Stanford US-Russia Forum, founded five years ago by a group of students, has emerged as a prototype for other US-Russia bilateral initiatives involving students and young leaders.

This year Stanford US-Russia Forum celebrates the 5th anniversary. Photo: SURF

Five years ago, students from leading U.S. and Russian universities came together in a Moscow cafe to discuss a significant geopolitical issue: U.S.-Russia relations. This was following the Russo-Georgian war, after the deterioration of Russian-American bilateral relations and shortly before the official launch of the so-called “reset.” This is the story of how the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF) began.

Sam Stone and Anda Gansca were Stanford students studying as exchange students at the Academy of National Economy in Moscow when they came up with the idea of annual meetings with their Russian friends David Zokhrabyan and Vladislav Malashenko. The latter two were the leaders of the Department of International Affairs’ political club at Moscow State University. The four students thus became the founders of SURF.

“We were in the right place and at the right time,” says Zokhrabyan. “We know that the key to making progress is providing opportunities for Americans and Russians to understand each other on a deeper level, and just two conferences a year couldn’t do that. We therefore decided to place collaborative research projects at the heart of SURF. These projects provide long-term opportunities for American and Russian students to work together toward a common goal.”

Annually held in Russia and the U.S., the forum brings together students from some of the world’s top universities—Yale, Stanford, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California-Berkeley (UC Berkeley), Moscow State University (MGU), Higher School of Economics (HSE), Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and others.

This year, SURF is celebrating its fifth anniversary. The first part of the conference took place on Oct. 8–12 in Moscow, bringing together 20 Russian and 20 American students who will be working on collaborative research projects over the next four months. The project is expected to involve around 50 people, including student advisers and mentors. In April, students will travel to Stanford to present their findings and meet with high-profile experts, academics and politicians.

The major goal of the first part of SURF was to put students in contact with respected Russian and American experts in U.S.-Russia relations, geopolitics and other topics related to student research papers. Students were divided into 10 groups and asked to come up with certain projects that involve different aspects of international relations, including global healthcare technologies, cybersecurity, the Syrian crisis, information wars, startups, innovation and information technology.

The  Stanford US-Russia Forum delegates and officers discussing collaborative peojects. Photo: SURF 

“I found out about SURF purely by accident: I was browsing one of Russia’s websites and, finally, came across the Stanford forum official page,” says Stanislav Budnitsky, a Higher School of Economics graduate who is currently working on a doctorate degree in communications at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

His previous experience encouraged him to try a new exchange program: He studied in the U.S. as an exchange student under the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program administered by the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX).

“I am studying public diplomacy, and exchange programs like SURF are one of the most effective ways of public diplomacy,” Budnitsky says. “Most importantly, students from the American side have the chance to be exposed to Russian expertise and pundits. Likewise, when we Russian students go to Stanford, we will have the chance to hear the American experts, academics and their analysis, and their thoughts on U.S.-Russia relations—and that’s crucial.”

Indeed, John Bonilla, a U.S. officer from Stanford, did not know about U.S.-Russia relations before joining SURF.

“I am a physicist and a mathematician, not necessarily a politician,” says Bonilla. “But this experience changed my perspective on U.S.-Russia relations. And it’s a great opportunity for everybody to do that.”  

SURF: Bringing together experts from Russia and the U.S.

SURF delegates talking to ABBYY founder David Yang (right) at the 2012 Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum in Palo Alto. Photo: RBTH

Since 2008, SURF has brought together high-profile experts, entrepreneurs, economists and politicians, including former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian presidential adviser Arkady Dvorkovich, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, ABBYY founder David Yang, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987–1991) Jack Matlock, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies fellow Francis Fukuyama, and many others.

According to Ekaterina Markaryan, SURF president from Russia, organizing these kinds of conferences is very challenging and time consuming.

“First, you have to do a lot of fundraising, which is pretty competitive given the growth of interest in soft power and the increasing number of public diplomacy projects,” she says. “This time, for example, our team did its best to get funding and scholarship from the Gorchakov Foundation for Public Diplomacy. Second, inviting experts is a pretty tricky thing, because all of them have a very tough schedule: They may promise to come, and reject you shortly before the conference. That’s why you should be as persuasive and resourceful as possible.”

Ravi Patel, SURF President from the U.S., echoes Markaryan's view.

"Like all student organizations, we face budgetary restraints," he said. "Coupling the time zone differences along with the college student working hours, communication is often times a challenge. We are constantly looking for sponsors and opportunities to increase bilateral collaboration. Despite all these challenges, we have good working chemistry which is essential when it comes to programs like this."

According to SURF's American Vice President  Nelson Zhao, every year the SURF team tries to diversify the program and comes up with a new agenda.

"For example, we’ve brought in more students interested in business and entrepreneurship as well as science and engineering – areas that are ripe for greater collaboration between the U.S. and Russia," he said. "In addition to this, we’ve tapped professional and academic mentors to guide each collaborative research group.”

When asked about the challenges SURF is facing, founder David Zokhrabyan points to the need to involve as many high-profile experts and decision-makers who influence bilateral relations.

“I think one of the challenges is to make projects more applied [...] and increase the rate of realization of the projects,” Zokhrabyan says. “And decision-makers can fuel this process. Bringing them to SURF is just a way of making its projects more effective; students are extremely limited in what they can do in topics like nuclear nonproliferation, but [they] can do a lot in collaborative entrepreneurship.”

This year, SURF brought together a handful of prominent experts, including  Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Vitaly Naumkin, President of the International Institute for Political Expertise Evgeny Minchenko, bureau chief of Voice of America for Russia James Brooke, and cybersecurity experts Pavel Sharikov from the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies and Vitaly Kamlyuk from Kaspersky Lab.

“There is one negative point in Russian-American relations,” says Vitaly Naumkin. “It’s the lack of communications between the younger generations. There are communications between top leaders and official channels, but we need more and more student exchanges, more discussions, more exchange of views and more visits. And the Stanford forum is one of the most important venues for such an exchange.”

James Brooke echoes this view: “The Stanford forum is very important for bringing Americans to Russia, to cut through everything they read about Russia in the press and to experience Russia personally.”

SURF and Skolkovo: Can they find common cause?

SURF delegates meet with MIT Professor and Skoltech President Edward Crawley (center). Photo: SURF 

This year, SURF students and officers met with Head of Renova Group Viktor Vekselberg as well as with President of Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) Edward Crawley at the Skolkovo Innovation Center during the presentation of student startups on Oct. 12.    

Commercializing some student projects is still a problem that should be addressed in the near future, according to Zokhrabyan.

“Primarily, it refers to innovation, IT technology and startups that can improve life and, at the same time, bring the U.S. and Russia closer in this endeavor,” Zokhrabyan says. For better potential collaborative entrepreneurship projects, Zokhrabyan engaged delegates in a workshop where they examined his latest project, Gitoon—a publishing platform aimed at revolutionizing the way people engage with content. “Collaborative entrepreneurship is the field where SURF might collaborate with Skolkovo,” he argues. 

When asked about the implication of SURF for U.S.-Russia bilateral relations, Crawley replied that it is crucial to establish connections between nations when people are young. He also mentioned his personal experience of visiting Leningrad (present day St. Petersburg) as a 20-year-old student in the middle of the Cold War.

“I think it is important to establish both these research connections, but, most importantly, to establish connections between young people when they are interested in learning about other cultures and other nations, because this is the foundation of future relations between the nations,” says Crawley.

Crawley also talked about probable intersections between SURF and Skolkovo.  According to him, Skolkovo is focused on creating innovation and moving science and technology toward commercialization of ideas.

“We would love to work with universities throughout the United States on innovation projects, not necessarily on social science or economic research projects,” he says. “And there are many students in the United States who will benefit by coming and studying innovations in Russia.”

“There should be many more such formats and forums [like SURF],” Vekselberg says, pointing out the lack of U.S.-Russia collaboration in science and innovation. “That’s why all that the Stanford forum does is very important and necessary. We see the results when people start communicating with each other at this forum, and they are changing their views, first and foremost, about us. Secondly, we see that America deals not only with politics, but also with a lot of opportunities for people working on specific, concrete projects.”

“The Stanford forum offers multiple channels of potential relations between professors, students, and businesspeople,” says Vekselberg. “That’s why I wish it would focus on more specific things. We would like to step up the collaboration with Stanford.”        

The SURF conference was supported by Gorcahkov Foundation for Public Diplomacy.



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