Michelle Obama Breaks Her Silence in Russia Visiting a Hospital and Orphanage

Michelle Obama's appearances in Moscow included a visit with nurses who heard her speak of her hospital-administration experience.
Michelle Obama's appearances in Moscow included a visit with nurses who heard her speak of her hospital-administration experience. (By Epsilon Via Getty Images)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

MOSCOW, July 7 -- First lady Michelle Obama began her only day of solo appearances in the Russian capital promising little more than a pantomime of handshakes and waves, silent embraces and inscrutable smiles. It seemed as though rank-and-file Russians weren't going to hear a peep -- nary an amplified throat-clearing -- from this first lady with the impressive résumé, executive bona fides, expressed love for the arts and a stated agenda of promoting community service. The first lady had no planned speeches and no prepared remarks on a day when she would visit an orphanage, a faith-based nursing program and a performance of folkloric dance.

Could she really keep her curious vow of silence?

The day's activities had been scheduled to underscore Obama's focus on children, her emphasis on health care -- particularly among underserved communities -- and her plea for increased volunteerism. The day's stops also dovetailed nicely with an agreement signed Monday between the United States and Russia that had the two countries cooperating on issues of public health including fighting AIDS, reducing alcohol and tobacco consumption, improving maternal health and well-being, and raising the standards of children's health care.

Obama would be visiting a group of nurses-in-training who volunteer their time caring for those who have HIV and AIDS. USAID even helps to fund the program along with Russia and the United Nations. But Obama -- who back home can't stop talking about healthy eating, exercise and child care -- had no plans to speak.

Some Russian women were curious to hear what she might have to say. "She represents the interests of her country and she probably has some influence on her husband," said Anna Kroytor, 21. "Our relationship with the U.S. is not stable." Hearing what Obama has to say is an alternate source of information, Kroytor said, from a woman with her own way of thinking. "Women are important." But Obama, it seemed, promised to disappoint.

A recent survey of Russian public opinion about U.S. foreign policy and the Obama administration revealed that 49 percent of the 800 Russians surveyed in face-to-face interviews had a mainly negative opinion about the role the United States plays in the world. It makes sense, then, that one of the administration's goals for this trip was to move the United States and Russia toward a more substantive relationship, one based on shared humanity rather than a history of suspicion and adversarial stances.

Today would be an opportunity for Russians to see the first lady surrounded by children and students. She would be celebrating a Russian orphanage for its work in educating at-risk children. She would be serenaded by precocious tykes dressed in puff-sleeve dresses and hair bows, and awkward adolescent boys in too-big suits. The first lady would be posing for a group portrait, creating a postcard of save-the-children earnestness. "The wife shows positive sides of politics and family," said Nikolai Sidorov, 45, a local businessman. Still, her staff insisted, she would not be speaking. There would be no remarks.

The first lady would be a silent symbol of . . . what? Sphinxlike presidential support? Bland, soft fuzziness? Maternal warmth? A roving hugger in kitten heels and a sheath dress? Here lies the curious conundrum of being an American first lady abroad.

Obama arrived at First City Hospital and St. Dimitriy Orphanage just before 1 p.m., not long after the two dozen children assembled in one of the primary-school classrooms had finished rehearsing the song they would sing to her as a greeting. They were seated on Lilliputian chairs arranged in semicircular rows, and sunlight beamed through the room's oversize windows. It was a perfectly telegenic scene.

Obama walked into the classroom dressed in a white Jason Wu sheath with delicate black embroidery, which she has worn before. She quietly inquired where she should sit -- she was given a grown-up chair -- and then the children began to sing. She bobbed her head to the beat. They recited poems in English and in Russian. And she mouthed, "That's beautiful." The words were practically inaudible over the clicking camera shutters. Then a nervous little boy presented her with an origami ball of blue and silver paper that he had made. She responded with a shaky version of "thank you" in Russian: Spasibo.

Then came the needlepoint project. Needlepoint finally pierced the quiet. "How long did it take you to do this?" the first lady asked, loud enough for all to hear, when the girl gave her the handiwork. Two days, the child said, speaking Russian.

And then the students and Obama were off on a question-and-answer period during which the students asked whether the first lady had children. And she told them all about Malia, 11, who had just had a birthday and whose name is Hawaiian. And Sasha, 8, whose name is actually Natasha, which is her father's favorite name and is also a Russian name. Were there any Natashas in the room? And then she noted that her daughters had come to Russia with her, but now "they're with their grandmother. I think they're making dolls."

Then everyone gathered around for a group portrait and Obama did a bit of rearranging so all the little faces would be visible in the picture and then she joked that with so many cameras flashing, "we don't know who's taking the picture."

And that was really all it took, just those few words, to transform a formal primary-school ceremony into something more informal in which children seemed a bit more like kids and less as if they had been coached to within an inch of their lives on how to behave. And an American first lady abroad avoided policy, avoided being defined as a vacant smile, but still managed to have a "moment."

After her visit with the children, Obama walked up a narrow flight of steps and into the cathedral on the second floor with its monumental dome that makes the head spin as the focal point seems to recede into the sky. On the third floor, she emerged into a classroom with a giant "Welcome, Mrs. Obama!" scrawled on the chalkboard and young nurses standing at attention and awaiting her arrival. In her brief comments to them, Obama repeated the lessons she learned as a hospital executive in Chicago and offered one of her signature pep talks. She was warmed up now.

"Before I became first lady, I worked in a hospital and one of my jobs was to work to develop volunteerism in the hospital and bring it out to communities," she said. "One of the most important things I learned while working in the hospital is nurses are critical to the health-care system in the United States."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company