Friday, March 27, 2009

Flashback Friday: In which I meet two Presidents

This is the story of how I met, on two separate occasions, the President of the United States of America, and the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both while living in Moscow, Russia.

Meeting President Bush was easy enough. In 2002, we were working at the US Embassy in Moscow and the President came to Moscow for a visit. The Embassy had a formal reception for him and his entourage, which included First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and NSA director Condoleezza Rice.

As they tend to do every few years, in 2002, the press and members of both governments were once again declaring the official end of the Cold War. President Bush and President Putin were on such good terms in those days that the former even called the latter "Pooty-poot." (I am not making that up.) It's easy to forget now, but in those first few months after 9/11, the United States enjoyed a period of warm, fuzzy sympathy from many nations of the world. Russia was one of them, at least for a little while, as evidenced by this picture of a sign carried by marchers in the May Day Parade:

"Putin sold his soul to Bush." Nobody would make the mistake of thinking that these days.

So President Bush came to Russia and all the embassy employees were invited to a reception in his honor. My friend's 4-year-old daughter sang the national anthem for him and there were a few brief talks by some of the higher-ups in the embassy community.

Then President Bush spoke, after which he and the others mingled with the crowd. And that's how I met the President, his wife, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice.

Here's a picture of Jeremy and me with our friend Chris at the reception. I could have sworn we had a picture of Jeremy with Colin Powell but I can't find it anywhere.

As for President Hinckley (who was President of the Church in 2002), well, let me just say that I lived in Utah for about four years and I never once met any general authorities of the church. All my encounters with higher-up church leaders have been in foreign countries. I'm pretty sure that disproves some kind of common misconception.

He came to Moscow in September 2002, and it was the first time any President of the Church had visited Russia while serving in that capacity (I think Ezra Taft Benson had been there before, but in a government role and not while he was the prophet. I think).

The venue for his meeting with the members of the church in Russia was the Kosmos hotel in Moscow, a run-down former luxury hotel near the Space Museum. Proving that their queuing skills that had been so well honed during Soviet times were still sharp, members of the church came from all over the country early on the day before President Hinckley's arrival and set in to wait the long hours until the event actually started.

This is President Hinckley with Vladimr Kabanov interpreting for him (a Church News photo). Kabanov was our branch president and he did an amazing job interpreting President Hinckley's English remarks into Russian. He even corrected, in his Russian interpretation, a few minor mistakes that President Hinckley made. The conference hall that President Hinckley spoke in was packed, and there were a few smaller conference rooms throughout the hotel that were also filled with people, and they broadcast the remarks going on in the main hall to those rooms. We were in one of those rooms, despite having arrived plenty early. You just can't beat Russians at the line-waiting game.

After his remarks in the main hall, President Hinckley and his wife walked around to all the smaller conference rooms and waved to us. After he left, all the Russian Mormons stayed around and socialized with each other for quite a while. It was a wonderful event and a really exciting time to be Mormon in Russia.

Meridian Magazine ran a very thorough feature on President Hinckley's visit to Russia. You can see lots of pictures and read all about it here.

And that's the story of how I had to go all the way to Russia to meet two American presidents.


Liz Johnson said...

That is AWESOME.

And I'm with you - I've only met Mormon authorities while outside the country, except for one random run-in with L. Tom Perry at some BYU event.

Nancy said...

I'm with both you and Liz. Living outside of the country totally ups your chances.

Jerry said...

If only the Russians could teach people in Jordan that crazy idea of standing in line.


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