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20 Nov, 2023 16:01

The heart of Moscow, Russian nature, and a Kalashnikov in your hands: How to experience Russia in one week

American journalist Bradley Blankenship came to Moscow to make his ‘Russian dream’ come true. Here’s what he experienced and how you can repeat his path
The heart of Moscow, Russian nature, and a Kalashnikov in your hands: How to experience Russia in one week

A few days ago, I returned home from Moscow, where I was a part of the ‘New Generation,’ a program designed for young people aged 25-35 to see Russia firsthand and develop an objective view of the country. For me, that meant an all-expenses-paid trip to a country, the language of which I had been studying for two years already, presenting an excellent opportunity to familiarize myself with the Russian language and culture directly. I also made friends who will last a lifetime.

New Generation is under the purview of the Rossotrudnichestvo federal agency and is the brainchild of former President Dmitry Medvedev, having been signed into law in 2011 during his tenure. The local Russky Dom (Russian House; Russian cultural center) in an individual’s country of residence is where hopefuls can apply. Our particular program, which was titled ‘Russia – The Country of Youth Opportunities,’ had 47 attendees from Spain, the Czech Republic, Armenia, Abkhazia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Serbia, Moldova, Bangladesh, India, and Lebanon – though some of them are of different nationalities, such as Yemeni, Bulgarian, and American (me).

“Every year, according to presidential decree, up to 1,000 people become participants in the program. However, in the last three years, the situation has become very complicated due to the difficult epidemiological situation and complications in logistics processes. However, as mentioned above, we try to warmly welcome our guests in the Russian Federation. In 2023, more than 850 young leaders visited our country from various fields,” the Russian House in Prague, the Czech Republic, said.

89 shades of Russia

During our excursion on the first day, we visited the ongoing exhibition ‘Russia,’ which featured information and presentations from each and every Russian federal subject. For example, the Donetsk People’s Republic had a fascinating presentation from a local resident about the region’s history, and we also heard about the local coal industry.

Filip Stokic, a software engineer and participant in the program from Serbia, told me his impressions of the exhibition. He said, “The ‘Russia’ exhibition was a captivating showcase that invited us to delve into the multifaceted tapestry of Russia’s regions, offering an interactive and enlightening experience that brought the nation’s cultural wealth closer to us. The exhibition’s interactive nature allowed us to experience everything from making traditional handicrafts to driving a train, walking through the Russian forest, and even holding a Kalashnikov rifle. This displayed the richness and uniqueness of each region. The exhibition’s vast scale reflects the magnitude of Russia itself.”

Of course, this exhibition is housed near the Soviet-built Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, which is itself a marvel. This absolutely massive space has exhibition centers from every former Soviet republic, and most of them have renewed their leases on their respective space to hold historical and cultural exhibitions, as well as sell souvenirs. Needless to say, I stocked up on a fair amount of items for posterity – some Azerbaijani pomegranate juice and a toy Belarusian progress tractor, to name a few examples.

Later, we had the chance to learn about projects under Rosmolodyozh (Federal Agency for Youth Affairs) and how the Russian federal government is helping develop opportunities for young people.

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The next day in our program, we made a joint presentation on our suggestions for the New Generation program from the standpoint of participants. “The point of the session was to think about our expectations about the program and give feedback about what could be done to improve it from our perspective. In itself, it felt a little bit strange to give feedback before the end of the program, but there were already many things that came to our minds about the organization, schedule, communications, and so on,” Miguel Gonzalez, a software engineer from Spain and recent New Generation graduate, said. 

“The feeling was that whatever feedback we gave, it would be useful to the organization. So, we tried to be as honest and constructive as possible. I think, in the end, most of us enjoyed the activity and the presentations. The Rossotrudnichestvo staff was very nice to us, and I think they put effort into making the activity dynamic,” Gonzalez added.

Heart and soul of Russia

After this, we headed to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which provided crucial context for today’s Russia. One of the main themes displayed in the museum was, “Without the past, there is no future.” We learned, for instance, about the trauma of World War II and how the Soviet Union had to mobilize its entire industry for the war, relocating strategic factories and production centers to the east where the Nazi invaders couldn’t reach them. Seeing the Russian perspective on this important historical event was extraordinarily interesting and important for me as a Westerner. Other program attendees agreed, too.

“It was one of the most engaging museums that I’ve been to. The fact that there are actors working in it that interact with the guide made the visit more enjoyable – even if it was about a bleak subject. The scenarios they built helped a lot with the immersion, and they were great support for the story that the guide told us. Perhaps there weren’t a lot of artifacts to see, but the overall experience was great. It’s a pity that we only could go through one of the exhibitions. I’d definitely go again if – perhaps when – I go back to Moscow,” Gonzalez remarked.

Finally, on our last day, we visited the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, and saw the headquarters of each of the major political parties. We learned about the history of the old Duma and about the political dynamics in modern Russia. After this, we visited Red Square, GUM, the Kremlin, and took a bus tour around the city at various points of interest before concluding with an exquisite gala dinner. 

