People-to-people contacts between the United States and Russia suffered a significant blow on June 21 when the Russian general prosecutor’s office labeled Bard College an “undesirable” organization. The St. Petersburg satellite campus of upstate New York’s Bard College had been a fixture of U.S.-Russia educational and cultural exchange since 1997, but will now be forced to close its doors. The Kremlin has upped its crackdown on civil society in recent months, but the designation of a small undergraduate institution as a “threat to the foundations of the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation” appears particularly unfortunate.
Media outlets have cited the school’s ties to George Soros, whose philanthropy funds other non-profit organizations declared “undesirable,” as the reason for Bard’s designation. But there may be more to it than that.
Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin has shut down educational and technical exchanges with the United States throughout his tenure as the Russian president. As retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack has observed, the Kremlin’s closure of the United States’ four consulates has severely curtailed people-to-people connections. Whereas previously, the consulates provided visa and travel assistance to students, tourists, and business people from both countries, their doors are now shuttered. The return of the American and Russian ambassadors to their posts following the recent Geneva summit has done nothing to remedy this.
Yet Kremlin actors aren’t the only threat to people-to-people exchanges between the United States, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia. In some respects, the Kremlin is late to the game. Victor Orban’s expulsion of Central European University from Budapest in 2018 was the first hit to Bard-affiliated international programs. Kyrgyzstan’s strongman president Sadyr Japarov continues to harass the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), another Bard College affiliate. In April, Kyrgyz authorities questioned AUCA’s president, Andrew Kuchins, on dubious suspicions of drug trafficking. Attempts to smear the university have also been linked to Kyrgyz state actors. AUCA announced in early June that Kuchins would return to the United States at the end of the academic year.
Educational institutions like the Bard-Smolny Program and AUCA are crucial to cross-cultural exchange and international understanding. If the Kremlin is worried about foreign influence, it should remember that when it comes to people-to-people connections, influence cuts both ways. Indeed, Bard-Smolny, which operated in cooperation with St. Petersburg State University, welcomed about forty-five visiting American students per year and sent a similar number of Russian students to study at Bard’s main campus in New York.
Students at Bard-Smolny spent their summers and semesters taking in the best Russia has to offer, enjoying St. Petersburg’s famous white nights, attending performances and museums, and generally leaving Americans with favorable impressions of a complex and interesting country. By shutting out opportunities for cultural exchange, the Kremlin is not just insulating Russians from American values but depriving itself of a platform to make its point of view heard. This is most significant as it relates to language exchange. If Americans and Russians literally can’t understand what each other are saying or read what they’re writing, what chance do the two countries have for meaningful dialogue?
Free and open societies like the United States clearly understand that people-to-people exchange is in their best interest. But even Putin’s repressive goverment appears to see the value of language and cultural exchange—on its own terms.
In 2007, Putin issued a decree forming the Russian World Foundation (RWF), aimed at promoting Russian language education and culture around the world. The number of RWF outposts in Asia and Africa is rapidly expanding. The Kremlin clearly sees this kind of soft power to be in its interests. Although it has the right to pick and choose its partners, cultural exchange between competitors is arguably much more important than between allies. Cutting ties paves the way for vilification, and that can expedite conflict.
When Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin met last week at the Geneva Summit, they both went in with the preconceived expectation that American and Russian perspectives on foreign affairs were mutually incompatible and that there was little to be achieved by debating them. Instead, they tried to reach consensus only in the narrowest of respects. People-to-people connections can help bridge this divide and help Washington and Moscow better understand the other’s red lines.
Might the reestablishment of educational and cultural exchanges between the United States and Russia be an appropriate good-faith gesture to kickstart further negotiations? Educational and cultural exchange is a low-stakes, high-impact area where Moscow’s and Washington’s interests converge. The significance of geopolitical discussions is often not felt by everyday citizens. The reopening of Bard-Smolny and other exchange programs could be a rare opportunity for bilateral diplomacy to have an immediate positive effect on people-to-people relations between American and Russian citizens. The two sides could agree to drop Bard-Smolny’s “undesirable” designation and restart Russia’s FLEX program, which sends high school students from Europe and Eurasia to the United States for a year of study.
This week, the U.S. and Russian ambassadors returned to their respective posts after a two-month hiatus. This is a good start, but also the bare minimum. Any true restoration of relations will require a more meaningful response. Both Biden and Putin stand to benefit domestically from taking tangible action.
At a time when American and Russian leaders talk past each other on the diplomatic stage, opportunities for their citizens to talk to each other become all the more important. The future of the U.S.-Russia relationship need not be the exclusive territory of presidents. Students, tourists, business people, and sports fans may very well bring more to the table in terms of international understanding than their representatives.
The Kremlin’s short-sighted decision to effectively close Bard-Smolny is a sad illustration of weakening people-to-people ties between the United States and Russia. But it may also be an opportunity to reexamine the importance of cross-cultural exchange and the power of citizens to help shape bilateral relations.
Andrew D’Anieri is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He tweets @andrew_danieri.
Lillian Posner is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest. She tweets @LillianPosner.