“Whom Do We Trust?” was the theme of the conference in St. Petersburg organized by Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy and the Herzen State Pedagogical University, gathering experts and students from two countries.
At the start, it took me back to the first meetings of Soviet and American undergraduate and graduate students in Moscow at the height of perestroika several decades ago. Back then, we and our new interlocutors (some of whom became lifelong friends) were certain that we would destroy the Iron Curtain and the reinforced concrete wall of distrust, prejudice, and misunderstanding among scholars and ordinary people of our countries, the arms race and the threat of a terrible war would recede into the past, and we would build a marvelous new world together. To this day, many of us wonder why that did not happen. What did we do wrong? Why is there a new Cold War on the agenda, the rhetoric of hostility and hate? How do we vanquish them today?
The participants, students at American and St. Petersburg colleges, were eager to discuss everything, get to know one another, engage in a full dialogue. Almost all the Russian students spoke excellent English, much better than we did 25 years ago; many had studied or interned in the United States or Britain. The Americans, who were in Russia on exchange-study programs, knew Russia much better than their counterparts had years ago. It was clear that the years since the early meetings had brought real changes in education and research on Russia and America.
This is due in part to the initiatives of Esalen Institute’s Track Two, diplomacy that parallels government diplomacy, which began working long before perestroika. Their initiatives include connecting astronauts and cosmonauts, initiating talks on philosophy and psychology, setting up meetings between PEN America and the Union of Soviet Writers, and the first space bridges with Russia and the United States. These breakthrough events led to further cooperation and joint projects in many spheres. Track Two not only brought together prominent experts, it became a lifelong project for its founders. Track Two President Dulce Murphy, museum adviser Nicolas V. Iljine, translator Antonina W. Bouis, Russianist Peter B. Kaufman, and others firmly believe that human relationships and professional dialogue can counter militarism, propaganda, and prejudice, and offered this platform to the young. The main topics of discussion and workshops were the significance of the media in confronting bias and half-truths, fake news, the false need for an enemy, and how to dismantle that concept.
It turned out that 20-year-olds in both countries see the world in strikingly similar ways. They do not trust television, be it Channel One in Russia or Fox News or CNN in the United States; they prefer independent sources that do not belong to the state or business interests. Surprisingly, they read serious newspapers and magazines—Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, The Nation, The Guardian, and The New York Times. And they are very active on the Internet and trust the opinions of their circle of close friends more than the popular media. Both Americans and Russians consider politicians, and the politicized nature of much of the press, as the cause of the new spiral of the Cold War. “I am skeptical,” said Nick Rackers, a student from Miami. His words became a kind of meme for the conference.
Sawyer Mack from Colorado addressed American students at large: “Come to Russia, it’s not scary here, you’ll learn a lot of new things.” Unfortunately, student trips are becoming more difficult. It is hard for Russians to get visas and for Americans to find funding. The students talked about the global challenges that need to be addressed: not only the nuclear threat, but climate change and the development of biotechnologies. All without exception believe that contacts and joint projects will change society and politics.
How to dismantle the enemy mindset? In his video keynote address Vladimir Pozner, the Russian moderator of the first space bridges with Phil Donahue, spoke bitterly about the image of the enemy being entrenched in both countries, and that aggression is deeper in the minds and hearts of people than it had been during the Cold War. His thoughts echoed Mikhail Gorbachev in his latest book, In a Changing World, where he wrote “the Cold War never went away, its intensity merely changed.” The keynote speaker (by video) on the second day was The Nation’s editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, who spoke of the importance of journalistic solidarity, and about the need to use coverage to avert a new and more dangerous Cold War.
The young participants seem to be the very people who are not afraid to take on responsibility for decisions about the future and actively entering political and social processes. Many of them said they wanted to be politicians and diplomats. And that gave us all hope.
The Track Two meeting was a lesson in how citizen diplomacy overcomes the imperfections of Track One and suggests the possibilities of development. “Track Two is an irreplaceable opportunity to improve Russian-American relations, by preparing the social atmosphere for the transition to a new state,” said professor Viktoria Zhuravleva, head of the American Center of the Russian State University of the Humanities. “It is hard to overestimate the value of ‘track two.’ But we also need a ‘track three’—contacts among ordinary people, not just experts, which are so important for the future.”
The conference in St. Petersburg is a step toward the development of that future, which is being born today. And that is the most important thing.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis