Can Moscow and Washington reset educational collaboration in order to minimize the negative implications of their confrontation in the diplomatic and economic spheres?


Fulbright scholar Margaret Williams, teaching at the American Corner in Khabarovsk. Photo: Personal Archive

Although the Ukrainian crisis has all but negated any achievements of the U.S.-Russia reset and brought U.S.-Russia relations to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War, nobody really expected the Kremlin to close the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) educational program. For two decades, this program brought together about 22,000 high school students from the former Soviet republics, including more than 8,000 from Russia.

The Kremlin cancelled the FLEX program, because, it alleged, an American same-sex couple illegally adopted a Russian FLEX participant and, thus, violated its commitments. These actions contradicted the “moral principles of Russian society” and the views of the Russian legislature, as the official statement of Russia’s Foreign Ministry reads.

While this statement left the U.S. Embassy in Moscow surprised and regretful, exchange students are well aware of the hidden meaning of “moral tenacity” in the Kremlin’s reasoning. The Kremlin just wanted to find any pretext and “kill the effective program,” said Stepan Serdyukov, a 2014-2016 Fulbright student from Russia who is currently in a Masters Program in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. 

The impact of the current political climate on educational exchanges

Amidst deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations, the FLEX closure has been another serious blow to U.S.-Russia educational exchanges, with a series of ill-omened events preceding it. American Councils – a U.S. education NGO that has been implementing different educational exchange programs for 40 years, including FLEX – had been facing serious challenges since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. In April, the organization faced problems with its registration, when Russia’s Justice Ministry ordered American Councils to suspend its operations in Russia.

At the same time, exchanges were also affected by the U.S. moves – including a $30 million funding cut for the Fulbright Program and the closure of the Moscow office of the Kennan Institute, an outlet that fostered U.S.-Russia academic exchange. Moreover, last year U.S. Congress announced that it would withdraw funding from the Title VIII Grant Program that supports regional studies of Russia and former Soviet countries.

The current political differences between Russia and the U.S. are hampering the impact of educational and cultural exchanges, Serdyukov argues. “It’s because all these programs were initially created to work in the other political reality, when partnership between two countries was top priority,” he said. “Yet now, unfortunately, these programs seem to be a sort of wistful anachronism.”  

However, Serdyukov remains upbeat. As a Fulbright student, he identifies himself as a cultural ambassador and tries to tell Americans about Russian culture and history with all its controversies and complexities. “I am telling Americans about Russia’s history, its complicated nature, as well as the lifestyle of our society,” he said. “And now it is even more interesting in the context of the current creeping events because I am myself building a more certain and robust set of principles while presenting these events to Americans.”

Stephen Barton, a former teaching assistant who studied at Syracuse University in New York, argues that the exchange programs had a big impact on his perception of Russia in times of geopolitical controversies like the one over Ukraine.   

“Living in Russia through the Fulbright program has helped me balance the overwhelming chorus of criticism in the American government and media,” he said. “I don't disagree with a lot of the criticism, but I fully recognize that it fails to adequately acknowledge the complex reality of the ongoing conflict and the U.S.-Russian relationship. Geopolitics is rarely a black-and-white issue, although it is often described that way by our journalists and elected leaders,” he said.

According to him, exchange programs are crucial to bridging the understanding gap and minimizing differences between Russia and the U.S. While he was in Russia, he tried to debunk a lot of myths that Russians held about Americans and America.

"Since arriving back home to the U.S., I have used my experiences in Russia to challenge the preconceptions of my friends, family, and even strangers," he said. “In fact, I found that many so-called "differences" between our two countries are greatly exaggerated. I think our "differences" stem more from miscommunication and unfounded suspicion more than anything else.”

Barton highlights that a conflict between our countries exists, but it is between the political and media elites, whose motives might be often far different than those of ordinary people.

“It's a complex situation, but more open, direct communication between the Americans and Russians – be it through exchange programs or some other means – helps bring our countries together,” he concludes. “That may be an idealistic attitude, but I certainly don't consider it naïveté. My personal experience – and that of many of my Fulbright peers – proves that it's possible to bring our respective cultures closer together.”

Academia as a safe haven for US-Russia collaboration 

Regardless of the difficult times in U.S.-Russia relations and the diminished focus on educational programs, some experts agree that the interest in academic exchange is still alive, even though now it is much more difficult to deal with it than previously. Alexander Abashkin, a former Director of International Programs at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy (RANEPA), and currently the Head of a similar department at the School of Public Policy (one of RANEPA’s major institutions), has been dealing with international exchange programs for the last 20 years. His experience indicates that, despite the lack of understanding between Russian and American politicians, there is increasing understanding between the U.S.-Russia academic communities.

In times of uncertainty around educational programs for Russia and U.S. students, a great deal of hope is now placed on the potential for inter-university exchanges.  “Exchanges are still going on, yet given the current political situation and its difficulties, we are looking for some alternative options of the so-called transnational education when universities create their programs abroad,” Abashkin clarified. This format is very popular in the West and RANEPA is thinking over creating its centers in other countries, so that foreign students could study there under its educational programs.

“We plan to move some of our educational programs with our American counterparts to other countries, for example to Latvia’s Riga, Lithuania’s Vilnius, or elsewhere,” Abashkin said. He added that both Russian and American universities should create as many opportunities as possible, including distance learning courses, educational forums, platforms or symposiums in other countries, all of which will bring together Russian and American students.                       

Currently, RANEPA is discussing collaboration in such a format with Georgia Tech University (Atlanta), whose students keep coming to its campus in Moscow, listening to lectures and studying the language. Yet this summer the program is expected to take place not only in the Russian capital, but also in Latvia’s Riga. In addition, RANEPA is working with Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah.

According to Abashkin, Brigham Young is one of the U.S. universities with the biggest number of students studying the Russian language. “On the top of that, as I was told by my colleagues from this university, the recent events in Ukraine and U.S.-Russia political divorce fueled interest toward Russia a great deal,” he said. “That’s why we are expecting a bigger group of students in spring and summer.”

At the same time, Abashkin points out to the suspension of the RANEPA joint program with Stanford University. This Stanford-in-Moscow program was founded 20 years ago, and every fall used to bring about 15-25 Americans to study in Russia. “This program was suspended,” Abashkin said pointing out that the current Stanford leadership is hesitant and reassessing its educational exchanges policy toward Russia. 

“We need to continue this dialogue with our American counterparts to discuss the current problems and look for the ways of how to deal with these programs,” Abashkin concluded. “After talking to many of my U.S. colleagues I understand that they are likewise very concerned and worried about the future of educational exchanges. There is a lack of understanding of Russia in the U.S., and without collaboration with Russian universities, the situation will only get worse.”

Yelena Osipova, Ph.D. Candidate and Rising Experts Fellow at American University’s School of International Service, echoes Abashkin’s view.  “In the U.S., interest in Russia has been dwindling since the end of the Cold War,” she said. “Throughout the past nine months, Russia has come to the fore again, in terms of threat perception. It is now seen as an actor that poses clear and present danger, and therefore, needs attention and understanding.”

With her research dealing with Russian public diplomacy and soft power, Osipova’s grant applications in the past were rarely successful, but the case has been very different this year: After the Ukrainian crisis, Russia has become relevant again, but unfortunately, in a very controversial context.

“It is becoming a “hip” subject to study, and I can already see some of the funding and fellowship/job opportunities following this path, too,” she said. “I hope that this burst of interest will at least produce a body of work that is even more complex, diverse, and contemporary.”