Saturday was a big day for cultural diplomacy at AU, as hundreds of people gathered at the Katzen Arts Center for the official kick-off event of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History (CIRCH).
The day began with a symposium, The Strength of Cooperation: Lessons from the Grand Alliance, 1941–1945. Panelists included Frank Costigliola, professor of history at the University of Connecticut; Iskander Magadeev from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations; Susan B. Eisenhower, president of The Eisenhower Group; and John R. Beyrle, US Ambassador to Russia, 2008–12. The symposium was followed by a reception and the official announcement of the new institute, which will reside in the College of Arts and Sciences and be dedicated to enhancing US-Russian relations.
The Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History
International philanthropist and businesswoman Susan E. Carmel established and endowed the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History in honor of her late husband, Robert Carmel. It will expand the former Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC), and fund its operations in perpetuity.
“We are grateful to Ms. Carmel for her exceptional vision and commitment to furthering cultural diplomacy between the US and Russia for the past four years,” said Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We are looking forward to offering students new study abroad programs, expanded cultural events and symposia, and even more opportunities to develop a deeper understanding of Russian culture and history.”
The Making of an Institute
At the reception, Carmel spoke about a pivotal meeting that took place 27 years ago. It brought together a remarkable group of people and ultimately helped lead to the creation of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History.
In 1988, when Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev visited New York City to address the United Nations, Carmel and her late husband, Robert Carmel, were invited to meet him. “Robert was of Jewish-Russian descent, and was invited to a special dinner because of his help for Soviet Jews,” she said. “Robert was a great believer of the power of philanthropy to change the world, and the institute’s name is my way of honoring his commitment to the great American tradition of generosity for the sake of the world.”
Also present that day was a journalist named Andre Fedyashin, who was working for the Russian news agency TASS. In 20 years, his son Anton Fedyashin, an American University history professor, would become the director of the Carmel Institute.
Another guest was Sergey Kislyak, currently the ambassador of the Russian Federation to the US. Carmel said she had no idea that their paths would cross again many years later, or that they would end up working together to make the Carmel Institute a reality. The institute, said Carmel, first grew from Ambassador Kislak’s vision of having “young people coming to film screenings at the embassy to learn about Russia through Russian eyes, and to get to know Russia as Russians see it.”
Building on a Rich History
Since its inception, the IRC has promoted a greater understanding of Russian culture among all students in the Washington area's Consortium of Universities—leading to deep and lasting connections between young Americans and Russians. To date, more than 14,000 students and guests have participated in 22 IRC film screenings at the Russian Embassy, as well as panel discussions and cultural experiences across the DC area.
Carmel announced that the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History will establish all of these programs in perpetuity, and expand to include more cultural offerings and events, including new courses on cultural diplomacy and Russia's relationship with the West.
The institute will also offer exciting new student and professorial exchanges between the United States and Russia. “The Carmel Institute has already facilitated the establishment of a direct student exchange program with Moscow State Institute of International Relations and the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow,” said Anton Fedyashin. “Two AU students will go to the HSE for a full academic year this coming August. And ten students will travel with me to Russia this summer to explore literary Russia by reading nine short stories by nine Russian writers, ranging from Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn. We will visit Moscow, Petersburg, Yasnaya Polyana, and Staraya Russa.”
“The Carmel Institute will encourage American students to explore Russia for themselves and to interact with Russians to hear their point of view on their history, their culture, and the world,” said Fedyahsin. “American University justifiably takes pride in the level of its students engagement with the world, but it also believes that changing it for the better is more effective after learning about its subtleties and complexities. Exposing American students to the depth and richness of Russian culture is precisely what the Carmel Institute aims to do.”
Carmel urged the young people in the audience to get involved in the institute’s programming and events. “I believe that your generation, and the generations that follow, will need to find a better way to understand and accept different cultures and backgrounds,” she said. “Real change must come from the heart, and I sincerely believe that the greatest tool for understanding people and reaching their hearts and minds is through their culture. Greater cultural understanding will help you to achieve an open mind, rather than resorting to stereotypes, and will help you to find a common ground that is necessary to be able to work together and to interact with mutual respect. By continuing to emphasize the importance of culture and common cultural bonds, I believe the institute will be making an investment in future generations that will be paid back ten-fold over time.”