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AU’s Initiative for Russian Culture Celebrates Cultural Collaborations

By Carolyn Supinka

Photo (from left to right): Alexander P. Potemkin, H.E. Sergey I. Kislyak, Director Karen Shakhnazarov, the Hon. James W. Symington, the Hon. John R. Beyrle, Susan C. Lerhman

Photo (from left to right): Alexander P. Potemkin, H.E. Sergey I. Kislyak, Director Karen Shakhnazarov, the Hon. James W. Symington, the Hon. John R. Beyrle, Susan C. Lerhman

With back-to-back festivities at the Embassy of the Russian Federation and the National Geographic Society, AU’s four-year-old Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC) furthered its accomplishments in building greater cultural relations between Russians and Americans.  

“The IRC brings students together from across the Washington, DC, region to learn about Russia through its art, music, and culture,” said Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “In a short period of time, the IRC has been incredibly effective at creating greater cultural understanding among today’s students, and in building a next generation of leaders in U.S.-Russia relations.”  


An Evening at the Embassy  

On November 18, more than 350 guests gathered at the Embassy of the Russian Federation to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Mosfilm Studios, Russia’s largest and most prestigious movie production company. Film Director and Head of Mosfilm Studios Karen Shakhnazarov was honored for his dedication and commitment to the IRC, and guests were treated to a screening of Shakhnazarov’s 1991 film, Assassin of the Tsar

IRC Moscfilm event“This is our way of saying thank you to Mosfilm for sharing its incredibly rich film library,” said Anton Fedyashin, AU assistant professor of history and executive director of the IRC. 

Mosfilm has partnered with the IRC since the initiative was founded in 2011 with support from Susan Carmel Lehrman, a philanthropist and businesswoman who chairs the initiative’s advisory board. The IRC and the Russian Embassy reached out to Mosfilm when the initiative was first formed to receive permission to screen Mosfilm movies for free. “Mosfilm was very supportive of our idea to make film the centerpiece of this initiative,” said Fedyashin. “Film is the most accessible way to share culture.”  

After the film, Shakhnazarov answered audience members’ questions about his views on art, politics, and how film can bring cultures together. “I’m very grateful to Susan Lehrman, for Anton Fedyashin, and for everyone who made this evening for me, and I’m very excited,” he said. In expressing his hopes for the young people of both countries, Shakhnazarov said, “I don’t want new generations of both nations to repeat this [Cold War] experience. I hope that our meetings will help both sides not to repeat this mistake.”  

Fedyashin said he has high hopes for the future of the IRC. “We anticipate expanding our programming even further. We’ve had great success since the initiative launched. In all, more than 13,000 students have attended our events. Up to 350 people attend our film screenings, which are open to students from all universities in the area.”  

The IRC events are held at the Embassy of the Russian Federation and other venues throughout the city, including the Amphitheater of the Ronald Reagan Building, the Library of Congress, and the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens.  


Photojournalism and Cinematography Gala at the National Geographic Society
The following night, the IRC and the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation (ARCCF) co-hosted a black-tie gala honoring the role that photojournalism and cinematography play in promoting cultural understanding between the United States and Russia.  

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the iconic National Geographic cover story titled “Young Russia: the Land of Unlimited Possibilities,” written by then-editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor. 

The ARCCF commemorated the anniversary of this article with a 2014 ARCCF Award, which was accepted by Grosvenor’s grandson and National Geographic Chair Emeritus, Gilbert M. Grosvenor. In honor of the 90th anniversary of Mosfilm Studios, Shakhnazarov was presented with an ARCCF Award for his cinematic achievements and his contributions to building cultural bridges through film. 

Patrick Reed wins James W. Symington AwardLater in the evening, Fedyashin presented the third annual James W. Symington Award to Patrick Reed, an SIS major at AU, to fund his tuition and travel for the interdisciplinary summer program in Russian language, culture, and international relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Reed will travel to Moscow during the summer of 2015. 

In all, approximately 400 guests attended the celebration. The evening’s entertainment featured Barynya, a renowned Russian music and dance ensemble, and the program featured speeches by Ambassador Kislyak, former US ambassador to Russia John Beyrle, as well as the Honorable James W. Symington, the chairman of the board of the ARCCF.  

John Fahey, chairman and CEO of the National Geographic Society, spoke about the importance of cultural understanding at the event. “You can’t understand people unless you understand culture,” he said, “This is what National Geographic has been doing since its very beginning.”  

Lehrman emphasized the importance of cultural understanding and encouraged young students to take advantage of all the opportunities the IRC provides. “I would tell young students to keep an open mind and take advantage of all the opportunities you have. Our program is so unique: you can see Russian films, food, embassies—short of actually going to Russia, you can experience the culture,” she said.  

Mosfilm Studios Karen ShakhnazarovLehrman spoke about the importance of youth engagement in cultural understanding and exchange. “It is critical to achieving mutual respect and cooperation,” she said. “Without respect, you can’t work through any issues. It’s very important in the lives of young people—these are our future leaders, people who will be at the forefront of future cultural relationships.” 

All of the evening’s speakers discussed the importance of the IRC’s mission in light of the recent political conflict between the United States and the Russian Federation. All were optimistic and spoke to the power of art in creating a meaningful cultural exchange between the two nations. “There is an enormous amount of possibility for collaboration between artists and cultural leaders,” said Shakhnazarov, “and it’s up to the artists to decide the terms.”

Mosfilm Studios Karen ShakhnazarovFedyashin recounted an instance in the history of IRC that demonstrates the power of art in cultural exchange. Following a past IRC film screening, he was talking to several of his students when ambassador Kislyak joined them and asked the students what they had learned from the experience. After a moment of thought, one student said that what made the strongest impression on her was how much she had in common with the protagonist of the film. 

“The character’s anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams made her think of her own,” said Fedyashin. “This is what makes it all worth it.”