Fletcher Students Participate in First-Ever Spring Break Study Trip to Russia

Despite growing tensions between the United States and Russia, The Fletcher School continues to work on building bridges between the two countries through student exchanges. From March 15-25, a delegation of 15 students from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy traveled on the first-ever spring break study trip to Russia, organized by the newly launched Russia and Eurasia Program. The students explored Moscow and Saint Petersburg, met with Russian experts and decision makers, and participated in a policy workshop alongside 15 students from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University).

The spring break exchange offered students the opportunity to learn more about Russia whilst seeking common ground with their Russian counterparts on issues of global significance. The inaugural study trip focused on two contentious topics: cyber security and the North Korean crisis. Throughout the week, the students negotiated both issues, ultimately crafting two policy memos with recommendations for both the U.S. and Russian governments. The students also heard from a variety of Russian government officials and experts on issues related to North Korea, information security, and soft power. Notable speakers included former Russian ambassadors to North Korea, South Korea, and Japan, a senior Kremlin advisor, professors of MGIMO University, and leaders of the Russian International Affairs Council. At the end of the study trip, the two student working groups briefed officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and the U.S. Embassy Moscow, including U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman.

The students of The Fletcher School and MGIMO University came out of their negotiations not only with two completed policy memos but also with a sense of hope about the future of U.S.-Russian relations. As tensions between the United States and Russia expand, people-to-people diplomacy becomes ever-more important for building mutual understanding and fostering bilateral cooperation.

Speaking to the participants of the policy workshop, Professor Andrey Sushentov of MGIMO University said, “We need to teach future diplomats to have empathy, as that can help us avoid unnecessary mistakes in U.S.-Russia relations.”

Should the students ever meet again at the negotiating table, the trust and good will that they have developed for each other may help in settling their differences diplomatically and seeking areas of agreement.

In addition to working on their policy proposals, the students had the opportunity to discuss Eurasian economic integration at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, witness the recent Russian presidential election, indulge in various Eurasian cuisines, and take in a variety of historical sites. Memorable excursions included walking around a Cold War-era underground bunker, looking at works of art at the State Hermitage Museum and the State Tretyakov Gallery, visiting the Kremlin and Red Square, attending a ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty, and sailing down the Moskva River at night.

Fresh off this exciting experience, the participants share highlights of the study trip here and reflect on their favorite memories.

Mariya Ilyas (MALD 2018):

Until I took the U.S.-Russia Relations course last semester, I had always viewed Russia through the lenses of the Cold War. The heated classroom debates with our MGIMO colleagues and the provocative course readings pushed me to broaden my viewpoint. Still, it was not until I visited the country through the study trip that I gained a profound appreciation for the Russian culture, history, and people.

The trip began with a weekend in St. Petersburg, which could not have been a more perfect introduction to the country’s rich culture. The city, known as a “museum under the open sky,” flaunted its lofty monuments, grandiose churches, and extravagant buildings. As if competing with the city itself, the Hermitage Museum—second largest in the world—amused us with over three million works of art and cultural artifacts. The “Sleeping Beauty” ballet at the Hermitage Theater was similarly spectacular, but my favorite part of St. Petersburg was enjoying eclectic cuisines from post-Soviet countries at restaurants along the frozen Neva River.

Moscow, where we spent the rest of the week, offered its own charm and history. One evening after visiting the Bunker 42 underground museum, a few classmates and I decided to walk to the Red Square—site of the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral, brightly-lit Gum mall, highly-guarded Lenin’s Mausoleum, and red-bricked State Historical Museum. I was speechless, stunned, and breathless all at the same time. I could not believe I was standing in the heart of Moscow, a capital laden with centuries-old history.

Of course, it was the people that touched me the most. I appreciated the formal and informal settings through which we got to know our MGIMO colleagues. I am inspired by their stories, backgrounds, and aspirations. Although we differed on our approaches to cybersecurity and the crisis on the Korean peninsula, we shared unwavering love for our countries and commitment to improving the U.S.-Russia relationship. It is this empathy I will always carry with me while serving in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Cindy Garcia (MALD 2018): 

