The Russia-AU connection: University's Russian cultural institute stirs controversy
Russian ambassador, a key player in FBI's Russia probe, is an honorary co-chair of a CAS institute
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak recently found himself at the center of a Washington political firestorm, as his interactions with President Trump’s officials thrust him into public scrutiny.
Yet, the Russian ambassador’s involvement in D.C. extends past the White House and into American University: Kislyak is an honorary co-chair of The Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The institute’s goal is to educate American students on Russian culture and history to alleviate Cold War era stereotypes. Yet critics suggest its motivations and Kislyak’s involvement conflict with the institute’s intentions.
“There are many different cultural figures who oppose Putin in Russia,” said Ilya Zaslavskiy, a contributor to the Free Russia Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit that is critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “They [the Institute] never bring opponents of Putin to Carmel Institute and that shows bias. That means it is not really about Russian culture in the whole spectrum but [a] very specific angle of Russian culture which is supportive of the Kremlin.”
Carmel Institute’s aims to educate college students on Russian culture and history
The Carmel Institute, formerly the Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC), was founded in 2011 by Susan Carmel Lehrman, a real estate investor and philanthropist as well as a friend of AU Trustee Gary Abramson. It was started to engage students in the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area in Russian culture and history.
“My goal in starting this institute came about as a result of many conversations with the ambassador,” Lehrman said. “We were talking about the importance of overcoming stereotypes. Especially with the media, movies, television, all you are seeing are Cold War stereotypes. How do you get young people to understand each other and work together and get along better?”
In 2015, Lehrman expanded the IRC and established the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at AU. Since its creation, Lehrman and Kislyak have worked to engage university students with Russian history and culture, Lehrman said.
The Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History, with organizational support from the Russian Embassy, now hosts free cultural events and symposia annually to university students in the D.C. area. The institute also offers five $8,000 scholarships for students to enroll directly in summer language, culture and international relations programs at two Russian universities. In addition, it backs courses on Russian history, economics, language and culture on American University’s campus.
Kislyak sits alongside CAS Dean Peter Starr, Abramson, Lehrman and several former U.S. ambassadors to Russia in the IRC Advisory Committee. The committee does not formally meet, organize or manage events and programming for the institute, though they may attend and speak at its events.
The events and programming are coordinated by Georgetown University Professor Anita Kondoyanidi, who serves as the associate director, and her husband, American University CAS Professor Anton Fedyashin, the executive director of the institute.
Though the institute has grown since its founding, it has not had programming related to political discourse, said Brendan Hill, a senior in the School of International Service who spent a year in Russia with Bard College through AU Abroad, and who has attended several events with the institute.
“It is very popular, especially after 2014 following Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea,” Hill said. “There has been no involvement of politics on part of the institute because that is how you skew people.”
Lehrman, Starr and Fedyashin attribute the growth and success of the institute to the support and assistance from Kislyak, who hosts the institute’s events at the Russian Embassy. This includes movie screenings and events with Russian cultural figures and artists.
“What he has done is unprecedented as it is unparalleled in the Washington diplomatic community. He has opened the Russian Embassy to thousands of American students from all over the consortium universities and beyond,” Fedyashin said. “It is that part of the contribution that we value very much precisely because it contributes to the intercultural dialogue which is what this institute was founded to encourage and support.”
Scholars with expertise in diplomacy and Russian-U.S. relations suggest that the institute is a type of “cultural diplomacy” between the two nations used to maintain levels of open contact between governments.
“Kislyak is supposed to serve as a cultural resource and it makes a lot of sense that he has a role on the advisory committee of the institute,” said John Robert Kelley, a professor in the School of International Service and expert in public diplomacy. “It certainly clarifies the relationship between the Russian government and the institute. This is an institute that has the imprimatur of the Russian government.”
Critics warn the institute leans in the Kremlin’s favor
The institute and Kislyak often host events featuring Russian cultural figures who are supportive of Putin, which is inherently a political decision, Zaslavskiy said.
Hope Harrison, a professor of history and international affairs with a focus on German and Soviet history at George Washington University, suggests that students and visitors be conscious of the intent of diplomatic efforts on behalf of foreign countries and Russia in the United States.
“Whenever another country is involved in co-sponsoring something in the U.S., one should always consider what the motivations of that country might be,” Harrison said. “President Putin has been very active in using a wide range of tools in his foreign policy and diplomatic representatives of the Russian government do as well.”
As part of Putin’s re-election campaign in 2012, he recruited well-known Russian celebrities to vocalize support for his re-election in exchange for favors, Zaslavskiy said. Some of these cultural “trusted representatives,” Zaslavskiy called them, have been invited to the institute for events. This includes Karen Shakhnazarov, the director of the largest film production in Moscow, and Igor Butman, a saxophonist, and Valery Gergiyev, a composer.
“It is a known fact that Russian presidential elections were rigged and manipulated and there is a lot of propaganda in favor of Putin. Putin created a list of several hundred cultural and other important dignitaries or figures before elections in Russia,” Zaslavskiy said. “Kislyak has brought at least three figures like that. They are all legitimate cultural figures, though all with close ties with Putin. They receive favors from Putin and speak highly of Putin.”
Though political tensions between Russia and the United States exist, the institute aims to solely focus on cultural and historical engagement between Russians and Americans, Starr said.
“This is certainly a moment of tension between Russia and the United States, but it is incredibly important to begin to understand the cultural assumptions with a country whom you have some serious disagreements,” Starr said. “[Russian interference in U.S. elections] is an ongoing investigation. It does not have any bearing on the institute’s good work which is explicitly about culture and history not contemporary politics.”
Lehrman, the founder of the institute, has received numerous awards for her work in cultural diplomacy and support for cultural institutions in D.C. Recently, she was recognized by President Putin for her contributions to Russian-U.S. cultural relations with an Order of Friendship award on Nov. 4, 2016.
"The educational programs initiated in the United States by Susan Lehrman represent an important mission,” Putin said in his speech. “They are especially important today, when our relations with the United States are being tested. This shows that both in Russia and the United States there are people who value the relations between us, respect and love both the culture of the United States and the culture of Russia. Of course, this brings people together, and gives hope for the full restoration of our relations for the sake of our peoples."
Despite criticism of biases at the institute, Putin is a respected leader in Russia and pro-Kremlin guests at the institute were expected, Lehrman said.
“Putin is a popular figure in Russia,” Lehrman said. “Support for him by guests is not unlikely.”
Correction appended: The original photo of Kislyak standing with AU students listed the image as having been taken in 2011. It has been changed to 2017.