Those Who Were There: Class Hears About Revolutions From Eyewitnesses

On the night of Wednesday, October 9th, students of the McBride Honors program gathered to hear a panel of three special guests present their first-hand accounts of recent historical revolutions. The presenters, Tim Haddon, Toni Lefton, and Alex Gorodinski, each told their own stories, and followed these by answering questions from the assembled audience.

Timothy Haddon, a Mines alum with a B.S. Mining Engineering and over 35 years of experience in international mining, grew up during the tumultuous period of Rhodesia, before its reconstitution as the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980. The country, much like its neighbor South Africa, had developed laws to enforce massive gaps in privilege and equality along racial lines. White colonists were given special treatment, being in possession of almost all of the land, material wealth, and resources of the country. Tim’s parents were among a small minority of whites who fought against these types of laws, at a time where such resistance bordered on illegal. Tim left the country in 1965, the same year that Rhodesia formally declared its independence from the United Kingdom. On graduating high school, his parents encouraged him to leave the country. His father had attended the Royal School of Mines in London, so Tim decided to follow suit and attend a mining school- only this time, it was in Colorado. During his freshman year, his father was imprisoned for three years. Tim noted that even though mining had been a vehicle by which whites had taken advantage of blacks in Rhodesia, he didn’t see mining itself as exploitative. “Mining creates wealth,” he said, “…it is one of the few industries where you’re actually taking something from the ground and making it available, like agriculture or fishing.” He pointed to the laws in place which gave whites control over mining as the primary creator of inequality. Tim’s own work in mining, as CEO of Amax Gold Inc., as well as CEO and President of Archangel Diamond Corporation, has been recognized as some of the most environmentally conscious in the industry. While at Amax Gold, the company received the Dupont Environmental Excellence Award, judged by activists including members of the Sierra Club, Mineral Policy Center, and the National Wildlife Federation.
Toni Lefton, a member of the Mines faculty with the LAIS department, and current McBride professor, gave her own account of growing up in Liberia. She lived at about the time of the coup d’état
of Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. As a child, she attended an American cooperative school while living in the United States embassy. Toni left the country on account of her parents separating at an early age, and left the country before the full-scale revolution took place. Still, she had been in the country for long enough to see death and civil strife on a large scale. One notable event were the race riots following a “hut tax”, high property taxes to pay for subsidies for rice farmers. Toni expressed that for her, writing was both a tool for healing and a way to open dialogue between parties unable to communicate in other ways.”The greatest gift you can give to a writer is listening,” she noted, adding that she had hidden from her own memories as a defense mechanism, and used writing therapeutically. Toni has been writing a memoir, and has found it to be more cathartic than painful. She came up with an ending for the memoir on a trip to South Africa, upon wandering into a clinic. Recognizing from the clinic a childhood memory, she remembered playing marbles with her brother in an identical context. She proceeded to recite a poem titled “Collateral Damage”, a loquacious examination of the stolen childhoods of boy soldiers in revolutions, and how such a childhood might be restored in future generations. Toni wishes to visit Liberia again someday, which has been moving in a progressive direction following a highly successful democratic election in 2005.

Alex Gorodinski, a teacher of mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and pedagogy, recounted only one event from a lifetime of experiences with revolution and change in the USSR: the fall of the Berlin Wall. While he had been present during many political tumults, including the Perestroika movement and collapse of the Iron Curtain, he chose the fall of the Berlin Wall due to its emblematic status in the sudden change from a Cold War mentality to that of optimistic idealism. He described the scene in depth- some other professors and him drove to Berlin during the month in which it was torn down, November of 1989. Whenever they had crossed the Wall while it was in operation, border police required them to stop and present documents for every conceivable thing- textbooks, the car they were driving, papers- always in order to ensure that nothing passed the wall without reason. When the wall fell, the atmosphere changed almost overnight. A few million people were there to celebrate. Former guards no longer oppressed the Berliners, but joined them in festivities. Alex remembered coming across the Germans on the other side, speaking only Russian himself. Within a few minutes the two groups had developed a simple working vocabulary, the Germans notably using “Gorbe!” (in reference to the Mikhail Gorbachev, now former Soviet General Secretary and reformer) and attempting to determine the Russian word for beer. While German may have been the language most spoken, there were other languages present as well: English, French, Italian, and countless others- it seemed as if the whole world had gathered to view the spectacle of a newly reunified Berlin. It being November, the city was fairly cold, and the drive had left many celebrants exhausted, but almost everyone their found it hard to contain their exuberance. Alex, as an pronounced academic, had involved himself in papers on how opening the borders could have serious negative effects, but the criminality and mass egression predicted in those papers simply failed to occur in Berlin. He noted, “…[the] wall is just formal…[it] is not reality.” Sadly, the optimism and hopefulness at the fall of the wall was a spirit which has not carried over into modern day Russia. Alex’s school was destroyed following the wall’s fall, and he consequently moved out of the country. In modern Russia, he noted, failures in education prevent much of the population from finding anything but menial work, and even that is sometimes short. “The majority are forced to live like slaves,” he said. If he were to return, he believes he would not be welcome. So what could be a driving force for lasting societal change, if a revolution like that seen at the Berlin Wall does not maintain its potency over the years? Alex points to quality education as greater than any economic or political forces in ensuring a high quality of life.

Students, teachers, and other members of the audience seemed to find the dialogue and stories given by the guests fascinating, and took every opportunity to bounce questions off of the trio of panelists. The picture of revolution as a concept was given myriad forms to work with- violent or peaceful, large or small, political or societal, slow or instantaneous. The message which all three panelists seemed to agree on the most was one of idealism. “Never lose your idealism,” Tim warned, as the other two panelists agreed. “Always hoping for a better world might be the best thing we can do.”

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