Choices and destiny

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Choices are the hinges of destiny.” – Pythagoras

When my mother was visiting this past week, we spent some time wandering by the monuments here in Washington and she posed a question I had never really thought to ask.

She wondered, in several instances, about how I ended up where I am today — in Washington, a journalist, with aspirations to work in foreign affairs. Am I passionate about foreign policy because my parents ensured I spoke Russian at home when I was growing up? Or because they taught me about my family’s history and culture? Did I end up in Washington because of my studies at Boston University and inspiration from some politically-astute professors? Would I still end up here eventually if I didn’t take a journalism job in Washington 4 years ago? What would have happened if I didn’t do all those things?

I’d like to think I would still find my way to where I belong . . .

It’s a tough balance believing in fate and simultaneously strongly believing that every life choice matters. As I struggle to make potentially life-altering decisions about my future right now, I have to think about both. As a self-starter and generally pushy human being, I know that getting what I want means making a path for myself even when there isn’t one already there. But a small part of me still knows that no matter what choices I ultimately make, I will end up where I need to be.

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Some of my recent reporting

It’s been a while since I shared some of my recent work. The dilemma is how to reconcile having my work behind a paywall and wanting to share it with my readers.

Here are some excerpts from two recent stories.

Navy Crowd-Sourcing Ideas To Promote Innovative Acquisition Strategies

Last week, the Navy launched its second round of an online war game aimed at crowd-sourcing ideas from contractors, government and academia representatives on how best to incentivize the use of the Open Systems Architecture (OSA) strategy by industry and the acquisition work force.

The game, run through Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet, or MMOWGLI, the gaming platform sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, began on July 15 and is set to run through July 26. Its results will be used to inform the Navy’s acquisition policy and processes in the next fiscal year, Nick Guertin, director of transformation under the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development, test and evaluation, told Inside the Navy last week.

Ideas presented through the exercise will be validated and then translated into action plans for how best to implement the service’s OSA strategy and will likely be reflected in the way the Navy will develop contracts in the future, Guertin said during the telephone interview.

The way the war game is set up is not all that different from a traditional computer game or video game. Players from industry, government and academia register under creative pseudonyms, such as “iron,” “jack of all trades,” or “t-Rex,” and proceed to present or develop ideas for the Navy’s acquisition strategy. Guertin said that more than half of the nearly 300 participants in the game so far are from industry and quite a few are from the small business community. The game is moderated by “game masters,” government employees who cull the ideas, look at which need more exploration and ensure that no business-sensitive information is discussed.  (Subscriber link)

PACOM Chief: Sequester ‘Hollowing Out’ Military, Impacting Readiness

U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear last week said that sequestration is “basically hollowing out the force,” noting that in his Pacific area of responsibility, the cuts mean fewer exercises, flying hours and assets — problems that would only be exacerbated by further budget cuts that could come in fiscal year 2014.

A letter to Congress from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week, which detailed that further sequestration in FY-14 would “sharply reduce” funding for procurement, research and development and military construction accounts is “an accurate description of what’s happening to the force at-large,” Locklear told reporters during a Pentagon briefing last week.

“What it does is it limits the ability for us to manage the money and forces the services have to take [out] that money, which, in the case of fiscal year ’14, if unaddressed by the Congress, will be about $52 billion in execution across the defense budget. And because we are restricted where we can take that money from, it comes out of operations and maintenance,” Locklear explained. (Subscriber link)

You can check out more $ subscriber $ links to all of my Inside Defense/Inside the Navy work on this page

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The End of the Innocence

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After yesterday’s horrifying attacks at the Boston Marathon, which at this point have killed three and injured hundreds, many have come out speaking of the city’s strength and the people’s solidarity and resolve. You picked the wrong city to mess with, you don’t fuck with Boston, etc. But as badass and strong as the city is, a fact I know well after spending four years at Boston University, all I could think when I watched yesterday’s tragic events unfold was – I want to protect it.

“Boston is innocent!” my friend Nina exclaimed on Gchat, as we lamented what happened to this beautiful city we love. Sure, Boston is tough. But, in my mind, the city also holds a certain innocence – the unvarnished purity of a place where things begin, where great minds are molded, where youth is king. This fact unfortunately epitomized by the death of an 8-year-old boy who was watching his father run the marathon. His 6-year-old sister lost a leg and his mother is in critical condition. Another victim was a 29-year-old graduate student from Boston University.

