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Connecticut College recently offered its first professor-led tour to Russia. Professor Andrea Lanoux and one other advisor led fourteen students on an eventful eight-day tour that incuded seeing sites and recieving hands-on education in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Part of that educational experience was meeting with a group of political science students in St. Petersburg to discuss politics. We asked Kaitlin Martin, a freshman studying international relations at Conneticut College who participated in the tour, to write this synopsis of the group's experience.

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Travel Experience:
Student Politics in St. Pete
By Kaitlin Martin

   A total of approximately 40 students took part in the discussion.
         Approximately 40 students, from
         Russia and America, took part in
                                   the discussion.

Amid heated international debates brought about by the recent Russian presidential election and the upcoming American presidential election, a group of students from Connecticut College met with political science students from the School of Economics in Saint Petersburg on March 15, 2008. In this formal discussion, Russian and American students familiarized each other with their respective country's electoral systems, political processes, and current affairs. As a prospective international relations major, I was curious to hear a Russian perspective on what the US media has termed a "rigged" presidential election. Likewise, Russian students were eager to hear from students who are currently living under a president who has earned a less than favorable reputation in Russia.

Admittedly, we all came to the table with certain biases. My personal biases, like those of many Americans, are that Russia's government is quasi-democratic, and its elections are only a public confirmation of the powers that the Kremlin has gained. Along with my classmates, I had seen the Russian government only for its corruption and its tendencies to stifle democratic processes. The Russian students we met with, however, argued that the Russian political scene is not a traditionally liberal environment. They contrasted Russia's history with that of the United States, a government that does not share the experience of multiple fundamental shifts in regime within the last century. Because of this particular historical difference, it is hard for Americans to understand why the current Russian political system is based upon stability, not liberty. As stated by a Russian student, "We have food. We have jobs. So why should we complain?"

As the Russian students elaborated on their response, I soon began to understand a more of the perspective of these Russian students on government. The post-Soviet Russian economy has endured some extremely tumultuous times; amid this atmosphere of economic hardship, Russian citizens have seen constant improvement in many sectors of the economy throughout Vladimir Putin's presidency. From the practical standpoint of these Russian students, there is no necessity in challenging a system that has proved to be successful in bringing about increased political stability and evading economic catastrophe.

Students had the opportunity to break out into informal discussion groups.
Students had the opportunity to
break out into informal
discussion groups.

Our discussion soon evolved into a question-and-answer session focused upon the American economy and political scene, which, with the upcoming United States presidential election, is also a hot topic in Russia. Specifically, the Russian students were eager to learn more about the electoral college, a system completely foreign to them. American students did their best to articulate this phenomenon (although arguably, we are also confused by it), as well as provide an overview of the differences among Democratic and Republican candidates. Russian students were particularly interested in the campaign process, as well as the role of the media in influencing the American people.

We agreed that in both of our electoral systems, the media plays a significant role in influencing the electorate. In a different way, we also concluded that the manner in which presidential candidates are chosen is starkly different. One Russian student said, "We knew all along that Medvedev would be the next president. The American electoral system seems to be a longer process." And along with this process, a few of us added, comes some very meticulous debates about the unpopular Iraq War. We sought to emphasize the fact that America's foreign policy does not reflect the wishes of most Americans. "Right now we're looking for a presidential candidate who's going to safely remove American troops from Iraq," added one American student. "Whether or not that will occur on a specified timetable is up for debate," added another student.

While our formal discussion allowed for dialogue on more serious topics, the informal conversations that followed allowed us to just be "college kids" and talk about things that are important to us in our daily lives. In small groups we discussed such topics as popular music, current social trends, and hot spots in Saint-Petersburg's nightlife. We talked about our families, our interests, and our reasons for going to college. We learned that despite our differences, many of us had similar interests and aspirations – that everyone wants to succeed professionally and materially, and that we are all connected to a modern world culture that is rapidly becoming more homogeneous as the information age allows cultures to more easily influence each other.

On behalf of both the School of Economics students and my own classmates, I can say the meeting was beneficial on both sides. With expanded perspectives, Connecticut College students returned home with a wider view of Russian politics. Likewise, the Russian students seemed to have a better grasp of the complex American political system. Notwithstanding the intellectual exchange of information, Russian and American students were able to get to know each other on a personal basis and understand that the vast differences between our respective political and historical situations does not necessarily translate to an unsurpassable difference in our interests, beliefs, and goals.

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