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Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (650) 725-1939; e-mail:

American and Russian students try grassroots diplomacy

Alexander Konoplyasty of the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations was getting frustrated with some of his new American friends. "When you talk about financial aid to Russia, you say 'we.' It's the IMF. We have a United Nations, but America wants to control everything."

Anna Astrakhau of Columbia University wouldn't let this assertion go unchallenged. "Where specifically are we controlling your country now? I think it's overrated," she said, looking directly into the Russian student's eyes.

This was one of the rougher moments in an unusual six-day conference of American and Russian college students organized totally by a group of 20 Stanford students who have formed a different kind of startup, called Democratic Partners.

The students designed, budgeted and implemented their idea for a student leadership summit, bringing 25 Russian and 15 American students to campus for six days of meetings, tours and fun. They raised more than $120,000 from university units, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for the venture. The students developed a faculty advisory board from Russian and American institutions, including former presidential advisers Condoleezza Rice, the former provost, and Coit Blacker, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz and his wife, Charlotte, entertained the students at a poolside reception at their campus home, which stunned some of the Russian students. "Everybody was smiling, talking informally. I expected people to be more official," said Marina Sokolova, a student of finance at the Russian Federation's Financial Academy in Moscow.

A different view of the United States was offered on a tour to East Palo Alto, where Stanford students spoke of various public service projects community groups have organized to lessen the impact of poverty.

Students were selected from applicants who submitted essays on their ideas for implementing public service projects at home. During the week, they worked in teams to develop more detailed "business" plans for their projects. Sokolova, for instance, worked on creating a debating organization for students at her university. "Debating is something American students have done for a long time, but we need to learn how, especially if we are going to take positions of leadership in finance," she said.

Konoplyasty planned to start a student organization to promote student involvement and interest in foreign relations. Students often feel they have no role in such matters, he said, and American students agreed that is also a common perception among American youth. The conference made Konoplyasty realize the difficulties of getting students together over broad geographic distances, so he changed his organizational plan to focus on his campus.

Americans were making plans too, primarily related to their interest in Russia and U.S. foreign policy. Eric Stoutenburg of the United States Military Academy, for instance, is trying to organize e-mail discussions for military students in the United States and Russia on common areas of interest, such as theater missile defense and arms control.

The Stanford organizers of the conference are mostly students who have served internships in international relations either in Washington, D.C., or abroad. Democratic Partners chair Matthew Spence, named a Marshall scholar for 2000, worked for the National Security Council at the White House and spent the past summer in Moscow researching Russian rule-of-law reforms. He and Cody Harris, who also had worked at the National Security Council, dreamed up the idea for the summit while they were riding the bus in Berlin. They both believed that grassroots diplomacy must supplement high-level summit meetings in order to improve the Russo-American relationship.

In a session devoted to exchanging ideas on the two countries' policies toward each other, Russia's war with Chechnya was a common topic. In one group, Russian students spoke of the impact of seeing videotapes of Chechen "terrorist" actions on television. The Americans in the group said they had seen instead footage of the hardships of war on Chechen women and children.

"Americans don't understand because you have never had a separatist movement," one Russian said.

"We had a civil war," one responded, "and there was no International Monetary Fund to help us recover."

Students from both countries praised the Stanford students' organizational skills. "I've been to a lot of conferences that weren't nearly as well done," said Matt Hochstetler of Georgetown University.

For more information on Democratic Partners, see


By Kathleen O'Toole

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