Wednesday, August 8, 2012

People-to-People Diplomacy

One of the best things about being in Russia, is well, interacting with interesting Russians. Elena Kerzhentseva, a Vladimir-native and student at the Vladimir State University, is also one of the CLS-Russian language partners.  While she is a full-time student of linguistics, Elena is also a journalist for "Arguments and Facts." I always enjoy chatting with Elena, so I invited her for an interview (in Russian) for the blog. Thank you, Elena!

Elena writes mostly about culture and interesting people who lead unique lives -- from artists, to American students who study intensive Russian in Vladimir for eight weeks (she is currently writing an article on our group), to a woman who makes books by hand. Elena seeks out individuals who live outside the parameters of "normality" and profiles them. She also writes about other cultural topics, viewing her work as a way to open peoples minds and hearts.

When I asked Elena if she feels comfortable working as a journalist in Russia, she responded of course! Given her subject matter, there are few risks. Elena did acknowledge that if she was writing about politics or a more sensitive issue she might feel otherwise, but for her subject matter, she rarely encounters issues.

I then asked Elena if she could change one thing about Russia, what would it be? "Corruption," she immediately responded. Because of corruption at all levels of government and industry, there are bureaucratic hurdles everywhere and finding a well-paying job following graduation is so challenging. "I have friends who finish university and they do not know if they can find a job, or if they do, if the wage will be sufficient."

Elena is not the first person to bring the issue of wages to my attention. Katya, my language partner, works two jobs to cover the cost of renting a room in Vladimir. Olga also told me that many of the babushkas who sit on the street corners selling fruits and vegetables from their respective dachas are not only trying to make extra money for themselves as a surplus to their small pension, but they are also trying to help their children and grandchildren whose jobs pay insufficient wages.

Finally, I asked Elena what are her general thoughts of America and what are the biggest misconceptions Russians have about Americans? Elena confessed that we are the first group of Americans she has ever met, and is impressed with our work ethic. "In Russia, there is a stereotype that Americans are stupid and fat, but you (the group) are none of those," Elena commented. "It is easy to relate to you all, and we share so much in common."

Yes! This is true! I am so glad Elena acknowledged our similarities because this has been the theme of my discussions with Olga, who always asks me questions about life in America. "Life is better there, right? Life is easier in America than here, right? Do you have a car? Do you live in a house? How many bedrooms in the house?" Today at dinner, she asked again about owning a house and asked if I buy gold, which then lead to a discussion about the stock market and then the vouchers program in the early 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union (she invested her vouchers into a local financial company that went bankrupt). I always try to explain to Olga that life is not easier, it is simply different. Homeownership is not a right,  it is a privilege and a huge responsibility that involves paying a mortgage, cleaning, renovations, maintaining a yard, taking out the trash, shoveling the snow in the winter, among other duties. We have problems -- different problems.

Over the past seven weeks, Olga has come to accept the fact that there are more similarities between Russians and Americans than she previously thought. All students rent apartments, all students do not have time to cook dinner by themselves, all students socialize on Saturday nights (in fact, when I came back at 2 AM on Saturday night/Sunday morning, Olga asked me at breakfast the next day why I came back so early as she expected I (like most students) to stay out until 5). Olga and I both like dark-colored clothing, hookah, cucumbers, tomatoes and coffee, and prefer red wine over white wine.

While these are trivial similarities, my point is that these micro-level interactions -- "people to people diplomacy" -- is so important to promoting U.S. foreign policy in a globalized and complicated world. I understand that public diplomacy alone will not solve our foreign policy issues. Absolutely, resources must be allocated to other areas of the national security infrastructure. However, there is a value in language learning, cultural interactions and cultural understanding and the accumulation of this knowledge through programs like CLS, and the application of this expertise in government and private-sector work, yields enormous benefits.

I salute you, Elena, for writing about American students and bringing "people-to-people" diplomacy to the attention of Vladimir's residents, and I thank you for your time and thoughts. I also would like to thank the American taxpayers, for funding people-to-people diplomacy and programs such as CLS.

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