Jon Smith: “They are here to learn about Russia today.”

14:08 06.08.2018 •

Designed to give American students new insights into the country today, the Politics & Public Diplomacy in Contemporary Russia program at Moscow International University explores regional developments and conflicts, economic and political reforms, the role of mass media in society, and new cultural phenomena shaping Russian society. Through readings, lectures, seminars, and discussions conducted with faculty of Moscow International University and beyond, program participants gain a fuller understanding of the complex factors that have shaped the country’s evolution since 1990-s. And they discover Russia for themselves. Our observer Elena Rubinova discusses with Jon Smith, senior teacher of the Department of Foreign Languages and curator of exchange programme, and Ben Kaplan, one of this year exchange students, what motivates young Americans to come to Russia in these lean economic and difficult political times, how a five-week academic programme can change their preconceived notions of Russia and why here they have a better chance to get to know more about America and themselves.

As far as I am aware, you have been running exchange programs with American universities for quite a while – for more than two decades, to be precise. What programmes are most popular with exchange students today? 

J.S. Here at Moscow International University we have American students studying all year round – spring semester, fall semester and summer term for two months. After 2015 there was a certain decline in the number of students for fall and winter semesters, but now it’s coming up again – there will be around 15 this coming fall. Summer is the season when students have vacation and overseas programmes are very popular – usually from 20 to 30 students are here, so we offer more options: for two months we have students studying just Russian language and culture and then we have students here for one month in a special programme called Politics and Public Diplomacy and they are here to learn about Russia today – what Americans call “Putin’s Russia” and what I would just call “Russia today”. We have had it for the past two years and it has been quite successful.

Are the students supposed to have some level of Russian language proficiency to be eligible for the programme?

J.S. Not really. All the courses are taught in English, but the goal of the program is that American students learn about Russia only from Russians. In America they get the American version of history and politics and we do our best to give the students the opportunity to grasp what Russian historians, economists, sociologists teach about their own country. We want to remove them from American bias.  As for Russian language proficiency, this is not a must - some come with a level, others have zero Russian, but they all have obligatory language classes once they are here.

Where do you invite the lecturers and teachers from? What subjects are covered in the summer course? 

 J.S. The subjects are modern history – from the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union to the present day, economics, foreign and domestic policy, arts and culture – everything that describes post-Soviet Russia.  The teachers whom International University invites for the summer term are all from Moscow, from International University, the Higher School of Economics, Finance University, Moscow State University and others. And we try to find lecturers that do not have the political agenda – they are not too far right or too far left in terms of political views.

Things have changed a lot since the 2000s and students have changed too - another generation or even two had come on board, so dealing with the 20 year olds is different compared to let’s say a decade. How different is it, and if yes in what way?  

J.S. Though the political situation has gotten worse between our two countries and the bureaucracy on both sides has become more complicated – as much with America, as it is with Russia - the level of understanding between people has not. So in some ways it’s easier to work today than it was 10 years ago. But you are dead right, saying that students are totally different. I would say that today’s American students mature at a later age, they disconnect from their families later and do not develop life skills, survival skills at the early age and they are less aware of themselves – both as individuals and as Americans. Maybe 20 years ago students came with a general understanding that things were different in Russia, Knowing in the beginning what was going to be easy and what might be more difficult, but now awareness is a fraction of what it used to be. It might seem a generalization, but I see a lot of examples that an average 20 year-old Russian is able to deal with a number of things an average 20 year-old American cannot, and vice versa. So one of the thing we try to do in this program is to help American students learn not only about Russia, but also try to help them learn about themselves. Most Americans think they understand America quite well and in working with them many of them come to see that they don’t really understand all aspects of their own country as well as they thought they did. Most of us blindly believe and follow what we are told about our own country, so it is much about opening up to themselves to the collective level about America, as about Russia.

What are the American students searching for in Russia? Is there inexhaustible appetite for Russian content in terms of cultural and humanitarian studies?  

J.S. It’s highly individual. It could be some aspect of Russia they are interested in - friends, music and, believe it or not, still literature. What also inspires them is some romantic idea of Russia – it’s far away, we do not know much about it, I want to try something different from my peers. But some of them do not even know why they are interested – they are offered a language in the course of studies. They come here to see and usually it’s a “wow” effect. Very few of them in the programme know for sure – “I want Russian for this”, may be only 10 -15 % of students would be using Russian or continue their studies in Russian after they return home. But you can never predict in this age how it influences your life and in what way – that was what did it for me after I had the first trip to Russia in mid 90-s as a student. Why do they want to do something with Russia? First of all, because they have such a good experience here – it’s an amazing place.

Ben, what has brought you here?  

B.K. A number of reasons. I first came here with my parents in 2008 when I was 11, because my younger brother was adopted from Russia and that was the first push that got me interested in the country. Then I came back in 2015 to teach English in at a language camp for kids, learned more Russian and had more interactions. I study international relations at the University, so when it came to the point of choosing a foreign language, there was no question for me.       

From your experience with students – do they have preconceived notions of what Russia is and what do they usually go home with? 

J.S. They have preconceived notions of Russia, but also America. And so, I think that what just is damaging to relations and to diplomacy is the preconceived notion of self –in the case of Americans, a preconceived notion of America. That’s why we try to help our students remove themselves from the bias that they are embedded in. Students are usually convinced that the American way of life is the best, they have a biased approach that they come to a system that they believe is inferior and for them it’s a shock to see that the reality is different. It’s hard for them to bring America down and have a different approach to Russia. One of the goals of cross-cultural communication course that I teach and of the 5-week summer programme in general is to help them start thinking about public diplomacy. And what they can do after going back home – whether they will carry the message that Russia you have read about in American newspapers or saw on American TV is different and what it really is. And the key message is that Russia is not better or worse that you expected, but just different and we should have more respect for Russia. We are achieving our goal for two reasons – we have students re-evaluate first themselves and have a different attitude to Russia - without bias.

