Annual EPIIC Symposium explores Russia’s present and future

The 30th Annual Norris and Margery Bendetson Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC) Symposium will continue today with two panels in the afternoon and the official introduction and keynote at 6:30 p.m. The topic of this year’s EPIIC Symposium is “Russia in the XXI Century.

This year’s event features a number of panels on issues related to Russia, including “The State and the Media,” “Russia and Asia: The Bear Looks East?,” “Ruling Russia: Governance in the 21st Century” and “Beyond the Barrel: The Russian Economy,” according to the program’s website. The conference held its first event on Wednesday and will continue through Sunday.

Founding Director of the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL) Sherman Teichman emphasized that this year’s symposium comes at an important time for Russia on the global stage.

“This is timely, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “It is a very critical moment for the EuropeanU.S. relationship, for the EU itself, over sanctions, over intervention, over the renewal of NATO. It’s an extraordinary time in the context of global politics and worse for an individual country called the Ukraine. So we’ve tried to resonate that.”

Teichman explained that when he chose the subject for this year’s conference three years ago, he didn’t know exactly what the situation would be today. However, he knew that Western scholars were neglecting Russia.

“When three years ago I determined to do this, people were rather skeptical,” he said. “They wanted to know why I was doing this – it was a diminished country, diminishing population, a mono-economy. We’re supposed to be helping our students anticipate issues in the world.”

The world began to turn its attention back to Russia after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, according to Teichman.

“Suddenly everyone was kind of concentrated on Russia in the Sochi Olympics,” he said. “It took days before the world recognized the bloom was off of that extraordinary closing ceremony with the seizure of the Crimea. And so we have what we have now. A year later — the chaos, the dismembering of a country in Europe, the flouting of international law, extraordinary new norms.”

Ethan Krauss, who is a student in this year’s EPIIC class, explained that the students get to choose the topics and speakers for each panel. He noted that the students looked to underline a number of themes in this year’s symposium.

“For us, we decided that the three most important kind of consistent threads with Russia and issues related to Russia are the historical legacy of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire, how domestic changes kind of affect geopolitical situations … and thirdly how Russia sees itself in the world,” Krauss, a junior, said.

Maxim Kondratenko, a senior and fellow member of this year’s EPIIC class, explained that students in the class began considering panel topics and prospective panelists in the beginning of the course. He added that students were selected to either moderate a panel or present a speaker.

“Pretty much from the start, we were able to choose what committees we wanted to be a part of and start researching who we wanted to bring in,” Kondratenko said. “It’s essentially been a work in progress this whole year.”

Teichman underscored that the symposium provides a unique opportunity for students interested in the region and its related issues to engage with specialists in the field.

“The EPIIC symposium is a chance to have an extraordinary front-row seat to extraordinary people — people who have been pivotal in history, people who are decisive in their own policymaking, people who are academicians, scholars, analysts, activists, etc. to have a front-row seat to listen, to meet, to think with, to question … to learn an incredible amount and to do it, I think, in a fun and exciting environment,” he said. “It’s not an academic environment in the context of the usual long lecture, few questions. This is really an attempt at a dynamic interchange, a dialogue and interface.”

Krauss noted that the symposium will provide a more nuanced discussion of both Russian and Western perspectives on this year’s theme.

“It’s very much like if you come from a Western background you almost exclusively see the Western side of things,” he said. “When you come from, say, a Russian or at least a Russian-leaning background, you only exclusively see the way it’s portrayed in their eyes. We selected experts who have extensive working experience living in both spheres … So they … have very good understandings of how the other sees the world.”

Arik Burakovsky, a first-year graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy who is a TA for the EPIIC class, also stressed the importance of fostering conversation between opposing sides.

“What I find we really need is a dialogue,” he said. “We’re bringing in professors, we’re bringing in experts from think tanks, media, government, from Russia, from Ukraine … and they’re all getting together to talk about this issue, and that’s really important, because what we’ve found is that people are oftentimes siloed and tend to think in traditional ways that they’re used to, and it’s good to get outside of that bubble.”

Burakovsky, who served on the symposium’s public relations committee, explained that organizers put up posters across campus and handed out postcards to promote the events. They have also reached out to universities across Boston and have made use of social media.

“Social media is one aspect,” he said. “The other aspect is, of course, word of mouth. It’s always, I think, the most effective if you can tell your friends who are interested in the topic or interested in what IGL does to come to the symposium, because that has a much larger impact.”

Krauss explained that he is looking forward to the more open exchange of ideas and opinions that is possible at the symposium.

“I’m most interested in kind of hearing more candid views than some people are necessarily allowed to discuss in public,” he said.

Burakovsky emphasized that anyone interested in Russia can learn a lot from the symposium, regardless of their background.

“I think that for anybody who is new to this topic to come in and learn about it and to be exposed to the significance of Russia on the global stage currently is very important,” he said. “And this symposium will allow them to do that. Currently the situation in Ukraine is very tense. It’s still ongoing. There are new developments every day, we see it in the news constantly.”

Kondratenko encouraged all interested students to attend the conference.

“I think people are aware, and if they follow the news, which I’m sure everyone at Tufts does, this is becoming an increasingly relevant and increasingly pertinent topic of discussion, because obviously Russia is becoming more powerful, Russia is becoming more aggressive,” he said. “The knowledge of that region is more and more important and less and less well-known.”

The symposium hosted its first event on Wednesday, a Russian Cultural Night sponsored by EPIIC and Tufts’ Russian and Slavic Student Association. The event featured vocal and instrumental pieces from the region, performed by Tufts students and guest artists, as well as a photography exhibit. Gregory Carleton, a professor of Russian studies, and author Suzanne Massie presented the first keynotes last night, which were followed by the first panel, “Religion, Politics and Identity.”