My biggest takeaway from this experience was seeing people-to-people diplomacy in action. During the day, when we were not in our joint meetings, we were invited to attend expert panels that helped the Fletcher students better understand Russian perspectives on these critical, and seemingly intractable, problems. While it was enlightening to hear presentations from speakers like Andrey Krutskikh, the current Russian Special Representative in the field of information security, or former Russian Ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov, both the MGIMO and Fletcher students felt a disconnect between what we would hear from the experts and what we would accomplish in our own joint negotiations. Hearing from the experts helped both sides to ensure that our discussions were not siloed or biased, but at the same time it was very difficult to hear pessimistic perspectives from experts on U.S.-Russia relations regarding these two critical topics. I would argue that one of the main reasons we were able to find so much common ground with our MGIMO colleagues is because we were taking the time to get to know one another in informal settings, which is something that may not be happening in high-level negotiations among experts. Ultimately, both the MGIMO and Fletcher students walked away from this experience feeling hopeful for the future of our relations, regardless of how difficult improving U.S.-Russia relations may be.

Fletcher and MGIMO students briefed Ambassador Jon Huntsman at the U.S. Embassy Moscow on cooperation between the United States and Russia on the issues of cyber security and North Korea.

Colin Thompson (MALD 2018):

Nikita Khrushchev, in his famous “first message” to President Kennedy at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, conveyed, “We and you, ought not pull on the ends of a rope which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull, the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you.”

I grew up in a family with two grandfathers, who as military officers, dedicated their entire lives preparing for a conflict against the Soviet Union. Theirs was a world of fear and walls; of massive armies arranged along the Fulda Gap, and of nuclear arsenals armed on a hair-trigger.

Despite such barriers, Russia’s inimitable mystery still found its way to me through the minds of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and in the music of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Until last week, no one in my family had ever seen the Romanov tombs in the Peter and Paul Fortress, walked through the galleries of the Hermitage, or had listened to perspectives that reflected centuries of interaction with an often hostile frontier.

Standing on the steps of the Dormition behind the Kremlin Wall, where the Czars would gaze out from the very center of their Empire, I came to understand that true empathy comes not just from conversations with the locals, but requires something deeper. It requires being there. It requires breathing the same air, and seeing, firsthand, the places where past events oriented the beliefs and mindset of a world wholly unfamiliar to us. Russia is in no shortage of such places. But most importantly, empathy requires time. Time, to process the fear that we have about each other into something that can be understood.

The Cold War did not permit my grandfathers this time, nor the opportunity to see the great cities of Saint Petersburg or Moscow. But if it had, I am certain that the power of Russia’s history and the pride of her people would have engendered an appreciation previously not thought possible. With this, I am thankful to be part of a generation of Americans whose perception of Russia is not founded on fear. Even though many differences between our countries endure, the experience of interacting with Russia’s future serves, perhaps in the smallest way, to loosen the ends of a rope in which are tied the knots of war.

Fletcher and MGIMO students share a Georgian feast to top off a successful policy workshop.

Nicolas Normad (MALD 2018):

As the only citizen of the European Union to take part of this study trip, it was a great pleasure and honor to bring a more European, and especially French, perspective to the group.

From Louis XIV to De Gaulle, the Russia-France relationship has always been made of close political and cultural bonds, with influences coming from both sides. I was particularly proud to see this special bond being displayed and strengthened by Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin in Versailles in the summer of 2017 and hoped for western Europe to, once again, play a special role in the broader U.S.-Europe-Russia relationships, with Europe acting as the independent link able to appease the too often resurging tensions and antagonisms. I do believe that a more integrated, and therefore independent, European Union has an important and constructive role to play in the years to come, to durably normalize the relationship.

This trip was my first to Russia; I came full of expectations and questions, all of them more than fulfilled and answered when I left. The balance we had between site visits, working sessions with MGIMO students, and discussions and lectures with experts proved extremely productive and efficient. Discovering the cultural and political heart of Russia, and learning from contemporary practitioners is indispensable in having a better understanding of the country, but the highlight for me was the interaction with our Russian counterparts. Starting with a purely academic and working relation with the MGIMO students – trying to tackle two of the most important issues that the U.S.-Europe-Russia relationships currently face – was a great experience, but it is the personal bonds and deep friendships that emerged from the visit that affected me most of all. Forming these personal ties reminded us that beyond formal discussions, negotiations and relations, it is often the personal and more causal ones relationships that matter the most. I hope these connections will last, beyond any ups and downs that our respective countries’ endure in the years to come.

These reflections were republished from Fletcher Features.

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