things were different. This time, the AH faced attacks by local newspapers which coincided with an attempt by the local Vladimir government to confiscate the property of the American Home itself.


The following are translations of news articles from last August/September:

The American Home in Vladimir to be sanctioned?
According to Zebra-TV, the city administration [of Vladimir] has asked the staff of the “American Home” to vacate the building the educational institution occupies on Letneperevozinskaya Street by the end of October. Zebra-TV has at its disposal documents from which it has concluded that the ownership of the building on Letneperevozinskaya by Serendipity (the firm founded by American Professor Ronald Pope specifically for the construction of the American Home) is illegal.

Based on the analysis of the information provided by Zebra-TV, our experts have come to their own conclusions.

In 1992, an agreement was signed between the administration of the City of Vladimir and Ronald Pope on the joint construction of the Home. When the project was approved, the administration came to the realization that it lacked the funds to fulfill its obligations. Ronald Pope proposed the construction of the Home using American technology and his own funds, and the city administration agreed. After four months, the building was completed. Pope donated over one hundred and twenty five thousand dollars of his own personal money to the construction.

The building was constructed, but the legal ownership of this property has not yet been determined. Only 9 years after its construction, in 2001, was the ownership of the area (272.2 square meters) registered to the firm, Serendipity.

In January 2003, under the terms of the contractual agreement of 1992, ownership the Home and all its property was supposed to be transferred from the firm Serendipity to the city of Vladimir, but for some reason this did not occur. Perhaps the parties to the contract considered that once one of the parties (the city administration) failed to meet its obligations – as it was not involved in the construction – the contract was void. This may explain the fact that the administration of Vladimir did not require the fulfillment of the terms of the contract for 11 years.

However, the current administration explained the situation to Zebra-TV differently: “In 1992, the mayor signed an agreement, according to which, after the introduction of the building into operation, in 2003, ownership would pass to the city of Vladimir. The city wants to reclaim ownership of the building – it is our duty,” said Alexander Karpilovich. Violations of the law were identified as the result of a simple audit of documents of the management of municipal property by the city administration. “Now, as part of our internal audits, the city administration of Vladimir is doing everything possible to stop the violation of the agreement which had been reached between the head of the city of Vladimir and the American firm, Serendipity,” said Karpilovich.

The parties disagree, and a conflict over the legal interpretations of the documents is looming, and a trial is probably inescapable. As to why this question has arisen now, one can only guess, although the administration claims that there is no political agenda here.

Foreign Language School or Real Estate Fraud Supporting National Security Services of the USA?

In the historic city of Vladimir, on Letneperevozinskaya Street, is an unusual sight. This is the “American Home,” which Vladimir’s residents have grown accustomed to and have accepted as a good English language school. The website of the “American Home” provides the following description of its character: “The American Home” –a unique project, the first and only in Russia. As a private education center, the “American Home” is the largest and most popular such institution in Vladimir, specializing in teaching English. In addition, the “American Home” provides a cultural center that implements a variety of interesting projects. But what lies behind this respectable “showcase” and how has it become known as an infamous house in the center of Vladimir?

How Americans were allowed in Vladimir
It all began in the now distant year of 1992. It was then that the city administration of Vladimir and American consulting firm "Serendipity" signed an agreement to coordinate for a project known as "The American Home in Russia." Under this agreement, the Vladimir City Council has shown remarkable selflessness and efficiency. (I wonder what the incentives for such actions were?) They freely allocated an overseas company 0.18 hectares in the historic city center. In addition, the city administration of Vladimir also requested the municipal enterprise "Vladstroyzakazchik" to prepare the site for construction, design and estimate documentation for the buildings, utilities and land use, to provide construction materials and transport, as well as to promote the organization of protection for the construction site. This agreement was signed by the Head of the Administration Vladimir, Igor Shamova, and president of the "Serendipity" (more precisely «Serendipity-Russia») a citizen of the United States, Ronald Russell Pope on May 18, 1992. The “American Home” was erected exclusively by American builders according to the technical documentation of the company “Serendipity”– apparently there was something to hide. On July 4th of the same year, the infamous home was opened.


