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From Russia with love

It’s not very bright in Moscow during the wintertime. When we arrived around noon on Sunday November 13th, the sky resembled a Washington morning just after sunrise on a cloudy day – but it never changed. This was detrimental to an already sharp jet lag – not only was my internal clock thrown off by nine hours, my sensory receptors couldn’t tell whether it was day or night. It also brought into sharp relief the long term effects of industrial emissions not curbed by efficiency standards – during the two hour drive from the airport to the hotel, we passed at least three massive factories, shooting heaps of pollution into an already opaque sky.

It is an honor to have been selected as one of this year’s “Kremlin Fellows.” Along with 15 other student body presidents from across the country, my trip, sponsored by the Russian Ministry for Youth Affairs, is an attempt to bring together youth leaders from the U.S. and Russia to engage in constructive dialogue about the relationship between our two nations.

Our first meeting took place at the Moscow State Institute for International Affairs. For two hours, the American and Russian delegations discussed topics ranging from the implications of Occupy Wall Street, to the imminent Russian Presidential election (or selection), to the need to build a more trusting relationship between our two countries.

The Russian students did not entirely understand student government – the idea of working constructively with a superseding authority was rather foreign to them. The Russian students were also skeptical of our idealism – regarding Occupy Wall Street, one girl said, “It’s not that we are passive observers to inequality, we’ve just become more accustom to it.”

Important to note too is that the Russian delegation displayed – and defended eloquently – much of the realpolitik understanding of foreign policy that has defined Russian international relations for decades. Liberal interventionism and multilateral institutionalism were largely shrugged off as American swagger and aggression. The English with which this message was delivered was impeccable as well.

Another highlight came when we met with the Skolkovo foundation, which is attempting to build the “Russian Silicon Valley,” just outside of Moscow. The concept is unique – a little bit like a business park (think Dubai) meets the graduate program of a major engineering university. This ultra-modern innovation hub is hoped to be an incubator for technology start-ups.

Our week culminated in a meeting with Vladislav Surkov, who serves as First Deputy Chief of Staff to the President of the Russian Federation. He is considered the architect of Russian politics, the main ideologist of the Kremlin. He is credited with constructing the “managed democracy” that currently defines the Russian political system.

When pressed about the validity of this system – he was asked if and how this system was compatible with liberal freedoms – his response was a brief, indelible comparative analysis of the history of democracy. He explained that in Ancient Greece, where democracy started, liberal freedoms were available only to slave-holding men. Then, a more modern variant: in the 1950s and 60s in the U.S., democracy meant segregated bathrooms and schools and restaurants. Russia, then, is simply in one of its phases of democracy, one where stability correlates with, rather than constrains, progress.

Many of my preconceived notions about Russia were confirmed, most notably that stability is prized over absolute freedoms, and that territorial sovereignty trumps self-determination. What caught me off guard though, was the subtle sense of optimism. In Russia, while things aren’t perfect, there was an undeniable energetic sense that things were improving, if slowly.

It saddened me when I realized this optimism, because it brought in to sharp relief just how absent that optimism is from America right now. How inspiring it would be to see my U.S. peers at home defend American foreign policy with zeal. How exciting it would be if our government sponsored a major, technologically driven entrepreneurship initiative. How refreshing it would be if our leaders could admit that they don’t know all the right answers; if they would strive for a balanced approach to policy making; if they would take slow but steady steps toward a better tomorrow.

Russia still faces steep challenges – crime and corruption are pervasive, alcohol and tobacco abuse are literally killing off its stock of men, and it still suffers from the brain drain and the economic collapse experienced in the mid 90s. But in Moscow, I encountered a Russia beginning to embrace these challenges; a Russia that looked forward to a future where decades of cloudy skies would be erased, one where the sun would bring forth a brighter day.