Professor who calls herself the 'Heinz 57 of the former Soviet Union' aims to build bridges of friendship
Editor's note: This story was produced for the USU mass communication class "Beyond the Inverted Pyramid," COMM 3110.
In a world of clashing political ideals, Taira Koybaeva, PhD, is fighting to build bridges of understanding and friendship between former cold war rivals Russia and the United States.
Although her passion is founded in business, which she feels has greater influence on a country's agenda than politics, Koybaeva has turned her focus to issues of national security. The reason, she said, was to involve herself more directly in the immediate relationship between the two powers.
"The most constructive things in life happen through business," she said. "When people engage in a constructive activity with each other, they learn how to overcome barriers. They learn a common language. By going through political channels, their agenda is different. My passion is business, but because the U.S./Russian relationship is based primarily in the area of nuclear weapons, that is where the major focus is."
Koybaeva describes herself as a "Heinz 57 of the former Soviet Union," mixed in ancestry between Russian, Ukranian, Azerbaijan and Ossetian. But her heart is purely American.
"I don't know why," mused Koybaeva, "but I feel more 'grounded' here. I am in love with this country - its spirit of perseverance, its philosophy of old-fashioned work ethic and plain down to earth integrity."
After graduating with a PhD from Leningrad State University and spending some time as a researcher at Bonn University, Germany, Koybaeva found herself on American soil at John F. Kennedy Airport, en route to a state she had only seen in photographs. It was a land of "red rock cliffs, sunsets with snow-capped mountains and a magnificent building of the Salt Lake Temple."
Through the help of a man she would later refer to as her "American Dad", a rancher from La Sal, in southern Utah and several other friends from Salt Lake City, Koybaeva established herself in Utah and assumed a position at Utah State University.
Step-by-step, her aptitude for recognizing the communication gaps produced by cultural diversity, particularly in the case international negotiation, led her back to the streets of Moscow as member of the USU delegation.
Within a short time, she was serving as part of the U.S. science/military delegation pushing for improved U.S./Russian relations in national missile defense, space-based surveillance and anti-ballistic missile treaties.
"I work with several congressional offices in many areas trying to bridge the differences and gaps in understanding between my adoptive country and the country I was born in," said Koybaeva. "I want to make sure the two understand each other ‹ on all levels. It is very important that they do."
But the stumbling blocks for improved international relations are firmly in place between United States and Russia. The reason, she said, is a history.
"Americans think if they are being logical and understandable,then everything is fine," said Koybaeva. "Not so in Russia."
Russian is a country of passion and feeling, she said, a land that at times fosters political paranoia. Although many Russians, including Koybaeva, see their motherland as the global center of cultural accomplishment and idealism, society's perception of foreign affairs has been regrettably tainted by a 100-year history of three major wars.
Americans, on the other hand, have been tainted by an entirely different history ‹ a history that has produced a fast paced society that at times stifles feelings and emotions, "runs like crazy," and sometimes fails to fully appreciate profound freedoms offered by its motherland. It is an incredible nation, emphasized Koybaeva, but it has its own distinct culture that affects its perception of the world.
Americans love their country, she said, but many have a two-dimensional view of patriotism.
"There is a reason why this country is so prosperous," said Koybaeva. "Look, Russia is more educated than America is. Russia is no less developed intellectually than the United States if not more intellectually developed. Look at where Russia is, then look at where America is. There is a difference between the countries and a reason for why it is happening."
Society often sees the difference as capitalism or innovation, she said, but it goes deeper than that.
"We think America is about high technology," Koybaeva said. "We think it is about very powerful industrial complexes. We think that America is about space achievement, about money or about finances. It is all true, but it is not the bottom line of what America is made of. America is a very unique country in the sense that it was specifically designed to allow a human spirit to reach his potential within one lifetime. That is an amazing feature. It is a country specifically designed to allow that to happen."
But the United States is not without its faults, and no society ever is, she said.
"The emotional side of American society is often suppressed," Koybaeva said. "The reason is because we are so busy. We get bogged down into everyday things like shopping for clothes and lose sight of the spirit of this county. Our lives are so pressurized. We run like crazy and never have enough time."
In Koybaeva's eyes, America and any other country for that matter has a lot to learn from other countries emotionally and culturally. She recognizes the potentially rocky road the United States must travel to improve relations between the two powers, but the "beauty" of the nation will only be discovered, she said, by collaborating with other cultures to achieve common goals.
Kent Robson, department head for languages and philosophy at Utah State University, expressed admiration for Koybaeva's expertise in cultural analysis and international negotiation, and explained that her work has been a credit to the university and to the United States.
"She is an incredible person," he said. "She is very dynamic and very energetic. Her work at the Space Dynamics Lab has enabled Utah State University to become the foremost player in space dynamics work the Russians of any university in the United States. She is very much committed to Utah, to Utah State University and to Americans in general."
Robson explained that her contribution to the Space Dynamics Lab, combined with the lab's dedication to domestic and international space programs, have resulted in an $30 million increase in space dynamics funding from $90 million last year, to $120 million for 1999-2000.
Lynn Eliason, language and philosophy professor who sits on her tenure committee, echoed Robson's compliment, stating that he is "very much committed to keeping her at the university."
She is very perceptive to aspects of culture, he said, particularly to the difficulties caused by different patterns of communication.
The fight for international cooperation continues for Koybaeva. At times, her path leads back to Moscow. But America remains "her" home, as she put it ‹ a land to which she is firmly devoted.
The focal point of her career has been national security, but she still believes that through business, many of the political stumbling blocks that are plaguing Russia and the United States can be overcome. A common language can be formed, cultures can be more easily accepted and nations can learn to work together constructively.
Together, said Koybaeva, bridges of friendship and cooperation can be created between nations.