A Black Ivy League lumberjack from Texas goes to Russia. To make ends meet in St. Petersburg he teams up with two entrepreneurs from Zimbabwe and opens a business.
||Texas, United States
||4 publishers interested
After being rejected from a fellowship to work abroad, 22-year-old James Williams, finds himself back in his small Texas hometown working as a lumberjack for his father. Pressured by his overly successful girlfriend and pride he forges his own path to St. Petersburg, Russia. His first job in St. Petersburg is teaching English at a private German school. In order to make more money to survive he enters a business venture with two friends from Zimbabwe to teach English. Their efforts are supported by former KGB agent turned “city councilman” Anton. Most of James’ clients are wealthy Russians with close ties to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. His list of high profile clients and rapid rise to success causes Anton to become suspicious and pressure him for more cash from the business.
For nearly twenty years Vladimir Putin has ruled the Russian Federation with an iron fist. In recent years, Russia has come back into the spotlight. Annexation of Crimea, war in Syria, and involvement in the 2016 US Presidential election has piqued public interest in Russia.
Unlike Western Europe, Russia is not an easily accessible country for many Americans and the language is incredibly difficult. The scope of American experience in Russia is typically limited to college-aged students studying abroad, oil and gas deals, and tourism.
In Schooling Putin, I delve deep into everyday Russian life without the support or influence of any American institution. I even shed light on the murky complex world of Russian business and how everything eventually connects to President Vladimir Putin.
This book is important because it follows a compelling main character throughout an unconventional story (Rhode Island-Texas-Russia).
It’s a story of perseverance and entrepreneurship in perilous circumstances.
Anyone interested in Russia or traveling abroad
Educators looking to provide insight on Modern Russia
James Williams is a history PhD student. He grew up working as a lumberjack alongside his father in East Texas. He graduated from Brown University in 2010 with BA in History and Africana Studies before moving to live and work in Russia. He graduated from The Fletcher School at Tufts in 2014 and worked as an analyst for an oil and gas company in Houston, Texas. Schooling Putin is his first book and he's got two more in the works.
I've got a strong following across my Twitter, Medium, and Instagram pages. Plus I have the support of two friends who have a combined following of 900k across their various social media platforms.
Stories of Black struggle in America are too predictable. Schooling Putin takes the struggle and puts the reader in the frozen north of Russia. There are a few books (listed below) that touch on some of the topics I cover in my book. Ultimately, Schooling Putin is at the intersection of Black literature and foreign affairs.
A Brown Man in Russia, Vijay Menon
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, JD Vance
You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik
Welcome to Russia
St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s masterpiece. Founded in 1703, as Russia’s gateway to Europe and now she’s more Russian than her cosmopolitan counterpart Moscow.
My flight landed in Moscow at 2 PM the next day. After I disembarked from the plane into Domodedovo airport I found a payphone and made a collect call home.
“I'm in Moscow."
"James? It's five o'clock in the morning. Are you ok, son? Are you in Russia?”
"Yes, Mom. I'm OK. I'm sorry I had to call collect, but my Blackberry is on the fritz.”
"So, are you ready to come home yet?”
“I have to go find the gate for my flight to St. Petersburg. It’s really difficult because all of these signs are in Russian,” I joked.
"Call me when you get to St. Petersburg. Love you.”
With a couple of hours to spare before my flight I grabbed a Russian language newspaper and ordered coffee and blini at a café in the airport. As I looked around, I did not feel as if I was in Russia. There were people from all over the world speaking different languages. I expected to be an oddity, but I had seen three other black people since I arrived. I assumed they were African students and then realized they probably made the same assumption about me. I was not an oddity. Here in this airport I was like anyone else. Just a traveler en route to his final destination.
But this was my final destination. After so much hard work you finally made it to Russia!
I could barely contain my excitement. I felt as if I had climbed Mount Everest. Yesterday I was in a small town in East Texas, and now I’m sitting in a café in the capital city of the world’s
largest country. In my moment of rapture I paid the bill and over-tipped the waitress.
