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Waging Peace: Vignettes
Note: I am working on a book about my trip to Russia. Entitled “Waging Peace,” the book will capture the unique experience that was my 26-day journey in search of the Russian soul. The introduction to this book has already been published as a Substack article, and I plan on publishing around 30% of the book using the Substack platform. The entire book will be self-published and made available as part of a fundraising effort in support of a feature-length documentary film, with the same name (Waging Peace), which uses my Russia trip as a platform to discuss a wide range of issues including nuclear disarmament, Russophobia, and US-Russian relations. The book will consist of 15 chapters and a series of what I’m calling vignettes—short “stories” about interesting subjects related to the trip which, while interesting, are not substantive enough in their own right to occupy a chapter. The first of these vignettes is published here: “The Coin.” I am planning on having a limited number of these coins made available as part of the fundraising effort for the documentary film, to be packaged together with the book.
There is a tradition among US military and paramilitary (i.e., police and firefighter) organization known as the “challenge coin.” While the origins of the first challenge coin remain the purview of legend, the basic concept is simple enough: a coin bearing the unique markings of the unit in question is issued to the members of the unit, who are then required to always have the coin with them. When two or more team members gather in a social environment (usually a bar), any member may conduct what is known as a “coin check” by putting his (or her) coin on the table or bar and demanding to see the coins of the other members. If those members known to possess a coin fail to produce theirs, they must buy those with a coin a drink.
However, if a challenged member produces his (or her) coin, then the one making the challenge must pay for the libations. In short, the challenge coin tradition started as a glorified drinking game. Over time, however, the challenge coin has taken on a more formal posture, with coins being produced by units and their commanders to be given out as a token of appreciation, or to commemorate a special event. But one thing has not changed over time: the challenge coin remains a uniquely American tradition.
When the plans for my trip to Russia were finalized in late March, I realized that I could not show up in Russia empty-handed. While I was able to procure appropriate gifts for my hosts, the issue of what to give to those people I would be meeting along the way remained. My wife, Marina, and I discussed this matter, but every solution (pens, bottle openers, other trinkets) came across as too cheap and, simply put, not sufficient for the occasion. I was running out of time when I glanced at the various souvenirs I had accumulated over time regarding the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. One souvenir in question stood out: a challenge coin issued on the 20th Anniversary of the INF treaty.
“Eureka!” I shouted out to Marina, who was busy looking for “I Love NY” bottle openers online.
“What?” she responded, somewhat irritated at my sudden interference in her search for the perfect gift.
“A challenge coin!” I said. “I’m going to design a challenge coin to bring as a gift.”
The idea went over like a lead balloon. “Russians will not understand this,” she said. “It is an American tradition that means nothing to them. This is the worst idea possible.”
Scott Ritter will discuss this article and answer audience questions on Ep. 75 of Ask the Inspector.
I stubbornly insisted that my idea was pure genius, and proceeded to test my skills as a graphic artist by designing a coin that incorporated a slogan (“Be your own Van Cliburn”) I was using regarding the planned trip, a nod to the successful journey of the famous Texan pianist who traveled to Moscow in 1958, where he placed 1st at the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Music Competition and, in doing so, won the hearts of the Soviet citizens in attendance, a remarkable feat given that the US and Soviet Union were in the grips of a Cold War at the time. On the reverse side of the coin I put an SS-20 missile launcher, and a phrase “learning to trust again,” a play on Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” slogan that became synonymous with the INF treaty.
Design in hand, I reached out to several companies that made challenge coins, only to be told that there wasn’t enough time for them to produce the coin in question. Disheartened, I almost gave up when I clicked on one last vendor. Soon I found myself chatting with a member of the “design team.” They, too, told me that there was no time. But then they asked me what the reason was for my wanting a coin. I told them about my coming trip to Russia, and my desire to have an appropriate representational gift. They told me to contact them in an hour. When I did, they said they would be able to do a special “rush” order that could meet my deadline, but that I had to get the finished design in by the close of business the next day.
I had used Google translate to help me with some Russian text I wanted to use on the coin, so I sent the coin drawing to a Telegram channel used by the administrators who oversee my main Telegram channel. I was hoping for some positive feedback, but instead my initial design was rejected by all who saw it. “It doesn’t capture the essence of your trip,” I was told. No one liked my Van Cliburn quote. “Your trip is about your book,” I was told. “Not about his experience.”
The missile idea bombed as well. “Disarmament is a touchy subject,” the moderators said. “No one in Russia is in a mood to trust America at this time.”
I needed a completely new coin design but was running out of time.
