To Moscow, to Moscow! – this has always been the yearning phrase proclaimed by characters in novels by Anton Chekhov. “To Moscow!“, they say full of longing because life is supposedly better in Moscow, where they anticipated work and opportunity. But in the end, they never go to Moscow. In June 2016 I, too, told myself: “To Moscow!” but with one difference – I actually went!
What made the difference? The Alfa Fellowship Program.
When I began my undergraduate studies in 2006, I chose Russian as a foreign language. At that time, I could never have imagined that I would develop such a close relationship to Russia and its culture, build such kind friendships with its people, and take several trips resulting from this choice. Since then, I have always been pulled back to Russia.
Ten years later, in the summer of 2016, I now find myself back in Moscow through the Alfa Fellowship Program, a young professionals program for emerging leaders from the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany.
The last opportunity I had to spend time in Russia was in 2010, when I studied at MGIMO in Moscow. Much has changed since then, but specifically the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the mixed media coverage in Western Europe has made it more and more difficult for me as a foreign observer to truly understand Russia.
As “Promoting Understanding of Russia” is the motto of the program., I thought, “If not now, when – in times of sanctions, Cold War rhetoric and upcoming Duma elections – returning to Russia and better understanding the country?”, I was adventurous and curious.
My experience at the Alfa Fellowship Program orientation made me ready for my year in Moscow. Here’s what I learned about my upcoming fellowship.
My first observation: If you have an affinity for Russia, already speak some Russian or have been in the country before, then the Alfa Fellowship Program is right for you.
Originally established as a young professionals program for Americans, Alfa recently expanded to young professionals from the U.K. and Germany in order to further foster intercultural understanding. When I was applying for admission, little was known about the program in general in Germany. All fellows were invited to an orientation seminar taking place in Washington, D.C. at the end of April in preparation for the stay in Russia.
As the supervising organization, Cultural Vistas offered us excellent guidance and preparation for the period abroad. Their staff is a reliable source of information and help under any circumstances.
Thematically, the orientation seminar highlighted the U.S. perspective on Russia through visits with think tanks (the Wilson Center‘s Kennan Institute), political representatives (Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Embassy of the Russian Federation, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations) and the Alfa alumni.
What I concluded from these visits was that some experts anticipated or even predicted the recent political moves of the Russian government to a certain degree. Consequently, in order to preserve peace in Europe, it is necessary to carefully examine Russia’s international ambition in a geopolitical context. From a German perspective, the geographical proximity as well as the centuries-old economic and political relationships with Russia represent another motivation to further understand this unique country and its complex history.
My second observation: What I became aware of during the Orientation Seminar is that the Alfa Fellowship Program represents a magnificent opportunity to develop professionally and to grow personally.
The Orientation Seminar also reaffirmed my decision to interrupt my professional, political and private life in Germany for a stint abroad. From the time of admission onwards, all fellows receive individual Russian language training at their place of residence either in the U.S., U.K. or Germany until departure to Russia. Arriving in Moscow, the first three and a half months serve as preparation for the work assignments of the fellow`s choice from October on. The fellows also receive intensive Russian language training. The motto “Promoting Understanding of Russia“ is put into practice via lectures at the Higher School of Economics and regular meetings with representatives of the diplomatic corps, the media and corporate Russia. To obtain a diverse picture of Russia and the post-Soviet region, several excursions are part of the program – within Russia as well as to other CIS countries. Moreover, the work assignment offers the opportunity to gain work experience in either a Russian enterprise or another organization.
My final observation: You won`t be alone in Moscow.
Program staff is available to the fellows from the Cultural Vistas office in the U.S. as well as from the Fund for International Fellowships and Cultural Dialogue in Moscow. Not only do they provide the fellows with very convenient accommodation but also with advice and assistance over the year.
During the orientation seminar, I perceived the group as being very relaxed, although intercultural differences are evident. Above all for me as a European, the exchange with fellows from the U.S. and the U.K. is special and valuable. Therefore, this exchange contributes also to a wider understanding not only of the East but also the West.
When I come back to Germany, I will certainly have gained invaluable insights because of this step I took with the Alfa Fellowship Program.