Off the Hook: To Russia With Love (3.21.11)

My preconceived notions of Russia were shattered during Spring Break last week. Not that I really had many preconceived notions to begin with but, nonetheless, the country was far from anything I had imagined. I guess I should start from the beginning, and mention why I was in Russia before trying to explain what the experience was like (as if words could do it justice).

On March 7, I flew to Russia along with 14 other U.S. university student body presidents from across the country to represent our universities and the United States. Our “mission” (since we chose to accept it) was to gain a better understanding of Russia’s development path and an insight into the decision-making logic of Russian leaders.

Or, as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said at his speech at Moscow State University, “Student body presidents from American universities are here discussing democracy and human rights with Kremlin advisors.”

Here is the official invitation. Honestly, it’s relatively unclear how we were selected, other than we were all nominated by congressmen (House representative David Price, in my case) through the Open World Leadership Center, and then Russian delegates picked 15 from the collective pool.

My comrades were student body presidents at Princeton, Duke, University of Kentucky, University of Florida, Indiana University, Emory and nine others schools. North, South, East and West United States were all represented in our group and even though we came from pretty different backgrounds, all 15 of us became great friends.

Prior to landing in Russia, we were all somewhat uncertain about this trip. We had prepared as best we could before March 7 by brushing up on Russian history, language (looking back, we could have worked on that more), political structure, and the biographies and company profiles of the people we were meeting (Check out our itinerary).

That being said, nothing could have prepared us to meet with such high-level officials like Arkaday Dvorkovich, economic advisor to the Russian President, and Vladislav Surkov, top aide to the Prime Minister and a man considered to be the third most powerful man in Russia.

We literally sat down with these guys for more than an hour and had open, frank discussions about the future of Russia-U.S. relations. It would be virtually impossible for us to get a similiar meeting with U.S. officials of the same rankings, so we knew our Russian meetings were not to be taken lightly.

Day 1

group photo RussiaMoscow is cold. We had an incredibly long plane ride and, after landing, that cold Moscow air was our reality check that we’d landed in Russia. The realization still took several hours to sink in for most of us though. We arrived at the Lotte Hotel, at noon (which would have been 9pm EST). Before calling it a night, we toured around Red Square, had dinner together and basically dealt with our jet lag.

Day 2

Our original itinerary began switching around on March 9th. Instead of going to the U.S. embassy, we went on a three-hour tour of Moscow. (We ended up going to the embassy on day 7). Red Square was amazing. We saw St. Basil’s, the Kremlin, the Russian “White House,” the former KGB building and tons of beautiful architecture. Check some brief video footage of our tour on YouTube.

Meeting with Igor Agamirzian and Russian Venture CompanyLater that same day we met with Igor Agamirzian, CEO of Russian Venture Company.  This meeting helped us realized how much Russia desires to privatize more companies and create innovation. Some interesting discussion points revolved around the strong cultural unification between the youth of Russia and the U.S.  Despite language barriers, many of us still grew up with similar media, games and fashion, which makes us able to communicate once the language barrier is removed.

This served as a segway into a conversation about new age mentality vs. the ideology of those that lived during the Cold War. Mr. Agamirzian described how the university structure is basically the former mentality teaching to the new age mentality. Professors are not motivating students to partner globally, be innovative and think outside of Russia.

The Russian Venture Company, as well as modernized Russia on the whole, is pushing strongly for innovative thinkers to come to their Universities and invest in Russia.

Day 3

The breakfast table at the hotel.Breakfast at our hotel is awesome. Every morning we get up bright and early, sit at this breakfast table and strategize. We take a look at who we are meeting with for the day and we recap the adventures from the previous night. On this particular day, we prepared for our Arkaday Dvorkovich meeting and seeing Joe Biden speak at Moscow State University.

Meeting preparation goes a bit like this: “What do we know about Dvorkovich?”

A few people chime in with their previous research and knowledge of Russian economy. Mike Lefevre, the student body president from Duke, was especially excited about this meeting because Mr. Dvorkovich studied economics at Duke.

Before meeting with us, Mr. Dvorkovich was in a meeting with Google executives, so we felt pretty honored to be next on the agenda. In the few minutes we waited for him, I ate all the sugar cubes that were meant to go in my tea. When he arrived, we all stood, shook his hand and promptly started a candid discourse.

