NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia — I’ve been following the record-breaking snowfall in my beloved motherland, what my father always referred to as “the great state of Maine.” It has been fascinating to hear how local governments are struggling to cope with conditions that are business as usual in Siberia.

I came to Siberia in 1992, expecting to spend four months experiencing the transition to democracy. I am still here, and democracy is still in transition.

I’ve learned a lot during these last 23 years, including that minus 40 is where Celsius meets Fahrenheit and that this temperature brings out the best in Siberians. I was reminded of that taking my daughter to school on the bus.


At minus 35, no one gives an inch to help others struggling past the blockade of coats and hats. Minus 40, and the bus transforms into the world I want to live in. The furry mass shuffles back to make way as a chorus of “get in, get in, it’s cold out there” sings. At minus 40, there is room and respect for the needs of everyone. We are united in our desire to survive and understand that that requires sacrificing some of our own comfort.

In a previous adventure at minus 40, my car got stuck in the snow. Before long, a committed volunteer team of passers-by appeared. This was no brute-force rock-and-push situation. They patiently applied scientific technique to understanding the rut, identifying constraints and possible exit paths. They did not waste an ounce of energy thinking about what kind of idiot with a weird accent takes a car on a campus pedestrian path.

It was an hour and a half, with my Fahrenheit meeting their Celsius all the while, before they were able to free the car, and we experienced a fleeting moment of bonding through a shared feeling of great accomplishment.

The current U.S. sanctions against Russia and talk of using $3 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars to arm neighboring Ukraine make me wonder what temperature we have to reach in this Cold War heat-up before the U.S. and Russia can meet and work productively together.

During the previous Cold War, amid the arms build-up and proxy wars, the antagonism between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was channeled into a space race that challenged the two countries to achieve great things that were appreciated and shared by all.


The current situation is a clown race downhill for civilization. There are so many disturbingly idiotic things associated with this on both sides that I don’t want to wreck my minus-40-degree euphoria going into more detail.

I prefer remembering how the volunteer movement began in Siberia after Nikolai Slabzhanin visited Chebeague Island and discovered that everything from the fire department to the library was the responsibility of volunteers.

I want to think about inspiring nongovernmental organizations throughout Russia by using a case study of my sister’s company, Coffee By Design, and congratulating Sergey Pleshakov with a Portland Buy Local T-shirt when he launched a “Buy Local Movement” in the Far East.

The people engaged in development at the bottom are getting results that actually improve quality of life as they continue their search for a new, authentic way of life for post-Soviet Russia. Many of these improvements were carried out by people who’d read about or met with Americans working in their communities finding solutions to similar challenges.

At minus 40, the crisp, frozen air is silent but for the crack of footfalls on snow of people heading out at a determined pace, certain that they’ll not last long out here alone. None of these advances was enhanced by people promoting political agendas or vendettas on either side.


How many degrees is the point at which the political elite in both countries realize the mortal danger of continuing to be pushy, ignorant, hypocritical or selfish? What does the temperature need to be for each side to talk less and hear more?

What is the tipping point that inspires an impulse toward shared glory, comfort or sacrifice? Where does Celsius meet Fahrenheit, the moment when Russia and America start to understand each other?

The challenges are many: global warming; nuclear armaments; the echoing chasm between the global haves and have-nots; the universal yearning for a peaceful future for our children and a revival of honor and the values that attracted Russians and others throughout the world to America in the first place. There is no more time or lives to waste on ego-driven fantasies of omnipotence. Nature always wins.