Ben, what were your expectations before you got here? 

B.K. Unlike for many others, who have never been to Eastern Europe at all, this summer is my fourth time in Russia – so I, kind of knew, what to expect. When I was here for the very-very first time, I was too young to have any expectations or preconceptions. When I became politically active and saw how the American media portrays Russia, I already knew it was not 100 % true. So coming here I would say that my other visits here equipped me with experience and vision that there was no culture shock. From what I have heard from my fellow students, it’s hard to pin point one thing that became a revelation for them. It’s the atmosphere and general impression that is radically different from what they expected. Especially this summer – people were more relaxed, spirit was up, there was more joy and happiness. We were lucky that our summer programme coincided with the World Cup, it was really the best of the place and will enable those who were here first time, carry their impressions to others at home. I will tell you one cultural thing that got me which was not so easy to comprehend. What I noticed is that when someone here says “No” it really means “no”, and “yes” when they mean “yes”. In Russia people are more straightforward and do not sugarcoat things, which is contrasting with the American cultural emphasis on remaining polite in all situations. First it was a barrier for me, as well as for many others.  In the long run it can be refreshing at times and frustrating at others, but it’s important to understand in terms of differences.

What is helping you to reach one of the main goals of the programme -  have Americans re-evaluate first themselves and have a different attitude to Russia?  

J.S. Referring to the latest events, I would take an example of the meeting between Trump and Putin. I asked my American students to look at the news conference and analyze what Trump did. I asked them “in your opinion what did he do right, and what did he do wrong? If you look at their press conference, you may see that American president did some good things and some stupid things”. We collectively came to the decision that one good thing was that he began a dialogue. If you want to make it better, you have to meet, you have to talk. And another good thing that I liked was that Trump assumed responsibility for America’s part in worsening relationship: things are bad now, but we are also to blame. True, it’s fifty-fifty. But not all Americans agree with this way of thinking, and our students were able to see in the next few days, when Trump got back to America, that he was accused of many things back home.

America is not the only one to do that, isn’t it? Many countries would be following this pattern of behaviour.

J.S. Yes, but I can only speak for my country – I won’t speak for the others. It’s part of our psychology, to point the finger at someone else – “it’s not us, but Russia”. So, examples like this allow students to see that many problems of foreign relations have their roots in domestic politics: it’s domestic fights about domestic politics. The bottom line for America is stop looking at countries like Russia or somebody else for excuses, fix things at home before you go out inti the world. We have to be careful explaining this, because as an American who has been living here for too long, when I criticize my home country, some Americans say that I’m a “traitor”, so I try to stay as neutral as possible. I will give you another example that is worth mentioning. America is currently a divided country – politically, socially and because it is so, students coming here expect Russia to be divided too, thinking it’s Putin against the people. So, coming here they are amazed to see how united Russia is relative to America. Of course there is a division – let’s say 70 to 30 %, but it’s much more united than America or so. And it’s hard for young Americans to comprehend. But as educators, we give them the information to come to these conclusions themselves – otherwise they will push back.

How much do young Americans and Russians have in common in this globalized world and where do the differences begin? 

J. S. What’s good is that they are similar enough that they are able to connect, but once they want to go deeper, they start hitting the road blocks. That’s where we need cultural diplomacy as well as better understanding of yourself and processes that are dictating behaviour. For instance, the issues of interpersonal relations or dating is very different. Or even drinking culture. And in this course we go into a little psychology to help students become aware of these things.

B.K.: I’d say that with a lot of young people I have a lot in common – protocols of a consumer society brought a lot of similarities to all countries, and Russia is no exception. A lot of folks of my age are pretty Western – we have similar approach to media consumption – watch the same movies, listen to the same music, know the same names of celebrities. Consumption and especially media consumption made us products of the same world. But once you deep down, differences start coming out. I’ve noticed that here expectations from the degree and getting a job and not that as high as for Americans in the same situation. Do not take me wrong – in America I have also met people, who study computer science, but are going to work in some family business later, but I’ve met the unbalanced amount of such students here.

What are some of your best and worst experiences after living here in Russia for so long?

J.S. Many people ask me: “Why are you still here? What do you like about Russia most?’.’ I always say, that it’s the people.  They are amazing – honest, open, warm. Honesty for me is the main thing - for better or worse they will tell you what they think. In America most people are not honest in the same way. Too often we are not honest with each other and that creates a lot of internal problems – who we are and why we do what we do.

In 5 or 10 years from now we will be living in another dimension, but public diplomacy will still be important. What is your take on that and what do you share with your students? 

J.S. We are both embedded in countries, cultures and processes that are bigger than us and the chance that we are going to change millions of people is slim if non-existent. So, first and foremost focus on yourself and people immediately around you. And the best way to do that is person to person. And little by little you change – maybe you have little bubbles, it changes yourself and people next to you. This is where my personal experience comes in –  not everything was easy for me here, but I’m a happy person now and I’m grateful to Russia for that.

Ben, how do you expect your experience in Russia shape your life and career? 

B.K. First of all, I intend to continue my language education in Russian and see where it takes me. I do not know how specifically being here would help my career path in any way, but I have friends and connections here now and if I want to come back, live and work here – and I would like to live here for a year or two, get a job and explore more -  that’s a possibility now.


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