In November I spent a week away from classes to participate in the first official American student government delegation to Russia since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The U.S. Congress brings about 700 young emerging Russian leaders to the United States every year to explore American culture, civil society, and politics. But there hadn’t been a reciprocal program. The trip, in short, was extraordinary.
The point of the trip was to bring 15 American college student body presidents to Moscow to meet Russian leaders as part of a new diplomatic “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations. It was organized by the Open World Leadership Center of Congress and the Russian Federal Agency on Youth Affairs. The organizers put together an ambitious agenda. According to schedule we were to meet with John Beyrle, the U.S. ambassador to Russia; Svetlana Zhurova, the vice speaker of the Duma, or assembly; Arkady Dvorkovich, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s top economic adviser; Viktor Vekselberg, one of Russia’ wealthiest billionaires; and Vladislav Surkov, who is first deputy chief of staff to Medvedev and is considered the Kremlin’s leading ideologist.
The highlight of the trip came with our meeting with Surkov and Vasily Yakemenko, the head of the Federal Agency on Youth Affairs and the former head of Nashi, a state-sponsored youth movement. Oleg Kashin, a prominent journalist for Kommersant, had repeatedly criticized Nashi protests where demonstrators violently stomped on portraits of “enemies” of the Russian state. Two weeks before our trip started, a surveillance video was released of two men beating Kashin with steel rods, resulting in the amputation of one of his fingers, a broken leg and jaw, and several cranial wounds. We asked Yakemenko about it. I can sum up his reaction by saying he was visibly irritated and denied any wrongdoing. While nothing has come from a government investigation, Kashin has since written that he believes Nashi was behind the attack.
Then Surkov, an even more controversial figure in Russian politics, entered the room. That very day Boris Nemtsov, a leader of a Russian opposition movement named Solidarity, was speaking at the U.S. House on imposing an American travel ban on Surkov, whom he deems responsible for Russia’s compromising of elections and intolerance for dissident journalists. Nevertheless, Surkov spoke very thoughtfully on political theory and revealed Russia’s leaders’ mixed feelings toward political reform.
On one hand, Surkov stated that he wants Russia to “become one of the Western democratic countries” through a strengthened Liberal Party to oppose the ruling United Russia party. On the other hand, Surkov emphasized that the most important reforms in the short term are best done under single-party rule. He mentioned that in Germany, one political party ruled for 18 years after World War II, and that Harvard historian Samuel Huntington said this was ideal for building nation states. While Surkov recognized that the ’90s are seen as the heyday for democracy in Russia, he said it was a “paralyzed democracy” because of the lack of effective legislation.
My favorite aspect of Surkov, however, was his bluntness. In his opening remarks, he suggested that one of us will rise to become U.S. president and will remember how we sat in front of Surkov and asked “stupid questions.” Far later in the discussion, we asked him what his and Russia’s concept of failure was and if that would affect Moscow’s ability to be an innovation hub. As if to prove his point, Surkov’s immediate answer was, “Failure is failure. It’s when we fail.”
But if I took away one thing from the trip it was this: Russia’s government leaders are extremely eager to welcome American students to their country. Not only did politicians and business leaders who have far better things to do than to talk to a group of 22-year-olds meet with us, but they made us their priority. The Duma officials, Dvorkovich, and Surkov all either rescheduled or extended their meeting times with us to make sure our questions were answered.
When I thanked Dvorkovich via Twitter weeks later for meeting with us, he tweeted me back “:)”. I cannot wait to get back to Russia.
If you’re an undergraduate or graduate student and have an essay to share about life at Harvard, please email your ideas to Jim Concannon, the Gazette’s news editor, at Jim_Concannon@harvard.edu.