In the summertime, the city of Boston gets quiet when all of the students have gone home for summer break. The streets devoid of voices, of cheerful laughter, of drunken debauchery – it is nearly unrecognizable. The Boston Marathon is the complete antithesis of that. My sophomore year of college at Boston University, I naively thought I would stay at home to study during the marathon. This lasted about an hour. At the time, I lived just a few blocks from Beacon Street, where where runners usually pass in the afternoon. The was no way I was going to study amid all that revelry. I didn’t have any such delusions by the time by senior year of college rolled around. It was my last chance to participate in this juvenile bacchanalia and I took it very seriously. I even dressed the part – athletic clothes and a bright yellow sweatband. My friends and I ran jubilantly along the sidelines of the marathon, cheering runners on, taking photos with policemen, hugging, kissing, laughing.

Boston is the city where I came of age, but where I also learned to stay young. It is forever cemented in my memory as the home of innocence. But this morning, as I looked at jarring photos of the aftermath of yesterday’s attacks, all I saw were desolate streets, devoid of voices, laughter and debauchery.

 

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My latest in the Atlantic/National Journal

Here’s a look at my latest (and last) feature article for National Journal, now picked up by the Atlantic online. It’s a feature on U.S.-Russia relations with a personal twist:

The Atlantic link: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/why-washington-and-moscow-still-dont-trust-each-other/274964/

National Journal link: http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/why-washington-and-moscow-still-don-t-trust-each-other-20130404

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I’m the one in the stylish pink coat.

As a bonus, here are a few extra family photos from that time:

Me hanging out by the sea in 1990. I believe it's the Black Sea.

Me hanging out by the sea in 1990. I believe it’s the Black Sea.

with my sister in our apartment in Kiev in 1991

With my sister in our family’s apartment in Kiev in 1991, not long before we moved to America. Isn’t my t-shirt great?

 

Already in America - Los Angeles, 1993

Already in America – Los Angeles, 1993. Note: I’m prone to making funny faces.

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International Women’s Day

Ok, so Google Doodle recognizes the holiday...

Ok, so Google Doodle recognizes the holiday…

Ever since I’ve been a little girl, March 8 has been an important day. I always woke up to flowers from my wonderful father and sometimes even a gift. In fact, when I began writing this, an Amazon gift card popped into my Inbox.

March 8 not my birthday, nor is it any important milestone for me or my family. It’s International Women’s Day! But in Russian, we don’t even need to call it that. The date itself is so representative of the holiday that all we ever need to say is March 8th  – or Happy March 8th! There were only a few other times a year when I got used to getting flowers – my birthday,  sometimes Valentine’s Day and of course (?), Mother’s Day (moreso subliminal messaging than anything else from my parents – “because you are a future mother”).  My sister, mother, grandmother and other women in our family also got gifts and/or flowers  on International Women’s Day.

But it was always strange to me why no one else was celebrating this wonderful holiday. Why was I the only one of my friends who ever got flowers or gifts on March 8? Ok, so part of the reason is that my father has always set a very high bar for all other men, but the real reason has long eluded me.

Today, while I was browsing Twitter and seeing messages about the holiday come through my feed, I wondered about it again. Why is International Women’s Day (properly and even seriously) celebrated in many European (and other) countries and just some sort of simple calendar marker in the U.S.? (like International Beer Day or something) In other countries, the holiday has traditions …and gifts. In America, it’s nowadays used as a moment to focus on women’s issues or development good) or just as a fun thing to acknowledge on Twitter. But rarely are there gifts…or actual festive congratulatory greetings associated with the day (bad).

A Wikipedia search later, I learned that the first “national” Women’s Day was observed on February 28, 1909 in the United States, as per a declaration by the Socialist Part of America and then was made international the following year . In the socialist vein, the holiday was also originally referred to as International Working Women’s Day.  In fact, the holiday has primarily been celebrated in communist, socialist (or former socialist countries). According to the Wikipedia post, the day is only an official holiday  in under 30 countries (Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macedonia, Madagascar, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia). In other countries, such as Cameroon, Croatia, Romania, Bosnia and Herzgovina, Serbia, Bulgaria and Chile, the day may not be a public holiday, but it is said to be widely observed.

With all of that information above, then, I wonder if International Women’s Day is dismissed or at least not as widely (or properly) celebrated in the U.S. because of its socialist roots? The popularity and acknowledgement of it has seemed to pick up since my family came to America, but no one’s buying flowers just yet. We’ll see how things are in another 20 years, but for now, I will relish in the fact that I am one of the few women who got a gift today…just for being a woman.