Meeting Mr. DivorkovichThe meeting with the President’s economic advisor was enlightening with regards to the future of Russia’s economy. Our discussions centered around the current investment climate, protection of property rights, corruption, dependency on raw materials, higher education and “the big picture.” He told us how investments from foreign countries are an integral part of a successful Russian economy (highlighting Boeing and Cisco).

Along with the investments, Russia continues to look for ways to become less dependent on raw materials and is taking big strides towards renewable energy sources like hydro and nuclear power, using the profits from oil to fund this research.

At the same time though, he mentioned that Russia is looking to the West to help promote renewable energy in Russia, noting that our climates are very different and their solar energy capabilities are not the same. As a follow-up, we asked him how Russia plans to interact with the U.S. to reach its goals.

He responded with more partnerships between U.S. and Russian Universities, increased partnerships with U.S. companies, concentrate resources on innovation, and they hope that big farm companies will come to Russia and help create an agriculture economy.

As our conversation drifted more and more towards how U.S. and Russia will interact in the future, American perception of corruption in Russia became the focal point. We wanted to know what was being done to overcome corruption in Russia so that U.S. businesses would want to invest and universities would want to partner.

Mr. Dvorkovich spoke honestly with us about this issue and told us that people in Russia think corruption is a normal part of life. He said that people don’t like it, but they won’t fight it and there has to be a mentality shift towards less tolerance of corruption in order to successfully fight it. He mentioned that social media is helpful for transparency and to “sound the alarm” about problems, but that they can’t fight it simply by arresting people.

Student body president group photoThe conversation meandered its way through several other topics and, by the time our 90 minutes were over, we all felt like we’d had a crash course in Russia’s economic plans. Following the meeting, we were in high spirits for several reasons. Mainly, though, we learned that we 15 student body presidents worked well as a team.

No one jumped the gun on questions, everyone had the chance to say what they wanted, and the transition between topics was smooth. We promised to have some drinks later that night to celebrate (since we’re all over 21).

Next up, we headed to Moscow State University to hear Vice President Biden speak. This video was uploaded by University of Nevada student body president, Charlie Jose – check out the 45-second mark to hear VP Biden reference our trip!

Biden talked about the future of Russia-U.S. relations and the concept of pushing a reset button and “building on the reset.” You can check out his full speech here.

My favorite quote from it is, “I’m not here to preach. I’m not here to tell Russia what to do. But I know from my experience, almost every country I visit, particularly smaller ones, not great countries like Russia, the first thing they’ll tell me is, can you encourage, Mr. Vice President, American businesses to invest here. And there’s the same answer: Get your system right.”

However, even more interesting than that speech was a person I met right before it named Ted. I sat in front of Ted, and we struck up a conversation. Turns out his aunt, Yaroslava Yingling, teaches at NC State in my brother’s material science department. How’s that for small world? Go Pack!

At Moscow StateDays 4 and 5

We did not end up doing much in the way of celebrating the previous night because we had to be up early for our 4-hour bus ride to Yaroslavl. We said dasvidania to our 5-star hotel, and left for Yaroslavl in a bus with a precarious transmission and unbearable heat. This was the perfect time for reflecting on the more social elements of the trip.

We had all had become friends and already had enough inside jokes and late-night stories to last us the trip. First of all, the majority of women in Russia are nothing short of beautiful and the men, well, the majority of them leave something to be desired. So, this was a main theme of many conversations amongst we 22-26 year olds, and the single men on our trip definitely wished we’d had more free time.

Kelly Hook and Kasey MitchellThis leads me to an important issue though; gender inequality. I’ve never really been exposed to seriously blatant gender inequality, but it’s definitely prevalent in Russia. Virtually no women hold serious leadership positions, and those that do are said to be there because of family ties or their husband. Their women’s business attire would never fly here in America.

I asked one girl why the women feel the need to always where heels and dress up, even when it’s impractical (like snow and rain). She told me that it’s just the style, but also that the women are competing for the good men and have to always look their best.

There were five female student body presidents on our trip and we all noticed this and discussed it often, before we concluded that we like our T-shirts and jeans. Speaking of women on the trip, I ended up rooming with Kasey Mitchell, from the University of Southern Mississippi. She is pretty much awesome, so I had to include her in this blog.

Four hours later we arrived in Yaroslavl, and it was about this time we had begun to notice the serious disparity between rich and poor. There is virtually no middle class in Russia – either you are driving a Mercedes-Benz , Audi, BMW, Lexus, Ferrari, or you’re not ,which is hilarious because it’s virtually impossible to keep a car clean in Russia.

Furthermore, the weather is way more conducive to four-wheel-drive vehicles. I just really don’t understand the impractical cars and attire thing.

YaroslavlYaroslavl is the oldest city (+1,000 years old) in Russia and Russia’s first capital. It’s also the sister city to Burlington, Vermont, so, if you’ve ever been to Burlington, you know almost exactly what Yaroslavl looks like. Yaroslavl is home to the first Russian theatre and the first Russian car – facts that were both were reiterated several times.

We had a few meetings while in Yaroslavl, where we learned about life outside of the big city. Some of our discussions revolved around innovations, higher education and the World Cup, which is coming to Russia in 2018. We also had the chance to meet with students from Yaroslavl Demidov State University and learn about their student organizations and volunteer efforts.

Meetings in YaroslavlThey definitely do things differently than we do, and they don’t really have student advocacy groups or organizations with budgets that can handle student programming. Our conversations in Yaroslavl were the first ones where we had a translator mediating, which was a pretty interesting experience.

Our nights in Yaroslavl proved to be a good time.

Karaoke in YaroslavlWe went out to what we initially thought was a karaoke bar, but turned out to be a white-tablecloth restaurant with a Karaoke machine. So we rocked out anyway, despite other customers being present.

We also went to a club called Honey night club. It was the most upscale, techno-beat, crazy club I have ever seen. No pictures are allowed to be taken of this club, but we snapped a few with our phones anyway until they made us stop. The next morning we headed back to Moscow.

Day 6

A different bus picked us up the next day and the transmission seemed to be working well on this one. We departed for Moscow, and most of us tried to catch some sleep on the way back. I ended up spending most of the bus ride talking with the Duke SBP, Mike Lefevre, about his commencement speech and listening to stand-up comedy.

Mike and I ended up becoming great friends, possibly because we both shared a strong hatred for Chapel Hill. We are working on possible partnerships between Duke and NC State student organizations now. Prior to this experience, our student governments would never have communicated since Duke isn’t in the UNC System and its student leaders don’t attend monthly UNC system SG meetings.

Basically, Mike just admitted how awesome NC State is and how he wishes he had come here instead.

Once we arrived in Moscow, we checked in, changed, and headed to the construction site of the Skolkovo Technology Park, which aspires to be Russia’s version of Silicon Valley. We toured the Skolkovo School of Management which was nothing short of amazing, especially considering there are less than 200 students that attend it.

Then we had a meeting with Futurussia, a group of young entrepreneurs, innovators and thinkers who will help create the future of Russia.

Futurussia stressed the importance of collaboration between the youth of America and Russia. They’ll be sending us some documents and we will attempt to create a forum here in the U.S. that would include both Futurussia and American entrepreneurs. The investment climate in Russia is still a bit uncertain, but it does truly seem to be stabilizing, and Skolkovo offers a great incentive package to companies willing to settle there.

We had dinner at the Hard Rock Café, which had become our go-to dinner spot at this point. A few interesting things about meal time in Russia is the lack of water consumption. We hardly ever saw people drinking water, and asking for water at dinner seemed to be an anomaly. People typically drank some type of juice (apple, grape, cranberry, orange) for all meals. The tap water is not safe to drink, so all they have is bottled water which was pretty pricey. We were also served horse meat at one meal which, having grown up with horses, made me want to puke.

Day 7

This was D-day. We woke up bright and early, scrambled to the hotel lobby for breakfast, and rushed off to our first meeting of the day, with Alexander Torshin, deputy chairman of the Federation Council. But before we get to the actual meeting part, I need to describe how we arrived at the Russian Parliament…via gypsy cab.

Basically, after a certain point in the morning, the line for the metro is ridiculous and real taxis aren’t running. So, you hitchhike and pay random citizens to take you to your destination. We didn’t think it sounded like a good idea either but, nonetheless, we flagged down four random cars whose drivers brought us to our destination.

