When I had first heard that CGA was offering a GFI to Moscow I was more than elated, primarily because I spent my undergraduate career studying Cold-War foreign policy and I could not pass up the experience to see the Kremlin! As the trip drew closer, the more I read and researched the more worried I became, especially after reading Anna Politkovskaya’s book Putin’s Russia. Informative readings mixed in with the invasion of Crimea and unrest in the Ukraine had rattled my nerves a bit, although, the student in me was also excited that I would be in Russia at such an interesting and important time. Western-proposed sanctions had created quite a stir in the global community and the social and cultural environment in Russia would definitely be interesting to analyze. I had to just keep reassuring myself that I would be fine. I went on the Department of States travel advisory website and saw that travelers heading to Russia should exercise caution.
On May 26th I boarded my plan for Moscow and I knew there was no going back, so I had check my fears in New York and go into the GFI as optimistic and adventurous as possible. When I had touched down in Moscow the first thing that had caught my attention was the piney odor around the airport. Domodedovo happened to be in a region where a lot of tree removal had occurred. As I peered out my window I saw an ad for a Russian rendition of the play “Chicago” and oddly this quelled my nerves; maybe Moscow wasn’t as backwards as I had been led to believe? By the time the group had arrived and we had received meticulous instructions from Professor Galeotti and Ms. Wilkins all my worries had been alleviated and I was ready to explore, engage and learn.
After dinner a group of my colleges and I trekked around Moscow to break into the city. What I loved about the city was that it was beautiful chaos. Russia is a large territory comprised of different ethnicities, beliefs, and cultures and this was reflected in the different architecture and food venues. It was really nice to walk around the Red Square and look at St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin and understand the historical significance of this relatively small area. Growing up in the post-Cold War era, the term “The Kremlin” had acquired a strong meaning. It was not only this building in the middle of Moscow that conducted political activity but it was the epicenter of our “enemy.” Just as the White House has this symbolic connotation attached to it, so did the Kremlin. And it was exciting to finally visit it and take a step back and just marvel in its historical prominence. At that point it had set in that I am actually in Moscow.
A few days had passed and despite the uncharacteristic soreness in my legs from all the walking the trip had been going great. The lectures had been excellent, particularly I had enjoyed the trip to the Carnegie Center: I felt that both Masha Lipman and Dmitry Trenin were by far one of the most informative speakers we had encountered. Not only were they polite but also they had executed the Q&A very well. What I had noticed as we carried out more meetings that sometimes the speakers felt all the lights had been turned on to them and there was an awkward few minutes before we engaged in a proper Q&A.
One of the highlights of the trip had to be going to the RT studio. It was more fascinating to see how they reacted to our presence than the actual studio. Their presentation had seemed rehearsed and glossed over, they attempted to lull us into a sense of comfort with their hospitality to avoid troubling questions. Many of my colleagues left stating “ the people there were so nice, I felt bad to ask them any tough questions. I didn’t want to be rude.”
The trip to RT combined with the very pro-Russian professors we had encountered gave us an access to the Russian mentality that I had never encountered before. And this was beneficial because when I read the Moscow Times and when I read news pertaining to Russia today I try to incorporate how they might feel about the article at hand. It helps me approach news with a more open mind. Spending the day at MGIMO was extremely fascinating, especially hearing Prof. Alexander Nikitin and Dr. Andrei Baykov speak. Prof. Nikitin was really fascinating to me, because I enjoyed how he pitched that Russia was actually scared and backed into a corner by an increasing NATO presence. I personally do not agree with him on many fronts but it was interesting nonetheless because the Western world perceives Russia as this big, powerful threat. Meanwhile Professor Nikitin is proclaiming that they are acting out of self-defense. What I had also enjoyed about his lecture was to hear how extremely bitter he was about the fall of the Soviet Union. This was something I had never experienced before and I found that to be really exciting from a social and historical perspective. Dr. Baykov on the other hand was just exciting to hear talk about the integration of the post-Soviet space. It was fascinating to hear that the integration of Belarus into the post-Soviet space was considered successful in his eyes, even though it is considered as the “last dictatorship in Europe.” The academic meetings were really insightful and I had learned a lot, running through my extensive notes I can write a lot more about the lectures we took part in.
I would like to end this blog post commenting on the informal meetings such as the Curry Club and the media roundtable. I felt like I had gotten a lot more out of these because the discussions were a lot more relaxed and it allowed people to be more honest and the flowing of conversations felt more organic.
This trip was comprised of three main engagements; cultural, social and academic. The previous section addressed the academic experience of the trip; now I will attempt briefly to reflect on my social and cultural experiences. Out of the three museums we visited, the one that had truly upset me was the Kremlin. The architectural structures were gorgeous and overpowering but there was not much substance to them. Most of the churches had been cut off to the public and that was upsetting. Taking into consideration the unique relationship the Orthodox Church has had with the Russian people it would have been nice to fully experience these churches. The Assumption Cathedral, where all the major Russian Tsars had been crowned was not accessible: I would have loved to go into that church and experience history.
On the other hand the Central Armed Forces Museum was amazing. If the museum was created to foster a sense of Russian patriotism then it had succeeded. In comparison to American history museums this was unique; in American museums we tend to be more ashamed of our past and focus on areas like the displacement of American Indians, women’s suffrage movement, and slavery. America is more keen to acknowledge its rocky past. In Russia, this clearly was not the case, the Gulag museum was the only Russian acknowledgment of their grisly past and that exhibit was not that big. The Central Armed Forces Museum appealed to me because it showed how deadly the Battle of Leningrad was. I have had always read about it but to finally see material evidence put things into perspective. To see all the German Iron Crosses stacked up in a lucite box with the Reichstag Eagle on top and the playbook for Operation Barbarossa thrown underneath was honestly the most powerful WWII image I had ever seen.
In my opinion the best way to experience the social environment of an area is to go out, get lost and chat it up with locals. In Moscow, there were a few common social themes that stood out. I would like to point out that many of the people near my own age in Moscow were almost exactly like us. They spoke highly of America; they were up to date on pop culture, (Justin Beiber was even referenced a few times); and they had many of the same interests we had. It was nice to talk to them about things like gay rights, Putin and Crimea. It was shocking to hear them talk about it, though, because most of the answers were different and directly challenged our notion of what we think Russia is. When it came to gay rights, many of the people thought in comparison to rest of Europe Russia was safer for homosexuals. Personally I do not know how true that is, but it was interesting to hear. Despite Putin’s high approval ratings I did come across some people who felt that it was time for a change in Russian politics. At the same time I also ran into very adamant Putin supporters. One belief that all Russians agreed upon was that the invasion of Crimea was an understandable move. I got a sense of paternal responsibility from the Russian people in regards to Crimea, the citizens often said “we care about Crimea more than the US does, these are our people and we know what is best for them.” I heard statements like that over and over in Moscow. In the end, Russian youth have more in common with us Americans than differences and if we choose to highlight this, it can create a more objective view of Russian society.
In conclusion I had thoroughly enjoyed this trip to Russia, there was not one bad occurrence on this GFI. The group we went with was awesome, the people we had leading us made this trip run very smooth, and the overall experience was great. It was really fun to travel to Russia during such an exciting period. Many people were worried that I was going, but in the end of the day this is why I got into global affairs. Not leaving your comfort zone and becoming complacent in your surroundings can be detrimental to ones education and life experiences, I was happy to get out and go.