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Stuck on Nuclear

Japan Feature NJ

Here’s a look and link to my National Journal magazine feature, which ran in last week’s  issue: http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/why-japan-can-t-quit-nuclear-power-20130214

In the story, which I reported from Tokyo and other parts of Japan on an International Center for Journalists fellowship in November, I go into just how deeply nuclear power has been woven into Japan’s culture, economy and security.

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Dispatch from Japan – Fukushima Edition

I’m on the Moscow leg of my reporting trip already, but just wanted to post some of my thoughts from Japan, which I failed to put up while I was there. Will try to post more regularly while I am here. 

The next two days of my Japan trip were spent in the Fukushima prefecture. At first, we visited the Hirono town, where the evacuation order was lifted just over a year ago, but few have returned. We visited the mayor’s office, an elementary school and just drove around the town, looking at reconstruction and decontamination work and taking it all in. I still couldn’t really believe that I was actually IN Fukushima, a place I had read about quite a bit, but as U2 once put it – a place that has to be believed to be seen. Things really came into perspective when we drove through the nearby town of Naraha, which is still a no-go zone at night and has an evacuation curfew.

Here’s an excerpt and a link to the story I wrote from Hirono:

http://www.nationaljournal.com/domesticpolicy/20-months-after-nuclear-disaster-japanese-town-struggles-to-rebound-20121116

HIRONO, Japan—It has been more than a year since the evacuation order was lifted in this town near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, site of one of the worst environmental disasters in history, but Hirono Mayor Motohoshi Yamada still longs for the sound of children’s voices.

Hirono is within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant that experienced a triple meltdown in March 2011, triggered by the one-two punch of an earthquake and tsunami.

“From this room, you can see the ocean, and it was all black and it was really scary. I was really scared,” said Yamada, 64, as he recalled that fateful day in his Hirono office, which overlooks the town and the now-blue Pacific Ocean. After the earthquake, Yamada felt it was necessary for the people of Hirono to evacuate to nearby towns in the Japanese prefecture. Read more.

On the second day in the prefecture, we interviewed a farmer in the town on Nihonmatsu, whose business has been affected by rumors about radiation. His family has been living on that farm for something like 300 years – pretty amazing. Oh and I picked a daikon radish! (photo below)

 

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Dispatch from Japan – Part 2

I’m on the Moscow leg of my reporting trip already, but just wanted to post some of my thoughts from Japan, which I failed to put up while I was there. Will try to post more regularly while I am here. 

Day 4 – Olga Dreams of Sushi The morning of the my fourth day in Japan, I ended up sleeping in quite a bit because I had stayed up till nearly 3 a.m. working on my election story and edits for it. If I thought it was difficult to wait for edits on a story while only several feet away from my editor’s desk, this took on a whole new meaning when I was nearly 7,000 miles away and with a 14 hour time difference.

Having spent the morning in my hotel room, I was pretty starving by the time lunch rolled around…and so was my interpreter. Together, we decided to go to Sushi Zanmai, a sushi chain in Tokyo recommended to me by an editor at National Journal. Due to our hunger, we went for the biggest menu option – 16 pieces of sushi. That was my first mistake. My second mistake was trying to save my favorite fish for last (i.e. tuna, fatty tuna, etc). By the time I got to the last several pieces, I was stuffed and ended up having to leave a few pieces behind. I think that tuna haunted me later that night.

After lunch, my interpreter and I had some time before our next interview so we visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to soldiers and others who have died fighting on behalf the Emperor of Japan. It is sort of controversial because some war criminals are enshrined there as well. When we walked inside, we washed our hands, as is customary upon entering a holy place. We were there in the late afternoon and saw many businessmen stop by on their way to pay tribute to the souls enshrined there.

My next interview was at Hosei University, where I met with a class of students studying global politics and American foreign policy. It was fascinating to hear their thoughts on the election in America, the issues Japan faces and the relationship between our two countries. They were so kind to me that I had no doubt about the future of the U.S.-Japan relationship. They applauded me before and after our conversation and we took this lovely photo after the seminar was over. Some of them are even hoping to meet with me when they come to Washington.

