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.
“Remembering to be as self compassionate as I can and praying to the divine that we're all a part of.”
“Prayer, reading, meditation, walking.”
“Erratically — which is an ongoing stream of practice to find peace.”
“Try on a daily basis to be kind to myself and to realize that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Learning from our mistakes is a journey. But it starts with compassion and caring. First for oneself.”
“Physically: aerobic exercise, volleyball, ice hockey, cycling, sailing. Emotionally: unfortunately I have to work to ‘not care’ about people or situations which may end painfully. Along the lines of ‘attachment is the source of suffering’, so best to avoid it or limit its scope. Sad though because it could also be the source of great joy. Is it worth the risk?“
“It's time for my heart to be nurtured on one level yet contained on another. To go easy on me and to allow my feelings to be validated, not judged harshly. On the other hand, to let the heart rule with equanimity and not lead the mind and body around like a master.”
“I spend time thinking of everything I am grateful for, and I try to develop my ability to express compassion for myself and others without reservation. I take time to do the things I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy. This includes taking experiential workshops, fostering relationships, and participating within groups which have a similar interest to become a more compassionate and fulfilled being.“
“Self-forgiveness for my own judgments. And oh yeah, coming to Esalen.”
“Hmm, this is a tough one! I guess I take care of my heart through fostering relationships with people I feel connected to. Spending quality time with them (whether we're on the phone, through messages/letters, on Zoom, or in-person). Being there for them, listening to them, sharing what's going on with me, my struggles and my successes... like we do in the Esalen weekly Friends of Esalen Zoom sessions!”
“I remind myself in many ways of the fact that " Love is all there is!" LOVE is the prize and this one precious life is the stage we get to learn our lessons. I get out into nature, hike, camp, river kayak, fly fish, garden, I create, I dance (not enough!), and I remain grateful for each day, each breath, each moment. Being in the moment, awake, and remembering the gift of life and my feeling of gratitude for all of creation.”
“My physical heart by limiting stress and eating a heart-healthy diet. My emotional heart by staying in love with the world and by knowing that all disappointment and loss will pass.“
Today, September 29, is World Heart Day. Strike up a conversation with your own heart and as you feel comfortable, encourage others to do the same. As part of our own transformations and self-care, we sometimes ask for others to illuminate and enliven our hearts or speak our love language.
What if we could do this for ourselves too, even if just for today… or to start a heart practice, forever?