Although they were born well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of Russian and U.S. college students gathered in St. Petersburg last September in an attempt to find common ground in a world reverberating not only with echoes of the Cold War, but also new media-fueled disinformation. What they discovered were not polarized views but surprisingly a shared perception of 21st-century threats. “The students held a shared belief that enemies should not be other countries,” says Dulce Murphy, Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy president. “Instead, they claimed enemies should be those issues around which they can join forces to address: nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, mass migrations, poverty and hunger.”
The conference, entitled “Whom Do You Trust?” was co-hosted by Track Two, the nonprofit organization co-founded by Michael and Dulce Murphy and formerly known as the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program. “Right now the tension between Russia and the U.S. is as high as it was when we began our work 39 years ago,” says Dulce. During the 1980s, Esalen served as the catalyst for U.S. and Soviet exchange programs, including pioneering the first spacebridges to allow U.S. and Soviet citizens to talk via satellite communication, and facilitating dialogues that led to Boris Yeltsin’s historic visit to the U.S. in 1989, just two years before he became the first president of the newly formed Russian Federation.
Out of these gatherings came a new term: “track two” or citizen diplomacy, which refers to non-governmental, informal collaboration to build trust, shift perception and resolve conflict. Today Track Two has initiated citizen diplomacy networks not only in Russia, but the Middle East and the North Pacific Rim.
As the St. Petersburg conference unfolded, another shared perception among the bilingual students emerged. With Russian media controlled largely by the State, and U.S. media by corporate interests, the students agreed that mainstream media is untrustworthy and often misleading. “I trust no one. I question everything, just like our Track Two slogan says,” reflected Nikita Stychinsky, a linguistics student at Russian State Pedagogical University, during a panel discussion. Students from both countries confirmed that they’re more likely to trust alternative news sources including The Economist, New Republic, The Nation, Medusa and Twitter.
With students from both countries relying on the same news sources, a common global frame of reference has emerged. “These students have managed a degree of access to world affairs that was not available to prior generations,” observes Dulce. “These information sources contribute to a deeper sense of understanding.”
“I personally haven't been in America,” Nikita shared during the conference, “but for many people nowadays, especially youth who are connected 24/7 to the internet, it feels as though we have been to America.” During the discussion, however, students identified a perceived lack of reciprocal familiarity with Russia in the U.S., largely due to the language barrier for most Americans as well as dwindling exchange programs.
During the last day, students participated in an interactive storytelling workshop led by performer Joe Orrach. For Jadie Minhas, an American student from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, this workshop was of particular value. “We all wrote our personal experiences — and I got to see more of who people were and the other side of things, their personal lives and not just political ideas. This was the most impactful part for me.” Social outings and receptions were built into the conference structure to encourage friendships and trust among participants.
Serious discussion, social bonding and shifting perceptions are all outcomes that align with Track Two’s goal to build effective, creative networks of peacemakers around the world. “As for next steps, another Whom Do You Trust? Conference is in the works for September 2019,” says Track Two Executive Director Virginia Thomson. “Russian and U.S. students will once again gather to explore different topics on the same theme of perception, discernment and media in the digital age.” In addition to Track Two, the conferences are held in collaboration with Esalen’s Center for Theory & Research, the Herzen Russian State Pedagogical University and the Center for International Education and Exchange.
Learn about the Center for Theory & Research and Track Two upcoming conferences.
Learn more about Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy.
Photos courtesy of Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy.