Collage made up of profile images of five people
A few of the experts who presented during MSSR 2021. Top (L-R): Elena Kostyuchenko, Dominic Lieven. Bottom (L-R): Hanna Notte, Elena Chernenko

The 2021 Monterey Summer Symposium on Russia (MSSR) at the Middlebury Institute offered participants the chance to interact with a slate of 58 experts in U.S.-Russia relations, including leading scholars, journalists, and diplomats, with many of the conversations framed by the June 16, 2021, summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin that immediately preceded it.

“When I founded MSSR I was hoping to be able to bring together the best experts and the best graduate students in the field,” says Professor Anna Vassilieva, director of the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies (MIR), “and to create a bilingual curriculum for them that would not only foster practical skills but also create an opportunity to think together outside of traditional academic constraints. I wanted to give them freedom to learn and to think in a way that allows them to grow together, as experts and human beings, with the best professors, journalists, and experts in the world.”

Fellows were accepted into the immersive seven-week program from Russian studies programs around the world. The dozens of sessions they participated in while completing 140 hours of course work conducted in Russian and English included—among many others—the opportunity to explore the geopolitical implications of climate change with former California governor Jerry Brown and to discuss nuclear strategy and foreign policy with Rose Gottemoeller, former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security; Alexey Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security in Moscow; Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center; and former U.S. ambassador to Russia John Beyrle.

Students also heard from other past U.S. ambassadors to Russia as well as the current Russian ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov. In addition, the fellows took part in two negotiation boot camps through Harvard’s Negotiation Task Force (NTF): role-playing the peace process in Eastern Ukraine and negotiating a future “Deep START” arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia. Other sessions explored “areas of possible constructive engagement between the two nations such as cyberattacks and possible prisoner exchanges,” notes MIR Deputy Director Jarlath McGuckin.

The 2021 MSSR fellows also graduated into an extensive and impressive alumni network. This summer, MSSR 2017 alumna Hanna Notte returned to present on Russian interests and strategies in the Middle East, while fellow MSSR 2017 alumna Taylor Valley led the Harvard NTF workshops with Dr. Arvid Bell. “We now have five cohorts of MSSR alumni—a powerful network closely intertwined with the leading thinkers in the field and unified by shared experience of intense and earnest bilingual, bicultural exploration of the world and Russia’s place in it,” notes Professor Vassilieva.

“The opportunity to engage with the leading experts on Russia is unparalleled in any of my other academic experiences,” says MSSR fellow Jonathan Wiersema, who is starting law school at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. “MSSR has exposed me to a diverse array of views and perspectives not always covered in the media or academia. The small, close-knit setting allowed me to interact with experts who were eager to answer questions both during and after their lectures, as well as provide professional guidance.”

The opportunity to engage with the leading experts on Russia is unparalleled in any of my other academic experiences.
— MSSR 2021 fellow Jonathan Wiersema

The fact that this was the second year in a row that the symposium has been held entirely online meant that organizers were able to take full advantage of planning for the virtual environment this time. “We invited a few more participants than in years past—15 fellows instead of the usual 12,” says McGuckin. “Zoom remained an excellent platform for the lectures, question-and-answer sessions, and workshops. And we acquired a Spatial Chat account to allow fellows to engage in a more relaxed and lifelike debrief session after their Deep START boot camp with Harvard.”

Fellows came away deeply impressed with the opportunity the symposium offered. “It has been amazing being able to chat candidly with so many renowned individuals,” wrote MSSR fellow John Stanko, who is working toward his PhD at Indiana University. “MSSR offers fellows a unique opportunity to engage with journalists and literary writers along with the top scholars in the field.” Added MSSR fellow Yanliang Pan, a graduate student at Georgetown University, “It has been a privilege to hear from journalists who have ventured into war zones from the Caucasus to Donbas and witnessed firsthand the real, devastating effects these conflicts have had on local communities. Their accounts, in addition to revealing the true nature of these conflicts, also remind us of the urgency of their resolution.”

Central to Professor Vassilieva’s goals for MSSR is the desire to make a positive difference in the world. “I want students who complete MSSR to have the necessary intellectual tools to engage in a conversation between Russia and the United States about the world’s most acute problems—climate change, cyber security, and nuclear arms control. The two countries are doomed to cooperate and they will need experts who are well versed in these issues and trust one another. The Monterey Symposium is a cradle of such knowledge and of the trust that is required to move the agenda forward.”