Fishmanm, David - Oral History Interview

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What originally brought Mr. Fishman to SAIS was his interest in international relations and the ability to take the BA/MA program at Homewood and SAIS. He started at Homewood in ’65 and received a very good education, in his opinion, in international relations and politics. He was originally drawn to international relations because of his interest in the Soviet Union as a specialization. He had three years of undergraduate education in Russian at Homewood before going to SAIS. He never lived outside of the US growing up because his folks were not well off. He grew up in the New York area in Yonkers and went to a private school, Fieldston, as a scholarship student. He did not get to grow up the way kids do these days and get to travel all over the world and backpack or stay in fine hotels, depending on what their parents have. Mr. Fishman remembers that he was at SAIS during the time of the Vietnam War. There were about 19 incoming students, only one of whom was a woman. He has not heard from or about his former classmates and is very interested to know where they went and what they are doing. One story he does know of a former classmate is very tragic. He was in the same class as Mr. Fishman and had the wretched fortune to be on a navy ship off the coast of Vietnam. He was killed by a shell offshore, so his name is on the wall (of the Vietnam Memorial). He also recalls quite fondly Professor Liska. He left with a BA. After one year he left to pursue a doctoral degree in political science at MIT which had a joint program with Harvard and was a three year program. In those days, he describes himself as being “blind as a bat” with thick lenses. He says it wasn’t a Vietnam –type issue. He volunteered for OCS to get it settled one way or the other. They put his classes in a machine and it wouldn’t close on them so that was the end of that. If it had, he would have gone into a Russia-focused program because he had the language and that was his area of interest. But when he came to SAIS, he remembers that he had to complete the language requirement—he had had three years of college Russian. But in those days, to pass you had to take the exam in French, German or Spanish. Fortunately he had had very good high school French so he didn’t have any problem with the exam, but it was a mild disappointment. It may have, to some small degree, colored his impression at the time. Mr. Fishman is not a professor, though he is a visiting scholar at SAIS. He is a lawyer by trade. What he remembers the most about SAIS was Bologna. The junior summer they were sent to Bologna for five or six weeks of political science training and three or four weeks of language training in country, which in his case was in Dijon, France. He recalls that Dijon, France in August has no French speakers around. On the end of his second day, they called the dean and informed him. So he went to Prague instead—it was the summer of ’68. He was pondering the idea of getting a visa from Bratislava to Ukraine but they weren’t giving out visas that week. He found out later that it was because the (Soviet) tanks got into Prague about a week after he left. So that further stimulated his interest international relations and Soviet studies that he keeps to this day. After going up to MIT (the person who recruited Mr. Fishman actually went off to Chile for a sabbatical for two years), he was interested in taking a historical approach to political science. He states that in those days, MIT was very quantitative so had three math courses and an elective. It was a joint program with Harvard so had good electives, a chance to study with Barrington Moore one semester and Nathaniel Glazer and Patrick Moynihan another semester. But after another year and a bit at MIT trying to figure out what he wanted to do next, he ended up leaving and went out to the west coast to go to law school, becoming a lawyer. For about 20 years, he practiced in the field of labor law, both management and plaintiff union work. But, he says, when Gorbachev came along, he got interested in possible changes in the Soviet Union and wanted to get back into that aspect of his career. He met Bruce Parrott at SAIS and registered to become a part-time student. He took Professor Parrott’s class and Natasha Simes’ class to get his Russian back. She made an exception letting him in under the condition that because he could not speak Russian, he would not speak but he could listen and read her superb textbooks on political Russian to engage his mind. As a result, he got his capabilities in the Russian language back. Today he reads Russian fluently, listen pretty fluently and can speak sufficiently to do legal business, though his bar talk isn’t as good. This past spring, Mr. Fishman was invited to become a visiting scholar at SAIS, where he currently is, along with Judge Stephen F. Williams, who is a senior judge, US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit. They are working on a project of study and analysis of developments in the contemporary Russian legal system. SAIS submitted an application to the US Russia Foundation last fall. It wasn’t funded. They were told that the foundation hadn’t quite gotten itself organized to figure out how they wanted to spend the money. Now they are in discussions with the Obama administrators of the bi-lateral presidential commission in relation to the US Russia Foundation. They hope to have a project up and running in the very near future with Russian law firms as primary partners and an academic relationship between SAIS and conquerable Russian institutions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, etc. In that capacity, Mr. Fishman is now reading Russian just about every day. He goes over from time to time working with people he’s known now for about 20 years. Back in ‘89/’90 the American Bar Association had a program for Soviet lawyer interns, the ABA Soros program. The Soviet lawyer interns in that time has become Russian, Estonian, Ukrainian and Georgian lawyers and they are now marching their way up through their respective careers. From time to time he meets them and shares that he’s an alumnus from that program—there are probably a couple thousand of them. Some of them are good friends to this day. One woman who now lives in Aragon came in from Aragon for his wedding in ’96. Mr. Fishman hopes that his greatest career accomplishments are still ahead of him. He was a lawyer in the government and worked for the Postal Service and Metro. Although it has a different scale than the government, he left the postal service as a GS-15. Notwithstanding what you see in the papers today, Mr. Fishman contends that there are healthy parts of the legal Russian system and he looks forward to encouraging a productive evolution that will be good for them and good for us. Bruce Parrott is the SAIS leader on the project and Judge Williams is now an active visiting scholar at SAIS. His memories of Bologna are very vivid because that was his first time overseas. He didn’t end up their first, but he spent the longest there. Mr. Fishman still remembers and was trying to find for her wife, the part of the old city where the SAIS building was and where the University of Bologna, the Italian school is. They were in Italy last summer and made sure to include Bologna has a stop. The route they took led them to come upon the area of Bologna where the SAIS campus was at the end of their walk and when they arrived, he could remember the old arches and narrow streets from more than 40 years ago. Mr. Fishman says that current students at SAIS these days are so lucky compared to what he recalls he was. He states that now we live in a world with internet, the SAIS student body is much more diverse these days in terms of where people come from and what age they come in at, and the languages that are offered. In these days, he says, wanting to do Russian would have been a major plus. He says that SAIS has one of the best reputations for international relations in the US, it has partnerships in Italy and in China (he hopes to work with the Bologna part as it’s a natural place for meeting Russians) and that it’s a great place if you can take advantage of it. Thinking in terms of his training, he says that on the one hand, we live in a world with a lot of complicated problems. On the other hand, compared to other periods of our history, we don’t have these days what our predecessors had in World War II with the Nazis and the Communists. (Another professor he remembers is Professor Rothstein from Hopkins talking about Herman Khan’s thinking about the unthinkable). Mr. Fishman says we have smaller, more manageable threats if we have the wisdom to get it right. In his opinion, students who can navigate that are going to have some interesting careers. He would enthusiastically recommend SAIS as a place to begin to have that career.
SAIS, MIT, Harvard University, Vietnam War, Soviet Union, Liska, George, Officer Candidate School, Bologna, Prague, Dijon, Moore, Barrington, Glazer, Nathaniel, Moynihan, Patrick, Gorbachev, Mikhail, Labor law, Parrott, Bruce, Simes, Natasha, Russia, Williams, Stephen F., Judge, United States Russia Foundation, American Bar Association, Khan, Herman