A Harvard Application Essay
“On Diplomacy in Bright Nike Running Tights”
By Christopher M. Kirchhoff
Beepbeep. With a series of subtle but relentless beeps, my faithful Timex Ironman watch alarm signaled the start of another day, gently ending the pleasant slumber I so often fail to enjoy. With the touch of a button I silenced the alarm, falling back on my bed to establish a firmer grasp of where I was and why on earth I had set my alarm for 5:45 A.M. Slowly the outline of my soundly sleeping roommate came into focus. Beyond his bed was the window. Across the Neva River the view of the Hermitage and Winter Palace, illuminated brightly with spotlights, faded in and out of the falling snow. I was definitely still in St. Petersburg, and no, this wasn’t a dream. “Oh yes, running,” I remembered. “Must go running.”
Temperature??? I dialed the front desk. “Kakoy tempatura pozholsta.” Not fooled by my Berlitz Russian, the voice responded, “Negative 7 degrees” in crisp English. I reached for my running tights, glad that meant negative seven degrees Celsius. I took another look into the darkness outside. Negative seven degrees Fahrenheit and I would not be running. The hotel lobby was empty except for the guard and the woman at the desk. As I stepped outside, I pressed the start button on my Timex Ironman and began jogging.
It was a pristine morning. The November wind promptly reminded me just what winter meant at 60 degrees north latitude. With the sky awaiting the break of dawn, I started making my way through the newly fallen snow. Soon the sound of my labored breathing came through the rhythmic swooshing of running shoes dancing through the snow. As clouds of breath collected in front of me, I passed slowly through them, marking my forward progress with each exhale. Around the corner I found a freshly shoveled sidewalk. Following the inviting path, I soon came upon the shoveler, an old man sporting the classic Russian winter outfit: fur cap, long coat, and mittens. Time had left its mark on his wrinkled face and worn clothing. Despite the falling snow, which accumulated at a far greater pace than the man could keep up with, he continued to shovel relentlessly, barely glancing up as I jogged by him. I respect his perseverance. He was working fiercely in the Russian spirit. And as the war medals proudly displayed on his coat indicate, he had been doing so for a while. Perhaps this man was one of the few that survived the Nazi siege on Leningrad, a living reminder of why the United States must remain deeply involved in world politics.
As I turned and ran across the bridge leading downtown, the battleship Potemkin came into view. The Potemkin began the second Russian Revolution by training its guns on the Winter Palace. Still afloat as a working museum, young sailors in full military dress cleared its decks of snow. While I ran past the ship, a sailor stopped to wave. As his inquisitive eyes stared into mine, we both recognized each other’s young age. I waved back, shouting, “Doebroyah ootra,” wishing him a good morning. A few seconds later I glanced back, noticing that the same sailor was still looking at me. I must have been quite a sight in my brightly colored Nike running suit treading through a foot of new snow. “How ironic,” I thought, “here stands a high school aged Russian sailor shoveling snow off a ship which I studied in history class, while each of us is equally bewildered at the other’s presence.”
By the time I reached the Hermitage the sky was clear enough to see my reflection in the cold black of the Neva River. While running past the Winter Palace, I quickened my pace, half expecting the Tsarina to step out and stop my progress. I sprinted through Revolution Square, glancing left to see the spot where Tsar Nicolas abdicated and right to see the monument commemorating the defeat of Napoleon. While trodding through historic St. Petersburg, I reflected on the last discussion I had with Sasha, my Russian host student. Sasha, top in his class in the “diplomatic” track of study, had talked about his political beliefs for the first time. What begun as a question-and-answer session about life in the United States became a titanic struggle between political ideals. Sasha’s tone and seriousness clearly indicated that our discourse was not for pleasure. He wanted to know about our government and what democracy meant for him and his people. Being the first U.S. citizen Sasha had ever met, I felt obligated to represent my country as best I could. Realizing that my response could forever shape his impression of democracy in the U.S., the importance of my mission as a student ambassador became even more apparent. For Russians, democracy remains a new and untrusted method of government. Clearly, Russia is still in a state of change, vulnerable to the forces of the past and skeptical of the future. Sasha, unable to share my faith in the democratic political process, listened patiently to my explanations. I tried my best to help Sasha conceptualize what the United States is about and just what it means to be an American. For the sake of both countries I hope he accepted my pro-democracy argument. It was conversations like these that brought a new sense of urgency to my time in Russia. Through the course of my visit, Sasha and I came to know each other and each other’s people. His dream of serving as a diplomat may very well materialize. Perhaps someday Sasha will be in a position to make decisions that affect the United States. I hope my impression will in some way affect his judgment in a positive manner.
After jogging up the hotel steps, I pressed the stop button. Not bad for a morning run I thought. Sixty-four minutes in deep snow, about seven miles’ worth. Press Mode button. Time zone one: E.S.T. Columbus, Ohio. It was Saturday night back home Thinking of home, I remembered the student in my homeroom who cried, “You mean you’re gonna go and meet those Commies? So you think you can change the world?” Press Mode button.
Time zone two: St. Petersburg, Russia, November 4, 1995. greeting the dawn of a new day I thought, “Perhaps! Perhaps in some small way I can change the world, one conversation at a time.”