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Students witness history as Moscow program participants

STANFORD -- When military forces clashed with opponents of President Boris Yeltsin at the Russian parliament building last October, Stanford students David Cohen and David Hoffman had front-row seats on the action.

In fact, they may have been a little too close.

"I spent the day with a Russian reporter friend," said Cohen, a junior majoring in history. "In the evening, I somehow ended up at the Ostankino television center, a place where I really should not have been. I could hear gunfire; I watched as a large truck bashed its way into the building. Then I left. By the time I got to the nearest metro station, I could hear large explosions from where I had been."

Hoffman, a senior majoring in physics and international relations, witnessed the fighting as he crouched behind a tank less than 100 meters away from the besieged parliament building.

"At first I couldn't stop taking photos. Then, when some bullets smacked the wall to my right, I thought about getting the hell out of there. As it turned out, the photos were for naught, since a soldier later tore the film out of my camera."

Cohen and Hoffman are among 12 Stanford students who are witnessing - and making - history this quarter as participants in the first Stanford Program in Moscow.

Based at the former headquarters of the Communist Youth League in downtown Moscow, the unique program offers students the chance to live with Russian families and take courses from Russian scholars while working toward their Stanford degrees.

Despite the political turmoil at the beginning of the quarter - classes had to be canceled for a day during the worst of the street fighting - Stanford planners are enthusiastic about the program's progress.

So much so, that next year they hope to expand to 20 students. There's also talk about introducing a Russian literature course - perhaps in drama, with students reading the plays and then attending performances - and a winter quarter that would allow students to take individualized tutorials with Russian faculty.

"I'm very pleased with the way things are developing," said Overseas Studies Director Russell Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature, and associate dean of humanities and sciences, who recently returned from a five-day visit to the center.

"The location is a superb one - in walking distance to the center of Moscow - and our extensive preparation has led successfully to a well-functioning program. The students appear to be quite satisfied."

Jumping into adventure

The dozen students attending Stanford in Moscow represent a variety of majors, from international relations and psychology to physics and mechanical engineering.

Some speak Russian near-fluently, while others had just completed first-year Russian before they left.

"If you really want to learn the language - speak it like a Russian, debate the varying opinions of the emerging press, watch the very first election campaign on TV - you've got to come to Russia," said senior Cory Welt in a recent letter to his fellow students of Russian at Stanford.

"There's also the thrill of tank battles, the snipers on the streets [and] the 300-pound babushka knocking you over to be the first one on the escalator. . . . It may take a little adjusting, but it's worth it to experience a society that for so many years had been closed to us."

Stanford coursework in Moscow includes two hours of Russian language instruction a day, plus lectures and seminars in English about Russian politics, economics, history, religion and sociology. The five Russian faculty members spent time at Stanford last spring, doing background research for their courses and learning more about America's give-and-take style of instruction - very different from the lecture culture that dominates Russian education.

"Of course, a lot of time is taken up with classes and studies," said Cohen, a history major. "Everything about the courses here is absolutely new - the teachers and the students are jumping into this adventure together and figuring out what works best."

Still, he said, there has been ample time to appreciate the sights and sounds of the city: "everything from Lenin's mausoleum - we got to see him before plans to finally bury him in St. Petersburg are carried out - to the estates of famous Russian nobles and czars, from more museums than we could ever hope to see to front-row seats at the Old Circus."

Loving babushkas

One of the most popular aspects of the Moscow program with students was also the riskiest - housing Stanford students in the apartments of ordinary Russian families.

The university is paying each host family the equivalent of $10 a day - a handsome sum by Russian standards - in order to assure that the students receive adequate supplies of fruit, vegetables and protein. So far, the plan seems to be working.

"There was some apprehension as to whether the homestay program with Russian families would work, but the students are uniformly pleased," Berman said. "Many of the students talk affectionately about their Russian families and their Russian mothers - their babushkas - forcing food on them."

Aside from the occasional uprising, apprehensions about Stanford student safety also have eased.

Students were warned ahead of time not to wear bright ski jackets or logo sweatshirts that would call attention to themselves, and the American Embassy has provided each student with training and a card with emergency phone numbers.

Probably the biggest factors in the center's success so far have been its Russian director, Maxim Bratersky, director of international programs for the Russian Public Policy Center and vice president of the Russian Science Foundation (see box), and assistant director Alexander Abashkin, also from the Russian Science Foundation.

In addition to assembling the team of Russian faculty to teach the courses, Bratersky has invited numerous high-level Russian officials and scholars to speak to the students in a weekly lecture series.

Among the guest speakers have been Alexei Smirnov, Russian human rights champion and head of the Moscow Helsinki group; Viktor Sheinis, a major framer of Russia's announced first democratic presidential elections; and Georgy Satarov, adviser to President Yeltsin.

It's an opportunity to learn and study that would have been impossible if the students simply had been enrolled in a Russian university.

"Life is difficult in Moscow, but the staff has been able to facilitate matters for the students," Berman said. "I underscore that because an alternative model would have been to enroll our students in Russian educational institutions. I am sure that would not have been nearly as successful.

"Certainly our students are exposed to some of the harshness of Russian reality now, but their ability to live and operate in Moscow has been heightened because of the Stanford support system that Overseas Studies provides."



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