Day 5 – Going Nuclear, Part 2If I felt guilty for waking up late the day before, I made up for it on my fifth day, when I woke up about 5 a.m. Our flight to the north of Japan from Haneda airport was at 7:30 a.m., but we still had to check out and take the train to the airport. We were flying up north to visit the Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing facility up there in the Aomori prefecture – the facility also includes a uranium enrichment facility and high level and low level nuclear waste storage. It was extremely interesting to see all of it and have so much access there – most Japanese people who tour the facility don’t get to see as much as we did, we were told. We toured the site and then met with some local officials and members of the local community – some great interviews! But more on that later. We were staying the night in Aomori-city…about 2 hours away from Rokkasho and we found this restaurant that is famous for its local Aomori prefecture food. It was probably my favorite restaurant of the trip so far, but not just because of the food, but also because of the atmosphere. And the woman who worked there – sort of like the chef – was really amazing! She was bossy and kept telling some of the men how to drink their sake properly. I asked her to take a photo with me and, at first, she refused and said that she doesn’t take photos with younger, beautiful women. But…she relented.

Day 6 – Aomori-City

On my sixth day in Japan, I woke up in Aomori city and headed over to the local government offices to interview the Aomori prefecture energy policy director. He immediately asked me if I was going to publish pieces of our interview and I think the “on the record” bit put him a bit on edge. Still, he was very informative about energy policy in the local government and how it ties into the central government of Japan. But more on that later (saving material for my stories, of course)…

After that meeting, my interpreter and I decided to check out the Pacific Ocean so we walked towards the shore. It was a bit of a gloomy day so that plan was short lived. Instead, we entered a waterfront shopping mall where there was Aomori prefecture gifts and traditional foods. The prefecture is known for its apples, Chinese yams and fish products so we explored all of that before heading over to the train station of leave for Fukushima.

We got on the Shinkansen bullet train once more on my trip and headed down towards Fukushima city, where we met another ICFJ fellow reporter from D.C., went to a delicious izikaya for dinner and then rented a car and tracked down our hotel – Chisun Inn – Fukushima City. They put us in smoking rooms at first, which probably were the worst smelling hotel rooms I have ever encountered. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Two things have amazed me about Japanese people on this trip so far – 1) I am shocked by how much people can eat (including my interpreter, who regularly ate twice my portion)  and 2) I am shocked by how much people smoke. Every train station, metro stop, café and now, even hotel has a smoking section, packed tight with smokers inhaling and exhaling their shared smoke. Needless to say, I was thrilled when we were able to move to non-smoking rooms. I would be able to breathe freely. 

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Dispatch from Japan

When I traveled to Jordan on a press trip in 2009, just after I had graduated from college, I wrote that I hope someday, in the future, when my journalism career takes off, I’ll be able to once again tell the customs officer at the airport that I’m traveling “for business.” Well, here I am.

Three years later, I am lucky enough to say that I’m traveling “for business” not once, but twice. Right now, I am in the middle of a 12-day reporting fellowship trip to Japan, sponsored by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the U.S.-Japan Foundation. Just after Thanksgiving, I will find myself in Moscow, Russia for another ICFJ fellowship funded by the Knight Foundation. There, I will be working in the Moscow newsroom of Ogoniok magazine.

So here are some highlights of my Japan reporting trip so far. Hopefully, I can find the time to write a bit more regularly as I finish out the rest of my trip.

Photo Copywright Olga Belogolova

Arrival

I left Washington on Thursday morning and arrived in Tokyo on Friday evening. The shock of flipping my clock upside down was pretty new for me and it took some getting used to. Still, I was determined to start off on the right foot. I had arranged a dinner for myself with some folks from the Japanese energy ministry right after I arrived from the airport. The restaurant, which they chose, was coincidentally right next door to the American Embassy so I felt a little closer to home. The style of food was izikaya, which I was to have quite a bit of throughout my trip. I learned a few important things right away:

1) I have to keep my chopsticks placed on the chopstick holder whenever I am not using them.

2) When you have soba noodle soup, you have to make loud sipping noising to demonstrate how much you are enjoying your food. This was, interestingly enough, demonstrated to me by the energy ministry guys who expertly showed off their slurping noises.

3) Not finishing all of my food signified that I wasn’t done yet. Like I learned from my grandmother growing up, it is rude not to finish everything on the table in front of you. At least this trip was going to prepare me for Thanksgiving-day gluttony, right?

When I got home late in the evening, I looked out my window at the city lights and it looked just like any ordinary city. I don’t think the fact that I was really in Tokyo has sunk in yet…and it wasn’t going to for several days.