Meeting at the Russian ParlimentUpon arriving at the Russian Parliament, we were taken to the upper chamber to meet with Senator Torshin. He told us “I want to be able to say I met with he or she when they were a student, and now they are a congressmen or billionaire.” So, basically, expectations here were high.

Senator Torshin explained a lot about the structure of the Russian Parliament. There are 83 regions (similar to States) in Russia. No matter what the size of the region is, there are two senators; one in the lower chamber and one in the upper chamber. The lower chamber approves legislation and then gives that legislation to the upper chamber for approval or denial. The lower chamber can veto the upper chamber with a 2/3 vote and once a law has passed through the chambers it goes to the President for approval or veto.

Listening to Senator TorshinSenator Torshin told us there is a lot of red tape, and it usually takes 2-3 months to pass a law. We spent some considerable time bantering about US s. Russia governmental structure. He told us that he felt like a young man when he visits our government.

Further discussion led us into a conversation about the American quality of life and work ethic. Senator Torshin told us that he believes that success in America has two elements: faith and a willingness to work hard.

He implied that the “faith” portion meant a belief in God, but I think he also meant faith in the American way of life and moral values. Senator Torshin told us that all of Russia’s problems are psychological and, once they understand that, Russia will do big things.

It became evident to us all that there was a recurring theme in our meetings with high-level Russian diplomats: dependency on the next generation. Senator Torshin said he was counting on the youth to change or fix the system, and we heard similar remarks from our meetings in Yaroslavl. That being said, if it is true that the current Russian mentality is the main barrier for Russia, then I would agree that the Russian youth will be the catalyst to change.

Throughout our encounters with the Russian youth, they clearly view America and the future of Russia with greater optimism than the older generation since they the younger Russians hadn’t lived through the cold war. They also have more drive and motivation to overcome corruption and nepotism.

Furthermore, their minds are open to collaboration with American students and they wish to enhance relations outside their borders, which will be the key to bringing in innovation and creating their desired self sufficiency.

NC State Russian nesting dollsWe had a brief lunch following the Torshin meeting and, after lunch, we had a few moments to grab some souvenirs. Check out what I found! Hand-painted, just sitting on the shelf in a souvenir shop were good ol’ Russell Wilson and other members of the Wolfpack in authentic nesting-doll form. Can’t get much weirder than that!

Next up was our meeting at the U.S. Embassy, and I can’t tell you how cool it was to be told, “you are now on U.S. soil.”

We walked in and handed over our passports (which was standard protocol everywhere we went) and saluted the United States officers as we walked into the embassy. It was literally like a small little United States town they had created for themselves.

Our main purpose for visiting the U.S. Embassy was to prepare us for our meeting with Vladislav Surkov and to answer any general questions we had accumulated since arriving in Moscow. We talked about the need to improve the U.S. image in Russia and what steps the Embassy was taking to ensure that happened.

They told us that, currently, United States and Russia are “not enemies, not quite friends and not allies.” So basically there’s a lot of tension in the relationship, which we had all noticed for ourselves. We asked the ambassadors for tips about discussion topics with Surkov and they told us to simply be frank and open; don’t hold back but be polite.

They told us that Surkov would be interested in our perspective but also somewhat skeptical of it. We came away from our meeting at the embassy wanting to know exactly how the interests of the United States coincide with the interests of Russia – a question that was at the forefront of our minds as we approached our meeting with Surkov; the crux of our trip.

Vlaislav Surkov is brilliant. His intelligence was made obvious after only a few minutes of meeting with him. Let me back up, before we met Surkov, we we had some down time while we waited for him in the meeting room of a fancy hotel. There was a glass box in the room which housed two translators and we all had headphones and a translation box at our seats. These images will help show what it was like:

Translation equipment for meeting with Vlaislav Surkov.Meeting with Vlaislav Surkov

When Surkov entered the room we all stood, greeted him and then sat back down, the whole room waiting with bated breath. He spent the next 20 minutes walking us through the evolution of the Russian political system. We learned about the Russian Revolution and Russian political turmoil from a man considered to be Russia’s third-most-powerful person, behind the President and the Prime Minister. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

The meat of our discussion came once we were given the floor to ask questions, which quickly spun into a lively Q & A stemming from the insight we had gathered over the past six days. We wanted to know about disparity in the classes, Russia’s economic future, their dependence on Raw materials, health challenges, the investment climate, corruption and the tendency to lean on the younger generation to solve Russia’s problems.