I had a photo of the book cover of the Russian language edition, so I used it on one side of the coin, along with the words “Russia book tour, 4.30.23-5.25.23” in Russian. One the other side I placed two hands shaking, one in the colors of the Russian flag, the other in the colors of the American flag, along with the text, “Winning back trust, one handshake at a time.”
I forwarded the new design to the chatroom. Alexandra, the senior administrator, came back with some suggestions regarding the layout and content. “Remove ‘winning back trust,’” she wrote. “Just go with “One handshake at a time.” She shifted the book on its axis, added my name, and wrapped the layout in a wreath, framing it very nicely. I took one look at her work and forwarded it to the vendor with minutes to spare. The next day they came back with the design mock-up.
It looked fantastic.
I ordered 200 coins, each to be numbered sequentially, thus making each coin a unique commemoration of the book tour and my journey.
On April 26 the coins arrived. They were everything I had hoped they would be—professionally produced, each one the perfect token of appreciation to be handed out by me to those I was anticipating meeting on my journey.
One quick note about traveling while carrying large numbers of challenge coins. First, they weigh a lot! Second, and perhaps most critically, they are detected as anomalous objects by every x-ray screening device encountered on my journey. I had to open my bags several times to show a skeptical operator what a “challenge coin” was and explain why I was carrying so many.
Marina was still not sold on the idea of the coin and was arguing that I should pack a few hundred ballpoint pens as gifts when it became clear the coin was a bust. I refused, if for the simple fact that there was, literally, no room left in my bags.
I gave out my first coin upon landing in Novosibirsk, my port of entry into Russia. The Russian border guards manning the passport control checkpoint were taken aback by the presence of American passports and accompanying Americans, and my daughter, Victoria, and I had to wait for a few minutes while the authorities sorted out this quandary. Soon a senior officer approached, and beckoned Victoria and me to follow him. Our passports were processed, our bags collected, and we were waived through the customs check without incident. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a coin, which I handed to the officer, “Thanks,” I said, shaking his hand. He held the coin in his hand, looking it over. His eyes locked in on the words, “One handshake at a time.” He smiled and extended his hand again.
The coin’s debut was a success.
Every place I visited, I met people who treated my daughter and me well. All deserved a coin, but I had rationed the coins to a specific number per city, along with about a dozen held in reserve for unplanned contingencies. But as it turned out, the entire visit was an unplanned contingency, and I was handing out coins left and right, with similar results—each person who received one was overwhelmed and deeply appreciative of the gesture on my part.
Government officials, tour guides, interpreters, random people on the street—everyone got a coin. Whether in Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Saint Petersburg, or Moscow, it didn’t matter—if I had a coin in my pocket, and someone did something nice, out it came, delivered with the trademark “handshake” advertised on the coin itself.
The existence of the coin remained a secret up until the moment of delivery, making its impact all the more emotional, and therefore meaningful, for both me and those whom I gave it to.
Then came Moscow.
I was scheduled to give an interview to Ekaterina Strezhinova, a famous Russian actress and television presenter with Channel One, Russia’s premier television station. I had previously done an interview with her via Zoom, but this one was going to be an in-person interview in the main Moscow studio for Channel One. I slipped a coin into my pocket, anticipating that after the interview I would have an opportunity to present it to her as a token of appreciation.
Ekaterina was known for asking her guests to come up with one word that best described the message they were trying to impart on the program. I had several possibilities bouncing around inside my head, but the final choice would be dependent on the interview itself, and where Ekaterina took the conversation. I had not selected a final candidate by the time the program ended, and Ekaterina hit me with the question, “What’s your most important word (‘Samoye Glavnoye Slovo’).”
Improvising, I reached into my pocket and drew out the coin. “Let me end it this way. I made a coin to commemorate this trip, and I give it out as a token of appreciation. So here’s a coin,” I said, placing it on the table, and sliding it across to where Ekaterina sat, “that I’m giving to you. It’s based on the concept of a handshake and friendship.” I reached out and shook Ekaterina’s hand.
“‘Friendship’ is the word,” I said. “One handshake at a time. That’s how I’m going to treat my trip to Russia.”
The best screenwriters in Hollywood could not have scripted a better scene. I think it took Ekaterina by surprise—her eyes filled with tears as she held the coin in her hands, and then displayed it for the cameras. This was the very impact I was hoping for when I conceived the existence of this coin, and now it was being shown to the Russian people vis the most watched television channel in Russia.