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“Visiting Red Square and the State Duma was an exciting experience for me, like walking through history. When I was a child, it was my dream to visit these places. These historical monuments were a picture in a book, but now I have memories,” said Shafikul Islam, a senior reporter for the United News of Bangladesh and a program participant. 

Unique experience

All in all, the entire experience was incredible – though, admittedly, a bit jarring because of how much stuff was packed into these days. Nonetheless, I was stunned at how diverse Moscow as a city is, how massive it is, and how much of an amalgamation of so many different historical eras and political systems it is. Moscow is undoubtedly a place where big ideas become reality.

Ivan Evgenievich, a secretary for the parent organization of the Belarusian construction company Poles’yezhilstroy OJSC, who also was part of the program, gave his thoughts about the whole program. 

“Thanks to this forum, I met a large number of foreigners, and I was pleased that they were interested in the history, life, and opportunities of Russia. I was convinced that Moscow is so multifaceted, with millions of people of different nationalities and faiths living together and sharing common space. During all this time, we did not have a single conflict or dispute; this indicates the correct selection of delegates. Good organization, nice people,” Evgenievich summarized.

Hossain Mohammad Sagar, a Bengali feature reporter, gave his thoughts about the program as well: “I gained a unique and valuable experience by participating in the New Generation program in Russia. On the one hand, it helped me learn about Russia, but also, we all developed an international network/bonding through meeting others participating in the program. And I think it will enrich our future journey. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this rich experience and sincerely thank Rossotrudnichestvo for organizing this event.”

Another Bengali journalist, Bably Akter, a news presenter and talk show host, added to this optimism over the program. “As a Bangladeshi,” she said, “it was a great achievement for me to participate in this event. World War II, Lenin, Stalin, Gorky’s Russia – all of these have always been a dream to me. Representing my own country in front of a superpower was a different kind of experience. The experience of engaging Russia, for example, from the point of view of someone familiar with the culture and history of Bangladesh, is truly unique. Such an arrangement to unite the youth of the whole world deserves praise.”

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The friendship between nations

But the program does not just give foreigners a free trip to Russia, as excellent of an experience as this was for all of us. Moscow also sees strategic and moral value in exposing international delegates to the country firsthand. Daria Lakovleva, a volunteer for New Generation and an entrepreneurship student at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, also commented on the program in terms of what it means for Russia. 

According to her, New Generation “has an important mission for Russia and Russian people, because foreigners have the opportunity to see what Russia is, form the correct opinion about Russian culture and promote this knowledge about Russia in other countries. Moreover, the program helps create the kind of international community where people can make friends, promote their culture, learn about other cultures, and, of course, spend time in an interesting way.”

Indeed, it is undeniable that cultural exchanges such as New Generation and the upcoming International Youth Festival are essential vehicles for understanding the reality of Russia. Most of us agreed that we wanted to be a sort of cultural diplomat in our country of residence on behalf of Russia after seeing the country firsthand, which is also an outcome that the event organizers were happy to see. 

“The program was designed to represent Russia; it shows the beauty of the country, its authenticity, and history in a modern and technological way. The diversity of the attendees in this program helps spread good word of mouth about Russia, breaking all of the various stereotypes that have circulated over the years. This program brought people together, and it was a great example of the druzhba naroda – the friendship between nations,” Alaa Kanaan, an employee for the Russian House in Beirut and a program graduate, said.

Come and see

According to the program workers, the program may soon be expanded to include adults aged 20-40 and to allow for repeat participants. Currently, people can only participate in New Generation once. If this will be the case, then I’m sure all of us will take the chance to go back. In any case, if you are now between 25 and 35, contact your nearest Russian House, ask about New Generation, and see the Russian dream for yourself. It’s an opportunity you certainly don’t want to miss – and there are many programs to enjoy based on your credentials, as well as many places to see, not just Moscow.

While there, we also learned about the upcoming International Youth Festival in Sochi in March of next year (March 1-7). The primary focus of this event will be on its business program, which is designed to provide know-how and funding networks to young entrepreneurs worldwide who want to deepen their connection to Russia. 

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Ksenia Kalina, a Russian logistics manager, fitness trainer, and bodybuilder who applied to volunteer at the festival, told me about her desire to go to Sochi. “I was already volunteering during the pandemic, so I have some experience there. Generally, I think it’s important to do socially important work, and I want to be involved in a meaningful event that will take place in my country. I hope that young people from all over the world will be able to exchange energy and ideas in Sochi. In particular, I would like people from the West to see that Russians are kind, peaceful, and multitalented,” she said.

You are highly encouraged to apply for the International Youth Festival in Sochi, which you can do at this link. There will be workshops and the opportunity to tap into a funding network to help your business, or even your idea for a business, flourish in the multipolar world – all for free. There’s also a decent chance you’ll see some of the folks mentioned in this piece or perhaps myself. Don’t be afraid to say Zdravstvuyte!

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