Contributed by Scott Hammond*
I really expected Kraig Rice to say to me, 'just kidding Scott, you can't really go with Choate Sensei on his tour of Russia and Ukraine', for any number of reasons, any of which I'm pretty sure I would have understood.
One of them being that I would have stood out like a sore thumb, as I am of African decent. Another, being that I have only progressed as far as I have in my practice and study of Aikido. However from the moment I said, "sure I'd like to go," to the moment I walked into the airport in Moscow, I knew I had no idea what I was in for.
Until just before our departure all I had heard about Russia was what I would consider horror stories of political unrest, corruption, prejudice, and unpleasantly cold weather. So, I decided to educate myself by watching the news, reading my Insight Guide to Russia and Ukraine, and visiting websites with current events and information.
I discovered that this was a country of rich history. Moscow is first mentioned in historic annals written in 1147 A.D., and under the rule of Prince Ivan Kalita expanded in the early 14th century. Ivan III (the Great), in the mid-15th century defeated their enemies the Tatars and became the first prince to hold the title of "tsar", which is the Russian form of Caesar. As tsar, Ivan III commissioned Italian architects to create a new Kremlin. Many of the cathedrals and walls they built are still standing and quite inspiring.
So I'm sure anyone would agree that the history of this land is deserving of high regard. However, modern day Moscow and Kiev are also full of a refreshing determination and zest for living that I would argue is unique to that part of the world and also evident in the enthusiasm I experienced from my fellow aikidoka on the mat. A zest that creates curiosity and at the same time compassion. Our training led by Choate Sensei solidified an understanding of the similarities in our struggle and study of "what works" in life relative to their and our Aikido practice. These similarities between countries and continents that have for so long been isolated from one another were refreshing, indeed.
This was my first time in Europe and I was blessed to be hosted by people who shared their training as well as their hospitality from the heart. Our hosts for the most part were people who didn't have a lot, but still they shared with enthusiasm their food, homes, and their ideas with me about life and training. What an adventure to experience, and what a place to practice Aikido.
*Scott is a member of Chicago Aikikai. His reflections are reprinted with permission of "Helios", newsletter of Chicago Aikikai.