A Brief History of the American Home
Dr. Ronald (Ron) Pope, the initiator of the American Home Project, is founder and president of Serendipity: Russian Consulting & Development, Ltd. (now known as Serendipity-Russia). He was also a professor of Russian Politics at Illinois State University from 1976 to 2009. He has studied and directly observed the Soviet Union since 1962. Prior to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, he had traveled to the Soviet Union eight times. He has subsequently made more than 40 trips to what is now the Russian Federation.
In April 1989 Dr. Pope acted as an interpreter for a visiting delegation from Vladimir that had come to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois to sign a Sister City agreement. From this contact, he received an invitation to observe Vladimir's first competitive local elections in March 1990. During a return trip that May to observe the newly elected "city council" in action, he decided to become actively involved in the crucial changes taking place in Russia.
As a first step toward cooperation between Americans and Russians, Dr. Pope arranged for a summer 1990 trip to Vladimir by two ISU Agricultural faculty members, Dr. Randy Winter and Dr. Rick Whitacre, along with two area farmers. During a reciprocal visit to Illinois by two Vladimir area agricultural specialists in February 1991, Dr. Whitacre suggested building a model American-style home as a demonstration project. (The quality of Soviet-era construction left a lot to be desired.) Dr. Pope immediately recognized that this was exactly the type of project he was looking for, and he and Dr. Whitacre invited ISU Professor of Industrial Technology and construction specialist, Dr. Ed Francis to get involved.
Dr. Francis and IT Department Chair, Dr. Franzi Loepp, traveled to Vladimir in June 1991 for a first-hand look at the project's feasibility. Their report was favorable, and Dr. Pope and Dr. Francis began the search for volunteer builders and donated materials. Dr. Francis designed the home and persuaded seven ISU IT students and members of the Bloomington-Normal Home Builders Association, led by Randy Raper, to participate, along with Rick Whitacre.
A number of obstacles were encountered along the way, one of the largest of which was the eventual inability, due to rapid inflation, of the Vladimir City Administration to cover its agreed upon share of the costs on the Russian side. Instead of canceling the project, Dr. Pope went in search of a sponsor. Ultimately, his father, Russell Pope, offered to provide the financing.
Serendipity ended up investing more than $125,000 to complete the American Home; it cost the people of Vladimir nothing. In-kind contributions were received from more than 50 North American firms, volunteer builders, and Dr. Francis. (See the list of contributors and volunteers.) In addition, assistance was provided by a number of Russians. This included the support of Vladimir Mayor Igor Shamov and the full cooperation of the city's deputy mayor for construction, Valeri Siderov.
The ground-breaking ceremony was held May 18, 1992, and the American Home was officially dedicated July 4 of that year. The rapid completion of the home surprised many Russians. They were used to construction projects taking many years to completeif they were finished at all. When one individual was told that work would begin in May and the home would be dedicated on the American Independence holiday, he wanted to know "July 4 of what year?"
Another interesting anecdote: Russians who witnessed the construction of this "flimsy wood-frame house were sure the occupants would freeze during the winter. They were used to thick concrete or brick walls. There was a lack of knowledge of modern energy-efficient construction. The AH remains warm and comfortable throughout the long Russian winter. [See facts and figures]
The 4th of July dedication was a gala affair with first-rate Russian performing groups, plenty of food and drink, a large contingent of local dignitariesand very high hopes for the future.
September 1992, serendipity began offering English classes taught by three young Americans. This program quickly grew from 70 to more than 350 studentsclose to its physical capacity at the time. It currently employs eight full-time American teachers plus one experienced Russian teacher who very ably instructs those students who know no English at all. Thanks to the addition of a fifth classroom in the attic and the rental of additional classroom space at a private business school, we are now able to enroll more than 400 students each term.
The program's main attractions include energetic native speaking teachers using a variety of materials and innovative EFL [English as a Foreign Language] -based teaching techniques. More than 10,000 Vladimirites have participated in these classes to date, including business professionals, educators, medical personnel, law enforcement officers, and others who report the lessons enable them to communicate with their English-speaking colleagues. In 1966 the program added conversation classes and a special class to help students prepare for the TOEFL exam [Test of English as a Foreign Language] required for admission by most American schoolswhich is taught when there is sufficient demand.