My connecting fight to St. Petersburg was a Russian airline, and it certainly had all of the infamous traits of a Russian airline. On the seat in front of me I could see the previous owner of the plane was Continental and the overhead bin where I put my carry-on refused to close. As the plane started down the runway it shook and rattled. I closed my eyes and prayed. After the most turbulent hour and thirty minutes I had ever spent in the air we gracefully crash landed at Pulkovo 2 Airport in St. Petersburg.
Relieved to be alive and in a familiar place I thanked God and went to find my luggage.
I breezed through passport control and at baggage claim my suitcase was the first out of the chute. Now all I had to do was find Anna.
I looked around and moved toward the exit. Anna was not the type of person to go unnoticed. I expected her to bounce up on me any second, her red hair waving, and wide smile
like a Russian Pippi Longstocking. Guessing she was late, I started to hail a cab but quickly remembered I did not know where I was going.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was a young woman with dark hair and blue eyes staring at me. She had typical Russian features and was attractive but her emotionless face was cold.
“James?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Welcome back to St. Petersburg. Anna left for Moscow a few days ago but she told me to meet you. I’m her sister
Confused, I told her I was happy to meet her. She asked if I brought the laptop.
I started to unzip my bag and get it but she stopped me and said, “Not here.”
I followed her outside and she introduced me to her “brother” Pavel. Pavel looked like a military veteran who had been discharged for drinking too much. His face was clean shaven and he was probably in his late twenties but looked forty. He offered to help with my large suitcase and I reluctantly handed it over. We walked to the parking lot, and I got in the backseat of a black Lada.
Ksenia sat in the front and asked to see the laptop. I pulled it from my suitcase, still freshly sealed in the original packaging from the Apple Store, she opened it and confirmed the
“Super,” she said in a heavy Russian accent.
On that cue, Pavel put the car into drive and we pulled out of the parking lot.
“When will Anna be back from Moscow?”
“Anna is not coming back any time soon,” she said.
Am I going to end up dead and missing within 24 hours of being here?
Ksenia spoke with Pavel in Russian about what sounded like work at the airport but I could not make it out. I sat silent in the backseat of the car, heart pounding, and many thoughts
swirling. Why didn’t Anna tell me? Had she sent me a message on my BlackBerry?
We drove down Pulkovskoe highway passing large shopping centers, supermarkets, and apartment buildings spread out over a vast plain on either side of the road. If it were not for the Cyrillic lettering on the signs the outskirts of Petersburg could have been mistaken for a small city in Alabama—developed but still surprisingly desolate. Outside the sky was overcast, and it looked like nightfall. After driving past the large Heroic Defenders of Leningrad monument in Victory Square, I knew we were close to the city.
We arrived directly in the same neighborhood where I lived the previous summer and pulled up to an apartment building.
Pavel and Ksenia stepped out, and I followed behind. Inside it was the all too familiar cold, prehistoric stone stairwell I had seen in so many other St. Petersburg apartment buildings.
We went up one flight of stairs and she opened the first door we came to. The large red door opened slowly, revealing a narrow break and then another door behind it.
I wanted to ask what was going on, where we were, and how could I be sure she was Anna’s sister.
After she turned on the lights, I set my bags down inside and started to enter but stepped back when I saw her and Pavel removing their shoes. I took mine off and looked around.
Everything looked brand new. Directly in front of me was some sort of seating area and a long hallway with two doors on each end. Next to me was a bathroom covered in blue tile.
There were boxes and clutter scattered about but for the most part everything was incredibly clean. I never expected to smell the smell of new house in Russia.
Ksenia left me standing with Pavel and went into one of the rooms to make a phone call.
Nervous, but with nowhere else to go, I waited. I studied Pavel closely and wondered if he was carrying a weapon. I’m sure I could overpower him before he could reach it. But then what
would I do?
Who are these people?