The Whom Do You Trust? conference wrapped up in St. Petersburg Thursday. In the final analysis, a question hangs in the air: Is this enough – is anything enough – to bend the steep downward trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations toward some kind of accord? I’m afraid I cannot provide a clear answer, but I can say that this event was, at the very least, a good start.
The tragic fact is that U.S. support for exchange programs with Russia is dwindling, as described in an earlier post. These programs have helped millions of people from our nation's learn to understand each other better, and we could certainly use more, not less, of them. So simply providing Russian and American students an opportunity to talk, hang out and do what young people do, is quite rare. In this context, the Track Two conference organizers took a bold approach, emphasizing the similarities between our two cultures – even the negative ones, like fake news – rather than focusing on the differences.
As for the last day of the conference, the students engaged in some exercises worthy of Track Two’s mother organization, the Esalen Institute. Led by American performer and dancer Joe Orrach, the twenty-somethings expressed deep feelings by digging into their personal histories. Here are a few pictures of their day:
Meanwhile, the professors, organizers and other “grown-ups” attending the conference dug into their own feelings about the past three days. Some felt that an opportunity to air out the political dirty laundry was missed, although one said, “Perhaps we didn’t discuss politics because we didn’t want to.” More often the attitude of the older attendees was positive: one woman was warmed by the impact of realizing how similar people everywhere really are. A Russian professor was interested in the level of audience engagement throughout the conference, a regular feature of American events, while an American was impressed by the openness of the young Russians to new forms of dialogue.
Nevertheless, the deteriorating relationship between our countries was on many minds. We live in times of mistrust bordering on hysteria, a fact brought home by this article in Medium online magazine. Titled Mueller, Trump and Putin, and written by a Democratic political operative, it spends one paragraph lambasting Donald Trump and the rest practically apoplectic about Vladimir Putin. Nonetheless, all the author’s claims of Russian “criminality and anti-democratic skullduggery” are hedged with phrases including “alleged,” “might well be,” “appears to be,” and even, “There is no way, at this juncture, to verify the accuracy” of these accusations. This is not fake news, it is anti-Russian propaganda. Confronted with this daily bombardment, just watching Americans and Russians talking and laughing was more powerful than the organizers thought it could be. (By the way, for a more accurate description of the facts of the Russian-American argument, written by an actual journalist, see The Quiet American: Behind the US-Russian Imbroglio, by Keith Gessen, a recent New York Times article ).
For a final thought on this situation, I turned to Charles Maynes, a radio journalist attending the conference. Charles has unique insight on Russia and America: the son of a respected American journalist who was stationed in Moscow when he was a child, Charles is an American who has lived in Russia for the last twelve years, reporting for NPR and others.
He felt that Russia is, in effect, the safest enemy America could have. This is the enemy we know. Despite the fact that our nuclear missiles are still pointed at each other, we are rivals who have, through rancor and hard times, never let those weapons loose. And, he said, “I am not afraid that a Russian is going to show up in Times Square with a dirty bomb in a suitcase.” I had to agree.