The American teachers working in this program are recruited nationwide, there are now regularly more serious applicants than openings. (In 1997 the firstand so far onlyCanadian teacher was hired.)
Since its inception, the
English program has been very ably directed by Galya Altonen. Galya
graduated from what was then the Vladimir State Pedagogical Institute
where she majored in teaching English. (VSPI is now Vladimir State
University for the Humanities.)
The English program currently
covers the costs of operating the American Home.
Prior to the August 1998 economic crisis, additional funds were contributed by Serendipity's remodeling business. This business was started in 1994as soon as decent quality building materials became available in Moscow. It was managed by the American Home's initial Russian Executive Director, Tatyana Veksler. The foreman was Andrei Koretsky who helped build the American Home and had made several trips to the US. In 1994, for example, he worked for three months with Bloomington-Normal builder Doug Parker. Doug had been one of the volunteers who built the American Home.
In late 1995 it was discovered that Ms. Veksler had embezzled a large sum of money from the remodeling business. She was immediately let gobut Dr. Pope was advised by a number of Russians not press the matter further on the assumption that the former director's "connections" would enable her to avoid prosecution. Dr. Pope was informed that if she was not found guilty, he would be responsible for all the back taxesplus huge fines and penalties. (Everyone agreed that this was a counterproductive law.) However, as a matter of principle, the theft was reported to the authorities and, after considerable time and effort, a conviction was ultimately handed downmuch to the surprise of many knowledgeable Russians and Americans who did not expect the Russian legal system to function properly. (See "An Illinois Yankee in Tsar Yeltsin's Court: Justice in Russia in the Articles section.)
Galya Altonen, who, as noted above, has managed the English program from the beginning, took on the additional responsibility of managing the Home. Her husband, Alexei, took on responsibility for "special projects." This dynamic team continues to do an excellent job. Dr. Pope, with help from his wife Susie, continued to manage things from the American side. Susie took care of the website and provided substantial additional advice and assistance. Dr. Pope recruited and hired the teachers for the English program each year, recruited students for the intensive Russian program, organized tours, and played a major role in the "special projects." The latter included very successful Fulbright-sponsored trips for American teachers in 2004, 2007, and 2008.
Having survived the embezzlement trial, on July 4, 1997 the American Home celebrated its fifth Anniversary with the help of a 19-member group from central Illinois. They were joined for the Independence Day celebration by more than 100 Russians, including members of the Vladimir Partner Cities Association.
In August 1998 Russia suffered a major financial meltdown. In the course a few weeks the Russian ruble was devalued by 75 percent. Clearly tuition for the English program could not be abruptly increased. Major efforts had to be made to economize. Both the Russian and American staff, along with almost everyone else in Vladimir, had to adjust to a major decline in their real income. But ways were found to keep the doors open.
blow was followed by a "physical attack." Early in the morning
on December 18, 1998while the US and Britain were bombing Russia's
longtime ally, Iraqso-called Russian "patriots" painted
anti-American graffiti on the Home. The vandalism was widely condemned
by the local media and by political leaders, as well as by the general
public. The American Home received equally strong support when the
same group of extremists broke the front windows shortly after NATO
planes began bombing Serbia in March 1999. Even though there was widespread
opposition to the bombing, the excellent reputation the American Home
had earned over the years kept it from becoming an acceptable target
for expressing opposition to US government policy.
The end of June 1999, Russell Pope, who, as noted above, had provided the funding needed to cover all the costs for the project beyond what was donatedmore than $100,000and his three children, Ron, Kathy, and Terry and their spouses, plus two of the grandchildren made what for most of them was their first trip to Russia. When the group stopped at the American Home on the way to their Vladimir Hotel, they noticed a sign in the front yard. It said, "House for Sale." Ron asked his father if he might like to buy a house in Russiato which Russell replied, "I think I've already paid for this one."
The Pope family helped celebrate the 4th of July at the American Home, and visited a variety of places including the orphanage the American Home has been assisting since 1993, the Children's Hospital where they delivered some donated medical equipment, and a local TV station. Russell Pope is a retired radio and television engineer.
The next year Russell returned with three more of the grandchildren and Ron and Susan. When Dr. Pope asked his father if he thought the substantial investment in the American Home had turned out to be worth while, the reply was: "Absolutely!" The elder Pope acknowledge that he was very impressedand very pleasedwith what was being accomplished through the American Home.
