The Taste of Freedom
He had freedom in his hand in June of 1991, and he couldn’t reach it.
Nineteen-year-old Andrei Rukavishnikov was one of 19 students from the Soviet Union en route to the U.S. to spend the year at Hope College when his flight made a scheduled stop in Ireland. The disembarked passengers were each given a voucher for a Coke, and he couldn’t have been more pleased.
“Everybody in Russia had said, ‘Coca-Cola is the taste of freedom,’ and of course I wanted to taste freedom,” he said.
He rushed to the bar and promptly received one of the iconic red-and-white cans. But there was a problem. Although he’d had Pepsi in his country, he’d never seen it or any beverage in a metal can. “I had no idea how to open it,” he recalled.
Rukavishnikov struggled with the tab, which broke off, creating an anxious, almost desperate, moment. “I have this drink of freedom in my hand but I cannot drink it,” he said.
He returned to the counter and, a bit embarrassed, requested another. Wordlessly, the barkeep took the broken can from him and without even looking tossed it back over his shoulder into the waste receptacle before handing Rukavishnikov a second container — after opening it first. “He’d probably encountered other planes full of Soviets who couldn’t open cans,” Rukavishnikov said.
In any case, he at last had his prize. He took a big swig, and… “I thought, ‘This tastes like Pepsi,’” he said.
Rukavishnikov laughed at the memory while visiting Hope this past summer for the first time since spending the 1991-92 school year at the college through a unique program designed to provide Soviet students experience with culture, democracy and free-enterprise systems in the U.S. as the Cold War thawed during the era of perestroika and glasnost. Hope was chosen to host the initiative, which ran for two years, because of its rare combination of community, vibrant Christian faith and academic excellence.
“One of the thoughts was, ‘Let’s find future leaders in Moscow and give them an education and expose them to the Christian faith, and see how it works,” said Terry “Skip” Nagelvoort ’64, whose New York-based investment banking firm, Nagelvoort & Company Inc., had been one of the program’s corporate supporters.
As it turned out, Rukavishnikov’s encounter with the can of Coke offered not only a taste of freedom but an introduction to the new experiences to come. “I felt like I was from another planet,” he said.
The group arrived at the college on July 1, 1991, for an orientation that ran until the school year began. They attended seminars on topics ranging from American culture and social issues, to the Holland and Hope communities, to how to use the Van Wylen Library; visited area industries and other cities like Chicago; and enjoyed a traditional Fourth of July parade and picnic in South Haven, Michigan.
They also had homestays, an experience that for Rukavishnikov was itself life-changing. He was hosted by John ’56 and Margery Addis ’56 Ver Beek of South Haven, forging a relationship that has lasted ever since. He and the Ver Beeks have visited one another at a variety of locations in the U.S. and abroad through the past 26 years, and Rukavishnikov and his wife, Tatiana, and daughter, Katya, stayed with the Ver Beeks during their recent summer stop in West Michigan.
“It’s developed into a wonderful friendship,” he said. “We’ve seen each other many times.”
As he visited Hope this past July, Rukavishnikov recalled the sites and experiences of his first time abroad fondly. There was Arcadian Hall (renamed Wyckoff Hall in 1994), where he lived (“It was big fun,” he said. “I had so many friends here.”), and Van Wylen Library, where he worked. A computer science student, he appreciated the high-end equipment at Hope with which he had an opportunity to work. And then there was all-you-can-eat Phelps Dining Hall…
“When I left Moscow, the socialist planning system was gone but the capitalist one wasn’t in place yet,” he said. “I came from a hungry country, basically, and this was like paradise for me. I think I probably gained five kilos [11 pounds] in one month.”
Rukavishnikov’s academic experience was transformative. In contrast to his program at Moscow State University, which was tightly focused, Hope offered variety.
“You are free to study whatever you want,” he said. “It changed my life because I realized that I didn’t only want to study computers.”
He learned to play the Spanish guitar with Larry Malfroid. “I still play it, and although I have five guitars now, my favorite is the Yamaha that I bought 26 years ago in Holland,” he said. He enrolled in a tennis class, an introduction to a sport that he still enjoys.
Crucially, Rukavishnikov also took courses in the Department of Economics and Business, which set him on the career path that he has followed during the quarter century since.
“The first stone in this building of my career, the most important stone, the keystone, was placed by Hope College,” he said. “I improved my English. I learned management skills. It was very useful experience for my career.”
Rukavishnikov returned home in the spring of 1992 to a new nation, Russia, since the Soviet Union had dissolved during his time at Hope, in December 1991. He completed a Master of Sciences degree in operations research at Moscow State University, but he also earned a bachelor’s degree and then an MBA from the American Institute of Business and Economics in Moscow, and conducted additional study through the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Executive Education program.
He has since traveled across the world, and has worked in marketing for a variety of companies in Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltics, including Smirnoff Vodka, Mars, Dealine (computer hardware manufacturer and distributor) and Baltika Breweries (Russia’s market leader in beer). His responsibilities increased through the years, and included vice presidencies with the Baltika Group and Euroset, and serving as chief marketing officer with Eurasia Global and chief internal marketing officer with the May Company. Since 2014 he has been managing partner of his own firm, EBITDA Marketing.
He has published two books, Beer Revolution and Marketing in Russia and How to Increase Sales? Smart Marketing, and won awards including being named the Best Marketing Director of Russia by Company’s Secret magazine and among the Top-10 Marketing Directors of Russia by Profile magazine, and for the Best Marketing Book in Russia for Smart Marketing.
Rukavishnikov is no less grateful for Hope’s impact on his faith journey, for which he especially credits the Ver Beeks.
“I was not religious at all,” he said. “In communism, it was not against the law, but it was not promoted.”
“John and Margery took me several times to churches and I started thinking about Christianity,” he said. “It wasn’t something that I had to do. They said, ‘If you want to go, we would be delighted to take you with us. If you do not want to go, it will be okay.’”
“So I went, and I thought even the first time, ‘What a beautiful service.’ It was about moral values, and the moral values that the pastor explained came right to my heart,” he said.
Some years later, Rukavishnikov visited Egypt’s historic
St. Catherine’s Monastery, established in the sixth century. He was helping the Greek Orthodox monastery digitize its manuscript collection, which is the world’s second-largest (after the Vatican). He was baptized at the monastery at age 28, and has returned many times since. He and Tatiana named their daughter in St. Catherine’s honor.
His visit to Hope this summer was an opportunity to relive good memories, but he also valued it as a chance to express appreciation — to the college, to the Ver Beeks and to Nagelvoort, whom he met for the first time — for all that has followed since his summer of ’91 layover.
“This was a whole new world,” he recalled as he toured the campus. “A whole new culture, new food. People were so friendly. The friendship, the willingness to help, the openness to new people. I was amazed,” Rukavishnikov said. “One year at Hope College changed my life.”