Day 1 – Vox Populi

On my second day in Tokyo, I was still adjusting to the time change and the fact that I was actually in Japan. I met my interpreter for lunch at this beautiful place overlooking the water and Tokyo bridge. We were asked to take off our shoes – the first of many times this would happen during my time in Japan. The food was delicious and then we sped off to get do some vox-pop reporting. It had been a very long time since I had done any man-on-the-street interviews so my skills were a little rusty, especially after spending two and half years reporting in Washington.

We began at the Fukushima prefectural shop in Tokyo, where they sell goods from the area. But more on that later (I have to save something for my actual stories, right?)

We returned to Ginza, where the main street is closed off for pedestrians only on Saturdays and Sundays. This provided a perfect opportunity to interview some locals and get their sense on the U.S. election which had taken place earlier in the week. Along with some further interviews in the next several days, this yielded my first story with a Tokyo dateline. It’s for National Journal members only, but here’s a link and little excerpt:

TOKYO—Much of Japan cheered last week’s reelection of President Obama—especially one small city in this island nation that shares his name. But his reelection doesn’t come without a number of challenges in the region and with its longtime ally.

Obama, who initiated a U.S. foreign-policy “pivot” or “rebalance” toward Asia in his first term, must now deal early in his second term with Japan’s interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a regional free-trade agreement—as well as two simmering regional issues: controversy over the U.S. military base in Okinawa, and increasing tensions between Japan and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Read more.

Day 2 – Camera Woes and Protests

My second day in Japan began with some drama. I was still not feeling great with the time switch and all the travel and on top of that, my digital camera seemed to be irreversibly broken. The shutter refused to open all the way, a problem I had encountered briefly in Washington but seemed to be okay before I left. Perhaps Japan was refusing a Samsung (Korean brand) camera to work in its country?

Luckily, I was in Japan, a mecca for camera enthusiasts, and after some time in the “big camera” store in Tokyo with my interpreter, I came out with a new purchase. This was an unexpected cost, but it was worth it, especially since I am traveling for such a long time.

That afternoon, we visited several anti-nuclear protests all over Tokyo commemorating the 20-month anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in March 2011. But more on that later, I promise.

We finished off the evening with some shabu shabu for dinner – which is the kind of restaurant where you cook your own meat and veggies in a boiling pot of water. It was very delicious – or “totemo oyishi,” as they say here.

Photo of me and my interpreter at the shabu shabu restaurant:

Day 3 – Going Nuclear, Part 1

On Monday, my interpreter and I met bright and early to take the Shinkanesen bullet train to the Hamaoka nuclear plant in the Shizouka prefecture. The plant was shut down just after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident because it is located in an earthquake/tsunami prone zone.

On the way to the plant, we were lucky enough to see Mount Fuji. According to many Japanese people I spoke with, seeing Mount Fuji from the bullet train is very unusual and difficult, even for regular commuters. It seems we were very lucky for the whole trip, because the sun was shining brightly when we arrived to tour the nuclear plant and its tsunami/earthquake countermeasures. More on that later!

If the day wasn’t long enough, when we returned to Tokyo in the evening, we attended a lecture at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. I included some of the ideas I heard there in my election article (mentioned above).  

Photo of Mount Fuji, as seen from the Shinkansen train:

To come: dispatches from days 4, 5, 6 and 7!

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The Grande Salon

 

Haven’t posted anything on here in a while, but hopefully this can be a good restart of that.

A colleague today shared with me a very sentimental, but very true, post on thoughcatalog that goes into the very reasons I love D.C., which I often detail when I visit people in other cities or when I feel like I need to defend it.

It’s worth a read: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2012/a-non-political-ode-to-washington-d-c/

Beyond the calls for resignations, and the scandals, and the pundits and the politics and the theatrics, there exists here a thriving society full of young, brilliant people whose core reason for living and breathing and working in this town is to make the world better. Whether it’s the young community manager at a tech startup, to the ex-pat taking notes at their embassy, to the communications director at an environmental non-profit, sit down at a bar with anybody in this city and after one martini or seven, if you listen carefully you will hear the same story: that they came to D.C. because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

This guy descibes D.C. as the grande salon of the nation; a forum for ideas and passionate people. It’s why so many of us live here or choose to stay here after the customary 2-year mark.

Now that I’ve passed my two-years here, I truly feel like a real D.C. resident so I have even more of a right to defend it, praise it and post sappy articles about it. But I do hope that those of you who are not residents can still read this and understand why it is that I am still overjoyed by a walk along the monuments and the view over the Potomac.

I came here sort of by chance. Like many, I had grand plans to live in New York after college. But now that I am here, I know I am in the right place.

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