Moscow native helped ABQ look beyond borders - Albuquerque Journal

Moscow native helped ABQ look beyond borders

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Columnist, author, editor and poet V.B. Price’s work titled “Albuquerque – A City at the End of the World” gives a glimpse into how Marina Oborotova viewed her new home when she relocated here from Moscow in 1992 as the world was undergoing seismic change.

While appreciating its natural beauty and cultural diversity, the Russian think tank researcher who moved here to teach at the University of New Mexico as the Soviet Union was imploding found a city in a land-locked state that she said lacked “the richness of international exposure typical for the East and West Coasts.” Or, as UNM professor emeritus Richard Robbins put it in a biographical sketch of Oborotova – in which he references Price’s book title – she found a place that was “far too inward looking.”

Marina Oborotova is president of the Albuquerque International Association

For the next decade, Oborotova taught at UNM, lectured and worked for the United States Industry Coalition and TC International on nonproliferation efforts. Then in 2006, after her son had gone off to college in Pennsylvania, she decided to do something about bringing Albuquerque closer to the “fascinating world beyond the U.S. borders.”

Oborotova, now 65, started the Albuquerque International Association with the goal of bringing to Albuquerque “the leading experts of this country to address the issues of critical importance to the U.S., New Mexico and Albuquerque.” Another way to put it: She wanted to bring some “international spark and sizzle” to the Duke City.

Fifteen years later, she can safely say, “Mission Accomplished.”

Oborotova is stepping down as president of AIA, which has grown to 400 individual and corporate members. The organization has presented more than 200 lectures on a wide range of topics. Just this year the program has included “Arms Control” by Jill Hruby, former president of Sandia National Laboratories; “Sleepwalking Toward the Nuclear Precipice” by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz; “U.S.-Iran” by Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle Eastern Institute; and “U.S.-Mexico” by Jerry Pacheco, executive director of the International Business Accelerator and columnist for the Albuquerque Journal’s Business Outlook.

Over the years, Oborotova has lured prize-winning journalists like T.R. Reid of the Washington Post to talk about health care and Jonathan Friedman to speak on youth refugees from Central America. She has tapped local experts like Manuel Montoya of the Anderson School at UNM to talk about cryptocurrency in geopolitics and how it is tied to nationalism, and former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Sig Hecker, who gave a “practitioner’s view” on nuclear proliferation.

The impressive list goes on with expert speakers on topics like espionage, national security threats, Cuba, crisis in Africa, dealing with a nuclear North Korea and “Saudi Arabia and the New Middle East Cold War.”

The Journal has been a sponsor of AIA and the lecture series along with Sandia National Laboratories, Haverland Carter Lifestyle Group and Sandia Labs Federal Credit Union.

Oborotova successfully steered AIA through the financial crisis of the Great Recession of 2008 and its aftermath, and then through the pandemic. During COVID, AIA shifted operations online and the organization increased the number of talks it offered to help with isolation. Robbins describes it as an “intellectual feast in time of plague.”

New series helped expand AIA’s scope

Oborotova, fluent in Russian, Spanish, French and English, didn’t stop with academic lectures on serious topics – some of which she delivered in her areas of expertise. She has an MA in international relations from the University for Foreign Affairs in Moscow. Her dissertation and first book was a comparative analysis of Carter and Reagan administration policies in Central America. Her second book, which she co-authored, was on the “honeymoon” in U.S.-Russia relations after the Soviet collapse.

While focusing on serious topics of global importance, Oborotova also expanded the scope of AIA to include an “Arts and Cultures” series highlighting work from around the world. It has included presentations on places such as Beruit and Angkor Wat and museums like the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the Louvre. The organization has organized trips to China, India, Lebanon, Brazil, Peru and explored art in Naoshima, Japan, among others. “These trips were our hands-on experience to have a better feeling and understanding of the world, and enjoying it,” she said.

AIA put together an international cuisine club where members gathered to dine and talk, often in an informal setting but with a speaker or discussion topic. Oborotova regularly invited high school and college students and teachers to attend lectures at little or no cost and developed a program of Global Skills for Young Adults, closely tied to Albuquerque Public Schools.

Journey to ABQ began in Prague

Oborotova’s path to Albuquerque is as winding as the plot of a Russian novel.

She spent her early years in Prague, where her father worked at the International Union of Students. They moved back to Moscow when she started school and she eventually earned an advanced degree.

“I would have gone into the diplomatic service but … girls were not allowed to do it then,” she said.

Oborotova ended up at the Institute of World Economy & International Relations, a Russian think tank where she was working as a senior researcher when her boss tapped her to go on a trip to Cuba – forgetting that she was still on maternity leave. She went anyway.

“That’s where I met Gil Merkx, director of Latin American and Iberian Institute at UNM, and others from Albuquerque. I made some presentations and then went back to Moscow to have my baby.

“Two years later, (UNM’s) Richard Robbins came to Moscow and called the think tank to request a meeting with me. He asked why I wasn’t answering their messages. I said, ‘what messages.’ He had a folder full of them inviting me to UNM, but somebody at the think tank was intercepting them. I got so angry that I went to the leadership, tossed the folder on the table and said, ‘I’m going.'”

“Gorbachev resigned on Dec. 24 (1991) and I was literally on the way to the U.S. with my husband and son to teach history and political science.”

She stayed, putting “my roots down in New Mexico soil.”

Plans for future are up in the air

Oborotova said in a memo to AIA members that the last year has been especially hard, “but we have weathered the storm. Now is the time for me to step aside.”

What’s next? Oborotova is likely to lecture. She is considering a contract to translate a book. And she wants to take time to sit on the couch. She still has family and friends in Russia and “I go back every year.” While Oborotova says she fell in love with Latin America, where she traveled extensively and wrote on Mexico, Central America and Cuba, “Europe is my playground, my historical and cultural background.”

Will she stay here?

“I never planned to live here for a long time but it became my home,” she said. “I don’t have any plans to leave right now, but I am at a crossroads. For starters I was planning to take a vacation, but right now you can’t even go to Japan because of COVID.”

For Oborotova, the quality of AIA’s lecture series is a point of pride and part of her legacy.

“The talks we have had in Albuquerque would have been well attended in cities like New York because of the topics and quality of the speakers,” she said. “The bottom line is you don’t need to be on the coast. You can have it here in Albuquerque. It’s about quality of life.”

“We have great outdoors, but to have a great city you need to have so much more,” she said. “So that was my small contribution.”

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