And what came of it?
As stated on the website of the “American Home,” the purpose of this project was originally seen by its founders as “a contribution to Russia’s transition to a stable democratic system.” Ostensibly, Ronald Pope, a former professor at Illinois State University who specialized in Russian Politics “placed his hopes on the development of international trade and investment, which would benefit the residents of Vladimir.” However, as the website of the “American Home” says that, while in some respects the investment climate in Russia has improved, time has shown that the involvement of American investment in Russia is very difficult. Over time, adjustments have been made, and the most successful aspect of work of the “American Home” has been its English language program and its non-profit social projects.

That is not the kind of investment in the Russian economy that the founders of the “Home” anticipated; international trade is not involved, and its work has been reduced almost exclusively to a commercial English language school. Is it just for the benefit of the American firm that has established itself in the center of this ancient city? Or in the Vladimir region, where numerous defense enterprises are concentrated – especially in Vladimir and neighboring Kovrov – have the Yankees pursued some other purpose?

In any event, the Americans got their house, almost in the center of Vladimir, although it is only possible to speculate on what they were doing. Officially, it all comes down to the teaching of the English language, although numerous foreigners have passed through the “American Home” including those with very controversial reputations. Of course, no one was interested in scandals; however, in 2011 the forcible deportation of 33-year-old American citizen Mary Elizabeth Malinkin from the Russian Federation. Prior to this, she had worked in the “American Home” in Vladimir as a teacher; however, when she had arrived in our country, she was already an employee of the Kennan Institute, and American NGO. She allegedly conducted an analytical study on the theme of “People, Power, and Conflict in the Eurasian Immigration System.” At the same time, the inviting party made a completely incomprehensible company called MOO PSPR “Revival,” about which Liz Malinkin was unable to tell the Russian law enforcement agencies anything. It was discovered that Malinkin was conducting science and business although she was not on a business visa, and the region did not contain a representative of the Moscow office.

Competent authorities do not doubt that her “research” was only a screen to allow her to stay in the Vladimir region. Even though the American Kennan Institute officially marked the arrival of its collaborators and their goals in Vladimir, we question if their “scientist” had any training. Judge for yourself:

“What is happening at the same time is the emergence of Russia as a state of international migration and its return to authoritarianism. This questions the theoretical propositions regarding the liberal nature of the migration state, and casts a strategic challenge to American interests in Eurasia and beyond…Our research and evaluation of the Eurasian migration system… will contribute to further development of safeguards for the national security of the USA,” wrote the Kennan Institute to the Administration of the Vladimir Region.

Simply put, this can be summed up in one term: Intelligence service!

Additionally, along with Malinkin, another “researcher,” 53-year-old Timothy Helenyak, “an expert on labor migration to Russia” was expelled due to inadequacies in the purpose of his stay.

This incident with the employee of the “American Home” was not the only one. For example, back in 2008 an American citizen by the name of Jeffrey Shagrin came to the “American Home.” His official purpose was “cultural relations,” but in reality this visitor arranged an interview with a certain pseudo-journalist Stepanova, in which she was recorded in English scolding the President and the government of Russia, citing the lack of democracy and freedom of speech. This material was then “floated” in the American media.


Why a “gift” to the city turned into a gift to the Yankees

Apparently, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Complete information on the activities of individuals associated with the “American Home” in Vladimir are probably known only to our domestic intelligence agencies. But here’s one fact that is highly perplexing: Item 13 under the “Conditions of Contract” agreement signed by Mr. Pope and Mayor Shamova on May 18, 1992 stated that “after the expiration of this contract (1 January 2003) the [American] Home and all its assets are to be transferred from “Serendipity” and donated to the municipal ownership of the City of Vladimir. By agreement of the Parties, the transfer period of the Home and its property to the city can be reduced.”

However, the Vladimir city government has received no “gift” from the Americans. However, on January 12, 2001, in violation of the above agreement, the “consulting firm” Serendipity, registered in the State of Illinois, USA, obtained the certificate of state registration of ownership of anon-residential building with a total area of 272.2 square meters at number 3, Letneperevozinskaya Street in Vladimir on the basis of the same agreement from May 18, 1992.


Then, the Vladimir city government allocated the “American Home” the land adjacent to its building for rent for the time up to the year 2050! It seems that part of Vladimir was given to the States, almost like Alaska for half a century – too bad.

What was the interest of Vladimir officials and Mayor Shamova who approved the contract data and closed their eyes to the fact that the original contract had been violated to the detriment of the city of Vladimir? If it turns out that the transition of ownership of the building at number 3, Leteneperevozinskaya Street to an American company, accompanied by a lease of land for 49 years, is illegal (and all points in this direction), the lucky owners of the house and piece of land “in the heart of Russia” (as it is so characterized by the owners of Vladimir’s “American Home”), we have the right to insistently ask what should happen.