Well, the cat was out of the bag now. With success comes costs, and in my case, the cost was that everyone wanted a coin. My supply was rapidly running low. My host, Alexander, cautioned me about this. “Don’t run out of coins before we get to Chechnya,” he semi-joked, “or the Chechens may not let you leave.”
I did my best to conserve coins, but life kept conspiring against me. We met an 80-year-old grandmother on the train from Ekaterinburg to Izhevsk whose son and grandson worked in the Votkinsk Factory that played such a central role in my experience in implementing the INF treaty.
She got a coin.
A veteran paratrooper decorated for heroism in combat I met in Izhevsk?
He got a coin.
The Georgian café owner who learned my daughter was half-Georgian and treated us all to freshly made Khachapuri?
He got a coin.
By the time we arrived in Chechnya, my coin supply was running low. I had budgeted 15 coins per destination, with some held in reserve. Once I checked into my hotel room in Grozny, I did a quick count—I was down to five coins per destination (Chechnya, Sevastopol, and Sochi) with no reserve.
I was determined to be disciplined, but fate dictated otherwise. We spent the evening with Ilyas Ebiev, a famous Chechen singer, whose hospitality and charm was second to none.
He got a coin.
The next day, I was provided the opportunity to review and meet soldiers from the famous “Akhmat Regiment,” Chechen President Ramzan Khadirov’s personal guard. Magomed Daudov, the number three man in Chechnya better known by his nickname, “Lord,” arrived to address the assembled troops and observe a training demonstration by special assault troops. He led me on a tour of the unit’s museum and hosted my daughter and me at a soccer game featuring Grozny’s own team, “Akhmat.”
He got a coin.
I left Chechnya with four fewer coins than I was supposed to have, which meant I entered Crimea running a deficit. Things only got worse there, as I gave out the allotted amount, plus one for Fatima, the childhood neighbor of my host, Alexander, who opened her home and treated us all to a delicious Tatar meal.
She got a coin.
By the time we arrived in Sochi, the final destination of my 26-day journey, the coin situation was critical. I had one coin remaining from the original allocation. I had set aside a coin for Ramzan Khadirov, but I never got the opportunity to meet him, which meant I had two. I had given Victoria a stash of coins to hand out on her own volition, and she had one left, which I took.
Likewise, I had given Ilya Volkav, our traveling companion and sometime interpreter, a few coins to give to his friends who were unable to meet me in person. He had one remaining, which I took under my control.
And finally, I had my own personal coin, my challenge coin—the one that I would slap onto a tabletop if someone were to do a coin check. The first rule of the “challenge coin” system is to never be without your challenge coin. This one was not for giving away.
Which meant I only had four coins left.
One by one, the coins were given away to the people who made my visit to Sochi the wonderful experience it was. I tried to ration my meager stocks, forsaking people whom, had we met earlier in my journey, when the availability of a coin was not an issue, would have been provided one as a well-deserved token of my appreciation.
Our final destination in Sochi was the Olympic Park, where we were treated to a first-class tour of a world-class facility. I had two coins left, and carefully selected the recipients from among the host of wonderful people I was meeting. The deed was done—I had no more coins to give.
And then a gentleman stepped up and handed me a bag, inside of which was a hockey jersey from the local professional hockey team bearing my name and—importantly—the number 11. This was the number President Putin would wear when playing hockey during his visits to Sochi, and it was a great honor to be handed a jersey bearing that number.
I stood there, jersey in hand, overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude and, at the same time, devastated that I had nothing left to give in return.
Nothing, of course, besides my own challenge coin.
Half of me wanted to accept the jersey by simply shaking hands and calling it a day.
But the handshake was only part of the scenario I had outlined to Ekaterina Strezhinova back in Moscow, at the conclusion of our interview on Channel One. The coin had to be incorporated into the handshake if the concept of “one handshake at a time” was to have any meaning.
And the only coin I had left was my own, and the first rule of the “challenge coin” system is to never be without your challenge coin.
The coin, however, would have no meaning if I were to forego its presentation to someone who clearly rated it; everything I had made the coin for would be rendered empty and meaningless if left the Sochi Olympic Park with my coin still in my pocket.
I casually reached into my pocket and, as if I had prepared for this very moment all along, removed my coin, which I then placed into the palm of the gentleman who had given me the personalized hockey game jersey.
“One handshake at a time,” I said, shaking his.
He held the coin up so he could better see it, turning it over to take in both sides. His eyes glistened, and a smile lit up his face.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
He extended his hand, and we shook again.
My journey was complete. The coin had fulfilled its designated role of helping spread friendship between an American and the people of Russia.
One handshake at a time.
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