M.A. Students Collaborate on Research with Russian Counterparts through Stanford’s U.S.-Russia Forum

As a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer, it’s difficult for Joel Beckner, M.A. candidate in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies ‘17, to establish real relationships with Russians, outside of a professional context. That’s one of the reasons why Joel and fellow master’s student Katherine Schroeder participated in the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF) during the 2016-17 academic year.

“I wanted to develop real relationships with Russians and gain greater empathy for them and personal understanding of who Russians are, and what they’re like,” Joel said.

SURF, which was founded in 2008, brings roughly 30 students at leading Russian and American universities together each year to conduct interdisciplinary research and participate in conferences in Russia and at Stanford.

Katherine had been to Russia a few times through exchange programs and a Fulbright grant, and she saw SURF as an opportunity to work closely on research with students from Russia. “I knew that one of the weaknesses that exists in relations between Russia and the United States is that there are not a lot of collaborative projects,” she said.

Katherine was part of a team that evaluated whether U.S.-Russia exchange programs are effective tools for changing stereotypes and producing area studies knowledge, since both countries have seen a sharp decline in such knowledge since the fall of the Soviet Union and stereotypes remain prevalent. The group found that exchange programs are indeed invaluable in creating area studies knowledge, especially in the current political climate.

Katherine, who was the only non-native Russian speaker in her group, said that though it was challenging at times, ultimately, the experience was rewarding: “I would encourage students to participate in any chance they have to develop friendships or work professionally with people who aren’t American,” she said.

Over the course of eight months, Joel conducted research with the arms control team on anti-ballistic missile defense systems as a means of bilateral cooperation between Russia and the United States.

“We were wondering why the United States in particular is so bent on expanding its missile defense systems when it’s not very effective and only destabilizes things further and raises fears,” Joel explained. After conducting interviews with numerous experts, it became apparent to the group that missile defense systems never have been effective enough, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.

“We argue that it’s not an important enough capability to risk kicking off a new arms race between the United States and Russia,” he said. “Cooperation is critical now, before the technology gets to a point where it actually is seen as effective and forces countries to build more nuclear weapons.” Joel's team recently published an op-ed based on their findings in the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences.

In addition to research, participants traveled to Moscow and Stanford for conferences and a variety of group activities: from visiting the Russian foreign ministry and traveling to Siberia, to participating in events at Stanford and visiting Fort Ross on the California coast. 

The state of U.S.-Russia relations was a hot topic of discussion throughout the program, and it was encouraging that participants were so open to discussion and debate, Joel observed. “They understand that dialogue is critical no matter how bad things may appear...I’ve realized that young Russians who are educated are very similar to young educated Americans or western Europeans, so I’d say the shared values overwhelm the differences.”

Looking back, both Joel and Katherine said that while SURF is a significant investment in time and effort; that is also what makes the experience worthwhile. “Ultimately, what is most rewarding is the relationships you get to build,” said Joel, who is going to Washington, DC, to work at the Pentagon after graduation next month.

The network of 31 SURF alumni, many of whom could be in significant positions of influence someday, will definitely be something to tap into in the future, he added. “I hope to be able to use the network and relationships that I’ve established now to really improve U.S.-Russia relations in a concrete way. That’s my long term hope.”

For more information about SURF, visit the program's website here.