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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where Speech Is Free, Up to a Point

In 1987, U.S. Navy biologist Robert Meyerson was walking along a quay with a navy officer when a nuclear submarine glided sleekly past. "See that, Bob?" his companion said, "That baby's carrying 12 warheads, and just one of those will be enough for Russia."

It was this incident that led to the creation in 1989 of the first Russian branch of Toastmasters International -- not some clandestine drinking league as the name might suggest -- but a public speaking society with more than 180,000 members in 54 countries.

The effect the officer's words had on Meyerson, a 37-year-old devout Christian, was immense. Clutching a photograph of that same submarine, he began visiting the base chapel to try to elicit a similar sense of shock among officers attending services.

"They all laughed at him," recounted Leila Yangurazova, a founding member of the club. "He wondered what he could do on his own so that there wouldn't be confrontation between America and Russia."

So, in 1987, Meyerson departed for Moscow and enrolled at an institute to learn Russian. In 1989, he started the Moscow Free Speakers' Club. Today, the club, known as the Toastmasters, comprises about 50 mainly Russian members, including engineers, biologists, businessmen, interpreters, students and teachers, as well as guests.

The organization's aim is to promote the arts of speaking, listening and thinking -- skills which a Toastmaster's brochure points out lead to "self-actualization, enhance leadership potential, foster human understanding and lead to the betterment of mankind."

Grand as this may sound, the group's appeal is quite simple. "Besides giving you a lot more experience in speaking in public, Toastmasters is also a good way to learn organizational skills," said banker Michelle Tien, herself a former club president in her American hometown of Washington.

Unlike the 8,000 Toastmasters clubs around the world that conduct their meetings in the language of the host country, the meetings in Moscow are conducted entirely in English. Rather than through any insistence on Meyerson's part, this was a decision born of entirely practical considerations.

"There were attempts to form a Russian-language club here in Moscow, but then we realized that if you hold it in Russian then people do not feel obliged to follow the rules, and it turns into a general chat rather than a club session," said Tanya Radoshevich, the current president.

In fact, club members interviewed for this article said they preferred to hold the meetings in English because it gave them a chance to practice. Lev Rozhdestvensky, a 62-year-old radio biologist, has been a member of the club since it started. "On the contrary [to objecting that the meetings are held in English] -- it's our aim. We want to support the use of English. At the beginning people generally wanted it this way."

In Russia's northern city of Vorkuta, after locals heard of the idea in a radio interview with Yangurazova, a Russian-language Toastmasters club was started. And there is another English-language club in St. Petersburg.

Every fortnight, the Moscow club meets at Library No. 27, and a group of members present five- to seven-minute speeches on subjects of their choice, aiming to focus on a particular technique such as vocal variety or use of gestures. An open discussion follows. To keep proceedings punctual and calm, the topics of politics, religion and sex are theoretically out of bounds to all speakers.

But then, free speakers will be free speakers.

"More often than not these topics come up in some way, shape or form. We get a lot of comparing and contrasting of before [the Soviet Union collapsed] and after. The feedback is so interesting to watch -- it's almost a volley," said Joyce Class, a teacher from Colorado who visited the club out of curiosity.

Presentations are assessed in oratorical and linguistic terms, with each speaker's evaluator making constructive suggestions as to how the speech may be improved. Official duties are rotated from meeting to meeting, with the result that one week's general evaluator may perform the equally crucial role of tea master at the next meeting.

"Joke of the Day" and plenty of smiles and applause preclude any frostiness associated with public speaking.

All stages of the meetings, from speeches to refreshments, are precisely timed, which has proven a little difficult. "That again is a problem with Russians because once they start speaking they go from one subject to another and it's difficult to stop them," said Radoshevich.

As well as enabling English-speaking practice and a chance to meet new people, the club is a confidence-builder.

"When I was at school I had a terrible stutter, and standing in front of the class I couldn't say a word because I was so afraid of speaking," said newcomer Olga Mouravieva, a 26-year-old human resource manager, after delivering a smooth and heartfelt speech about "How I stay up in a down world."

Visitors to the club are welcome. Meetings are held every first and third Thursday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. at Library No. 27, Novodevichy Proezd 10 (Metro Sportivnaya).

Throughout the world, individual clubs decide what language their club will be conducted in.