Surkov answered all of our questions with what seemed to be candid responses. He had an uncanny ability to intertwine the thoughts of well-known philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Machiavelli and famous political figures in order to create an air of intellectual superiority that had us all awestruck.

At the same time though, he made a few comments that struck us as unusual, like saying that Putin’s greatest accomplishment was increasing the number of billionaires in Russia or that abundance of resources is the only road to freedom. When he made these comments, we followed up with questions that required a deeper response.

Surkov reiterated a familiar theme about true democracy and freedom only being possible once Russia has a mentality shift. He told us that freedom is not given, it is earned, and we all agreed it is difficult to have a standard threshold for freedom; every society thinks they should be more free.

He told us that simply getting rid of communism was not the answer, because a poor person cannot be free. There is a next step, which involves Russia operating and thinking outside of its borders.

We met Surkov the day following regional elections in Russia and we touched on that a bit as well. He explained that the current party in power is the United Russia Party, ahead of the Communist party and the Liberal Democratic Party. He informed us that Russia’s goal is to achieve equal, independent stance with all countries, and he said that the United Russia Party preserves freedom.

Some of the most interesting answers Surkov gave centered on the idea of a free press. It is rumored that Mr. Surkov controls much of the media in Russia and that a free press is virtually nonexistent because people fear retribution.  Surkov did not talk specifically about this, but he did mention that the internet is changing the landscape of the world and the amount of information available.

People can express their opinions and often do so anonymously. He told us that the offline world is made of a different material, and that the real world cannot replicate the same degree of freedom that the online world can. Therefore, as the youth grows up with the online world, our expectations of freedom correlate with this upbringing, but these expectations cannot be fulfilled in the outside world.

At some point, he suggested, these two worlds will harmonize and maybe the internet will gain some structure as the outside world becomes more chaotic in its attempts to compensate. He said the internet is the new “rise of the masses” and, even though our fundamental needs will be met, it will be in an altered manner.

This meeting consisted of more information than I will ever remember, but I walked away with a profound respect for Mr. Surkov as an individual and the burden that is placed on him. Russia does not have a deficit like America does, yet our economic situation seems appealing to them. Surkov even mentioned the fact that we pretty much just print money when we need it and that Russia does not have that luxury.

In the future, I hope that Russia and the United States are truly engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship. It is an idealistic notion now, but it is gaining momentum as more and more people are supporting this idea of “the rest.”

Meeting with Surkov

After our meeting with Surkov, we all wearily headed to our Hard Rock Café sanctuary. Our minds had been blown and we needed the hour to debrief. I remember Yaro, Princeton’s SBP, just saying “I need some time, guys,” which described how we all felt.

We discussed how much of what Surkov said was truth and how much of it was exaggerated. By that same token, we were also skeptical of our meeting at the U.S. embassy because, clearly, both sides were extremely biased. The 15 of us found ourselves in a state of uncertainty regarding our role in the future of U.S. and Russia relations.

Should we go home and learn Russian? Are we supposed to be the Americans that invest? Clearly, Russia hoped that we would maintain this relationship, or they wouldn’t have paid for us to come there. Several toasts were made as we contemplated geopolitics and our individual goals. The dinner was bittersweet since we knew it would be our last one together, and we all planned for an epic night out to wrap up the trip.

Day 8

Our alarms had been set for much earlier than we had to be up so we could share our last breakfast before flying home. The trip had far surpassed our expectations. Most of us thought we would be shown the best of Russia in an attempt to alter American perception of Russia, one student at a time.

Turns out, we were allowed to think for ourselves and draw our own conclusions. Indeed, we had been shown the upscale side of Russia, but we also weren’t sheltered from Russian hardship.

The 15 of us vowed to stay in touch and post regularly on our joint Facebook group. As we parted ways at our respective terminals, each of us knew that we had been given the opportunity to go home and make something out of this trip, or go on with our original life plans.

No matter what we choose though, our perspective on the world has been permanently altered and, for that, I owe a wholehearted spasiba to Russia, with love.

Student body presidents gather before leaving Russia.

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