How can classes for the study of a foreign language in a building owned by “Serendipity” if the official data of the Federal Service for State Registration shows the inventory and mapping of this structure to be… a warehouse and a garage?! The “encryption” by the Americans has clearly been overdone. Or perhaps, on the contrary, due to an oversight and given the true nature of things: the main thing – it is not a school, and a warehouse and a Trojan horse are hiding there; “researchers” look very much like the CIA, so we can only surmise…
In the time since the above articles appeared online, the AH and the City of Vladimir have been embroiled in the Russian court system, both sides fighting for control of the property. Unfortunately, this month word came that the judge hearing the case had sided with the City of Vladimir. Granted, the AH is still appealing the decision, so this isn’t final, but…

"American Home" left without a home

 

Judge of the Arbitration Court of Vladimir Region, Jeanne Dolgov, has ordered the company "Serendipity" return the building to the street Letneperevozinskoy the ownership of the City of Vladimir. The transfer must be completed within ten days of the issuance of the verdict. 
Lawyer Roman Nazarenko, representative of the defendant, said they would appeal the decision of the regional Arbitration Court “in all instances in which this is possible.” Nazarenko stated, “We believe that this decision is illegal, that is, it does not meet the physical, procedural legislation of the Russian Federation. But nevertheless, I am waiting for the reasoning; I just want to see upon what the judge has based this claim.” 
The lawyer of the “American Home” also added that “Serendipity” will continue to conduct educational activities regardless of the location of the language courses. Roman Nazarenko also stressed that all should wait for the decision of the higher courts.
The desire of the City of Vladimir to reclaim the property of the “American Home” began in October 2014. They claimed that the contract signed between the City of Vladimir and the company “Serendipity” signed in 1992 required ownership of the 272 square meter property to be turned over to the City as of January 1, 2003. 
However, since the Vladimir administration made no attempt to reclaim the “American Home” in the intervening eleven years, the defendant’s representatives insisted that this litigation should have been terminated due to the statute of limitations having been exceeded. 
The Arbitration Tribunal of the City of Vladimir took approximately three months to reach its judgement.
At least this article, from April 24, 2015 was a little more positive:
Vladimir residents stood up for the "American Home"
Citizens are collecting signatures in support of a foreign institution
Vladimir resident Anton Kornilov initiated a petition to the governor asking for the “American Home” to retain control of its building. The premises of the educational institution are considered a distinctive “area of interethnic communication” which cannot be lost.
 
The fate of the “American Home” in Vladimir continues to be unclear. On April 9, 2015 the Regional Arbitration Court ruled that “Serendipity,” which constructed the building which has served as the base of its English language courses in 1992 at its own expense, was required to transfer ownership of the building to the City. The mayor’s office has not yet decided whether to expel the Americans from the building or to leave them alone. Two weeks ago, the Erlangen House became interested in this issue. The Germans advised both parties to settle the dispute “out of court,” thereby showing an example of big politics.
 
The legal conflict between the City and the “American Home” seems set to move into the public sphere. Last night, Vladimir resident Anton Kornilov started a petition on change.org asking the regional governor Svetlana Orlova “to prevent the deprivation of the American Home of Vladimir of its buildings.” Judging by the text, its authors were students and teachers of the foreign institution, as well as concerned citizens. According to them, the “American Home” is “the largest and most popular educational institution in Vladimir” in which “a special atmosphere of goodwill, warmth, and the comfort of home” can be found. This atmosphere is created not only by the teachers, but also by the building itself, which is located in the center of Vladimir. “For many years this has been a place that symbolized the international friendship and cultural values of both countries,” stated the petition.
 
Given the complexity of the situation, the citizens are turning to Governor Svetlana Orlova. “Despite the legal aspects, we ask you to consider all possibilities to preserve the unique, original, beloved corner of interethnic communication in Vladimir, the building of the American Home.” 
 At the time of writing, the petition had already been signed by 79 people, including former teachers and alumni of the institution. The authors of the petition are hoping that the governor, regional, and municipal authorities will listen to public opinion. However, this will only be possible if there is the support of a large number of citizens. 
If you’re interested in signing the petition to support the AH, it can be found online here. At the time of my writing, it had reached 308 signatures. 

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