24 May 2012
This past year, I helped to spearhead the launch of a new initiative at American University entitled the Initiative for Russian Culture (AU IRC). The Initiative’s aim is to promote greater understanding of the richness and variety of Russian culture among university students at American University as well as the consortium schools in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. Our inaugural event was held at the Library of Congress on September 30, 2011 with a focus on the history of Russian Jazz. By this May, more than 3,000 students from Georgetown University, George Washington University, the University of Maryland, College Park and Baltimore County campuses, George Mason, and of course AU have attended IRC events. Clearly, there is an interest and an appetite among younger generations for a greater cultural understanding of the world around them.
Through the IRC, it has been my experience that interest in all things Russian among American students is widespread and profound. American University's enrollments in Russian history courses have been so high that they have run waiting lists consistently from one semester to another for the history survey courses. Whether for Russian film, Russian literature, or Russian history, students exhibit a genuine thirst for knowledge of all things Russian. This year, on their own, a group of AU undergrads recently founded a Russian Culture Club that the IRC is helping to support. The IRC recently co-sponsored a trip to Russia by a group of AU theater students who performed the drama “Talking With” to sold-out venues there. And this summer, the IRC will sponsor a select group of consortium students to Moscow and St. Petersburg to explore the Russia depicted in the works of legendary author Fyodor Dostoevsky. While these examples are anecdotal, I believe they further demonstrate an interest, and therefore a need, for expanded cultural programs, exchanges, and educational trips.
One of the unique and interesting aspects of the IRC is that it has a fundamental, multi-faceted focus on film. By co-hosting film festivals, lectures and guest speakers, students have enjoyed the opportunity to appreciate a more accurate understanding of Russian culture through a medium that includes the audio and visual aspects on which this generation relies. Through these films, students can gather a greater understanding of Russian history, language, and US-Russia relations from a Russian perspective.
Personal exchanges have also proved important. On the sensitive topic of the Cold War, the IRC just hosted a symposium at AU with Russian and American speakers that explored the origins and persistence of Cold War stereotypes and how to overcome them. The overall themes were wide-ranging, and even on a Saturday the room was packed with university students, including several students from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) who traveled to Washington DC to meet their American counterparts. The symposium was a great success in part because of real outreach, sincere dialogue and an honest exchange of viewpoints.
There are so many important, potential benefits of cultural sharing, but to my mind, none more important than reaching the hearts and minds of our youth. For the past several years, I have also worked with the KidsEuro festival in Washington DC, which is the largest performing arts festival of its kind in the United States. This festival convenes all of the European Union embassies and thirty five Washington DC cultural institutions to provide a truly unique experience for Washington, DC area children and families. Through the mediums of dance, music, storytelling and puppetry, children from the ages of two to sixteen are able to experience authentic European culture.
In a world more connected than ever through technology and innovation, greater cultural interest and understanding becomes increasingly important, particularly among younger generations. Many small steps can add up to a positive and permanent footprint for the future, and I am excited to help these younger generations along this cultural path.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June edition.