Beginning in March 2002, a twice-yearly e-mail newsletter was prepared especially for former teachersthere have been more than 100 to dateand others with a special interest in the American Home. The newsletter was also shared with AH students and Vladimir-area English teachers.
To access the newsletter archive, click here.
On July 4, 2002 the American Home marked its 10th anniversary with a gala celebration. The decision was made at this time to end the tradition of hosting a major event honoring America's Independence Day every year and to celebrate the Home's anniversary only every fifth year. The yearly celebrations, while very popular, were getting to be too expensive.
In summer 2004 Dr. Pope and the American Home staff, led by Alex Altonen, made all the in-country arrangements for a very successful one-month trip to Russia for 14 American social studies teachers. This program was made possible by a Fulbright-Hays grant that had been obtained by the University of Illinois Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center.
Also in 2004, a major effort to assist both the City and the Oblast (region) with tourism development was initiated. This on-going project is under the direction of Dr. Bruce Wicks, professor of tourism development at the University of Illinois.
Among the projects to-date are a map for tourists in English and Russian, an English-language website (www.vladimir-russia.info), a number of well-received workshops, and A Brief History of the Vladimir Region for Visitors.
Also in 2004 an initial review was conducted of recreation needs in Vladimir by Marta Moorman (University of Nebraska at Kearney) and Barb Schlatter (Illinois State University). In their report they concluded that a lot of work needed to be done to improve recreational opportunities for young people in particular. This remains true today. This is a project we would very much like to follow through on.
By 2003 it was clear that the remodeling business was becoming increasingly "complicatedand significantly less profitable. In addition, we needed to expand the space available to the English program. Our attorney, Valentina Spiridonova, helped Andrei Koretsky set up an independent "construction firmand he moved his equipment and building materials out of the American Home.
In 2004-05, thanks in large part to extra income earned from teaching special classes for employees of the Kraft Foods chocolate factory in Pokrov, major renovations were made in the attic and in the garageand a new roof was put on the house. For some reason, the old roof had started to leak in several places. The waiting area in the garage was greatly expanded and a fifth classroom, storage, and a spacious office for the teachers were added in the attic. The teachers move to the attic made it possible for the library to be transferred from Galya Altonen's overcrowded office to the teachers' old office in the basement. Students--and others--now have much more convenient access to the American Home's growing collection of books and magazines.
In 2007 the U. of I. Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center received a second Fulbright grant, and in 2008 a third Fulbright grant was awarded to the University of Chicago's Center for Russian and East European Studies. Once again, the American Home made all the in-country arrangements for both of these exceptionally successful programs. Funding for a 2009 program was ultimately not obtainedthanks to some classic bureaucratic nonsense. (The last chapter to this story has not yet been written.)
Determined not to let what we learned and developed go unused, we have initiated and are coordinating a high school exchange program drawing in part on the foundation provided by the successful Fulbright trips. We hope this will become an important part of our overall educational exchange efforts.
We are also in the process of expanding our highly regarded Intensive Russian program.
The American Home in Vladimir has become a center for learning about American culture, a meeting place for Vladimir's local Partner [Sister] Cities Association, and the communications center for, and frequently the initiator and coordinator of, a wide variety of cooperative undertakings.
Specifically, in addition to the English and Intensive Russian programs, the Fulbright-based undertaking, and the tourism development project mentioned above, the American Home contributes to a variety of educational, cultural, and professional projects and exchanges. (See the Special Projects section of this website.)
In 2009 four former American Home teachers volunteered to assist with the AH's activities. Brooke Ricker (2005-06) agreed to help coordinate the English program, including the hiring of new teachers. Sarah Rorimer (2003-05) agreed to help with communication with former teachers and related matters, and David Johnson (2001-04) agreed to help with communication with Russian language and Russian studies programs around the country and recruitment of students for the intensive Russian program, among other things. Jane Keeler (2005-06) took on responsibility for the website and for monitoring our blog and Facebook page. This new team is making major contributions. In addition to the updated and expanded use of the Web, 150 colleges and universities with Russian language/Russian studies programs have been contacted, our first video about the American Home project has been preparedand more.
We will continue to try to make positive contributions in the years ahead!
Please see our archive of articles for more information on the American Home!