From Russia With Love Part Two

Jim and Natasha Moscow 1996
Jim Butterfield and Natasha Yakimenko in Russia 21 years ago when they were dating.

By Sue Moore

Continued from November –

Jim Butterfield and Natasha Yakimenko, now Vicksburg residents, met in Moscow, he as a Western Michigan University professor, she is a freelance translator. They carried on a three-year long-distance romance after he returned to Michigan until Natasha came to the U.S.

Butterfield, from Mishawaka, Indiana, had graduated from Indiana University, then from Notre Dame with a Ph.D in 1989. He sent applications to universities all over the U.S. and the first interview he got was at Western Michigan University. He has risen to become a full professor in the political science department. His specialty is Russia but he is interested in civil society, and transitions and development, especially in post-communist societies. As a specialist in the former Soviet Union and several of the successor states, he has been to the region over 40 times. He has traveled extensively throughout provincial Russia, including to many cities that were formerly closed to foreigners.

Before the collapse, he was accompanied by “handlers” who oversaw his activities. “If you build trust, speak the language, act like a human and ask questions, you can learn and barriers come down so quickly. As a grad student in my early 30s, I was the first American many Russians had ever met.”

His initial interest was in Communist reforms in agriculture and why they had never worked. “There was over-centralization with too many decisions made at the top. There was a risk aversion by farm managers to change things.

“Loyalty was more important. Ag production was inefficient with lots of waste. Ideally, Marx thought that people would do the work out of the goodness of their heart, meaning the worker would have moral satisfaction, but that didn’t evolve into meaningful productivity.” The common saying in the USSR: “The government pretends to pay us and we pretend to work.”

This year, Butterfield is teaching a new course on terrorism and political violence at WMU along with Russian and Central Asian politics.

He has twice been a visiting associate at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studies and in 2013 was a visiting faculty member at the Kazakh Agro-Technical University in Astana, Kazakhstan. In 2009-2010, he received a Fulbright Scholar award and spent the academic year at Saratov State University in Russia. He returned there as a Fulbright Specialist Scholar in May 2014. He received another Fulbright Scholar award in 2016-2017 and spent a semester as a visiting professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.

His first home in Vicksburg was a rental on Vine Street. He thought it would be a good place to raise his daughter, Sarah, who graduated from Vicksburg High School and now lives in Kalamazoo. He later purchased the Chuck Varker home on Park Street where Natasha visited, then took up residence in 1997 when they were married. She moved her son, Ivan, to Vicksburg when he was in middle school. After graduation, he attended George Mason University and then returned to Moscow where he has a job in the newsroom of Russia Today ( as an editor and personnel trainer.

Meanwhile, Natasha became a U.S. citizen and has been working as a freelance translator. Her first job here lasted more than 10 years with the Center for Citizen Initiatives, an organization aimed at promoting dialog between American and Russian citizens. The Center brought thousands of Russians to the US; Natasha accompanied them on their travels. She spent many a breakfast, lunch or dinner at Rotary Club meetings along the way. Rotarians often hosted the visitors.

Yakimenko loves to garden. She found her place to grow things in the Vicksburg community garden near the Leja Industrial Park eight years ago. She regularly exchanges gardening techniques and best practices with others and still keeps her plot in tiptop shape.

What language do they speak at home? “When Jim is tired, he speaks English and when I am tired, I speak in Russian. We understand each other perfectly. Jim loves to travel and I’m more content staying put because I like continuity. We have two homes as I inherited my parents’ small dacha outside of Moscow so I’m happy with just that,” Yakimenko said. Natasha’s mother died at the age of 88. She traveled to the U.S. a number of times and loved it here, her daughter said, although did she not speak any English.

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