AAS President Discusses Moscow Conference Experience
By Sarah Ashman '14 and Risalat Khan '13
Amherst Association of Students President Saumitra Thakur ’11 visited Moscow from Nov. 13 to 20 as part of a conference hosted by the Russian governement for student body presidents from around the U.S.

Tell us about your trip to Russia and the conference that you attended.

The rationale behind the trip was that this was the first civilian exchange by invitation of the Kremlin since the end of the Cold War from the United States. This exchange came up in the bilateral presidential commission… chaired by Obama and Medvedev. The Russians preferred young student leaders… so I went, and so did the presidents of Stanford, Harvard, Columbia Engineering, Columbia-Barnard, an MIT grad, Berkeley, the University of Colorado, the University of Minnesota. Because it’s the first of its sort of exchange we met with very high profile people. My understanding and my personal intuition say these meetings weren’t so much because of who we were, but by having us meet these people the Russians sent a signal to the United States government, and I think that was what they actually had in mind by arranging meetings with college presidents. The most high profile person we met was Vladislav Surkov, who has been called the third-most powerful person in Russia.

What was the focus of the conference?

I think that we met with these people to forward two central theses. The first thesis is that we should have an open mind towards Russia, and that we as young people should be open to engaging with Russia politically and economically. The second thesis ties into this: Russia is going to prosper as a country. They’ve had double-digit growth before the recession and they’ve [weathered] the recession well. They want to move away from being a petro state and move towards having more of a technology industry. As part of this shift they want to liberalize their politics and their conception of rights.

What did you learn there?

Where do I begin? I can tell you a few anecdotes. The first one was of… the kind of camp where early in the morning, they start blasting the Soviet national anthem, and everyone wakes up, then they do calisthenics for a while, which has this uncomfortable militaristic feel to it from an American perspective, but apparently it’s more normal in their traditional society. What’s interesting about [the camp] is that recently, in past years, they’ve had these paper mache heads of U.S. leaders impaled on spikes in front of the conference. I told him that we feel a little uncomfortable about seeing world leaders — specifically our leaders’— paper mache heads impaled on spikes, that we feel it’s very inappropriate and that if any of us were to attend [the camp] it might seem like an endorsement of this. His response was, “You have to understand, we were very upset with Bush’s foreign policy.” That was a very shocking moment that reminded us just what this organization is that we’re working with.

The second moment came when Vladislav Surkov, the philosopher of the Kremlin, was asked a question regarding rights. He started speaking about how before, when Russia was a state that removed things from the ground, you don’t really need rights to do that. He said that this was a job you could do in your sleep and that if you were awake for just one day of the year you’d make enough money that you could sleep the rest of the time so you don’t really need rights, because these people don’t really have minds — they don’t really need minds — but when you have a technology industry, you need collaboration and you need networking, so suddenly the government has an interest in promoting rights because it promotes this kind of intellectual development. And that’s why he believes the Russian government should now begin creating stronger freedoms in their citizens. It had this very long, uncomfortable economic feel to it, and it was a very interesting position to hear from an American point of view.

And the third event that was very telling was that when we were meeting Arkady Dvorkovich, I asked him what he thought would be the important natural resource of Russia in 50 years… We expected him to say that the most important natural resource would be water or something along those lines, but he responded that it would be people and it is actually the major priority of the Russian government to get to a point where they can think of their people as being that valuable because of the services industries that they want to develop. Although I don’t like their rationale behind why they’re expanding freedoms, I do feel like we’re going to see a more liberal Russia in the future.

How can you apply what you learned to your college experience as president?

I’m working with the other college presidents to promote and in some ways institutionalize specifically undergraduate leader exchanges with the Russians. I drafted an open letter to Congress and I submitted it to the group of 15 [presidents] and we’ve been revising it. We’re hoping to send those Wednesday to leadership in the Senate and House. We’ve had the Russians do the same on their end where it may carry more weight, just given the structure of their society, a lot of the people that attend these colleges are also from powerful families, very networked families, and their institution because it has no other rivals is very important in their country, so I believe this will have a resonant effect.

Issue 11, Submitted 2010-12-08 03:35:03