Students find commonalities and make connections on Russian and American soil

At a time of mounting tensions between the United States and Russia, two Yale undergraduates are among a group of American students busily collaborating on research projects with Russian counterparts, and finding much common ground.
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Yale seniors David Kurkovskiy and Irina Gavrilova are taking part in the highly selective Stanford-Russia Forum, a program that allows them to collaborate with Russian students on research addressing issues of mutual concern for the United States and Russia. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

At a time of mounting tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and reports of election hacking, two Yale undergraduates are among a group of American students busily collaborating on research projects with Russian counterparts, and finding much common ground. 

The two — seniors Irina Gavrilova and David Kurkovskiy — are among the 31 delegates in the 2016-2017 Stanford-Russia Forum (SURF), which annually brings together students from Russian and American universities to promote dialogue and cooperation on issues and challenges of mutual concern, creating lasting ties in the process. The program runs through the academic year.

Gavrilova and Kurkovskiy were selected for SURF from over 600 applicants from 168 universities in the United States and Russia. Since most of the delegates are graduate students, the Yale undergraduates felt particularly excited to be chosen. They are among a handful of Yale students to take part in SURF since its inception about eight years ago.

Kurkovskiy, Gavrilova, and the other SURF delegates were divided into eight teams to collaborate on research in such areas as science and technology; arms control and security; conflict resolution; energy geopolitics; cybersecurity; entrepreneurship; trade and business development; and education. Gavrilova’s team is examining the contradictory U.S. and Russian narratives pertaining to NATO, while Kurkovskiy’s group has been exploring the prevalence of state- and university-sponsored academic exchanges between the United States and Russia, as well as how students interact in them. 

The delegates’ research collaboration began last August when they began conversing monthly via chat and video technology. They met in person for the first time at the annual conference SURF hosted in Moscow in November. There, the American and Russian delegates continued their joint research and were treated to talks by policymakers, government officials, scholars, and others (including U.S. Ambassador to Russia John F. Tefft). They also spent four days in the western Siberian city of Tyumen and visited several Moscow- or Tyumen-based businesses, among them a radio station, a candy factory, an oil production plant, and the Boeing branch at Skolkovo.

The trip to Russia was not the first for either Yale student. Gavrilova lived in Moscow until the age of 15, when her family came to the United States and settled in Chicago. Kurkovskiy’s parents, also from Moscow, immigrated to the United States before he was born and raised him in Brooklyn, New York. In his sophomore year, he traveled to Russia for the first time through the Yale in St. Petersburg Program, an intensive Russian language and culture course.

Despite Gavrilova’s childhood connection to Russia, she said she had an “epiphany” while in the country as she considered life from an American perspective.

“In our conversations over Skype, the interactions between my team members were pretty formal and academic,” the Yale student says. “In Moscow and our travels beyond, we began to have real human connection. I had the experience of pulling an all-nighter with a Russian teammate. As we were talking, it occurred to me that if I were ever in a position to push the nuclear button — or to advise someone else about doing so — I’ll remember this time with this person, walking around Siberia and talking about life. And so I wouldn’t push that button or I would tell someone [in a position to launch a nuclear strike] about that experience. Those moments — of staying up all night with someone, or falling asleep on someone’s shoulder, or talking in the car on the way to the airport — those are the SURF experiences that I’ll most remember, with people who are now part of my life.”

Gavrilova and Kurkovskiy say that while the delegates have wide-ranging interests and experiences, they share one special interest. “We all care about the relationship between the United States and Russia and about world stability,” Gavrilova says.

Gavrilova is a theater studies major who is equally interested in international relations and world politics, and in the ways that theater and political activity intersect. As a summer project for Yale’s Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy Program, she traveled to Dublin to study the role of the theater in the 1916 uprising there and explored the more recent #WakingtheFeminists movement, a campaign for gender equality in the theater in Ireland. Last summer she also studied at the University of Cambridge, taking courses in conflict resolution and foreign policy analysis. For her senior thesis, she directed last fall’s production of “Amadeus,” in which she cast women in male roles. She also served as the editor-in-chief of Yale’s only multilingual magazine, Accent.

Kurkovskiy is double majoring in computer science and Russian and East European studies. In his academic work, he has examined such topics as LGBT activism in the post-Soviet space; the intersection of technology and the humanities to the culture and politics of post-Soviet Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia; and language and cultural politics in Belarus and Ukraine. He is president of an active Yale Russian Speaker’s Club on campus.

For Kurkovskiy, SURF has heightened his commitment to keeping communication going between young Russians and Americans.

“I hope we don’t ever return to the Cold War rhetoric of the past,” says the Yale student. “It is important to have bilateral conversations, instead of just blaming each other. We are countries that have some differences, but there are issues we can mutually get behind, such as counterterrorism or cybersecurity across state borders. … We have a huge need for understanding one another, and for solving pressing problems.”

In April, the Yale students and other SURF delegates will attend a week-long conference at Stanford University, where they will present their research to other delegates, SURF leaders and mentors, and professionals in other areas. In addition, there will be panels and seminars on U.S.-Russia relations, business, technology, and more. They will also spend some time at Fort Ross, a historic Russian fort on the California coast.

“As part of the program, each SURF group has to offer a “deliverable” — something that has some kind of practical application,” says Kurkovskiy. “It can be a performance, or writing an editorial, or designing a program or an academic exchange, for example. We’re working on drafting our proposals for these now.”

After he graduates, Kurkovskiy hopes to take some classes and conduct research in either Kyiv or Moscow. Gavrilova is still uncertain about her immediate future, but in the long term envisions herself working for think tanks or writing political commentary/satire.

Both Yale students say that wherever they land, they will continue the conversations that began as part of SURF, and believe the program has helped them feel hopeful about the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

“I see a lot of Americans who are interested in Russia,” says Kurkovskiy. “Many don’t just repeat what their Cold War-era elders say. They don’t just take for granted what they see in the media. They try to reach further, even if it takes a little more effort. That gives me hope.”

Gavrilova says one particular SURF experience made her feel especially optimistic about the nations’ ability to find commonalities. She accompanied one of the SURF leaders for a filming of a television segment, during which he made a Thanksgiving-style stuffing. While there was much awkwardness due to language barriers and some technical problems, the host ended the segment saying that he hoped that it illustrated how Russians and Americans share a love for family, of cooking, and of celebrating those bonds by eating together.

“One of the things my SURF group saw through our research is that the United States and Russia go through cycles in their relationship,” Gavrilova says. “There are patterns in each side’s narratives that come up over and over again through the years. … I think we need to be willing to accept ambiguity, incompatibility, or cultural differences and be okay with them, without it escalating to violence or conflict or resorting to ignorance. The key is to remain curious about each other, and that’s something we can choose.”

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