While I wasn’t able to sit down with my family for a traditional Thanksgiving Day meal, I was treated to a certain Thanksgiving day surprise. About a week before Thanksgiving, we Americans studying at VGUES were informed that Igor Shuvalov, a Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, was going to be visiting VGUES to talk about Russia’s investment in Vladivostok, and the upcoming APEC conference for which practically the whole city is being rebuilt. Vladivostok often plays host to important figures in the government. Its status of “Russia’s Third Capital” (after Moscow and St. Petersburg) allows it such events. In fact, the head of the oppositionist party A Just Russia, Sergei Mironov, had visited only a week earlier. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend that meeting due to my class schedule.
According to the school’s Administration of International Connections, Shuvalov was going to be opening up the auditorium to questions from students, and he would be especially excited to hear the questions that the American students came up with. We all spent time thinking of appropriate (and politically correct) questions to ask the person who is often cited as third most powerful politician in behind Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. It was quite nerve-wracking!
When Thanksgiving came, I found that I was filled with a sense of excitement, despite missing being home for the holidays. We were dismissed from class early and led to the auditorium. There, we were given special seats. In front of us were students from the Moscow Naval Academy, and across the aisle were important city officials, including the mayor. The mix of that and the large number of cameras focused on us was quite intimidating, but we didn’t give it too much thought.
Shuvalov came out to polite applause and began his presentation at once. He spoke at length about his past (apparently, he even studied at University of Wisconsin – Madison for a year!) and how anybody who puts a little effort in can become a Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. After that, he spoke very passionately about his worries concerning the lack of young adults turning out at the elections. Finally, he said a few brief words about the government’s investment in the Far East.
Shuvalov then opened up the floor to questions. To his distaste, he was barraged with questions from a few students concerning alleged corrupt acts of United Russia, and the government’s overall mismanagement of certain situations. Christy and Otter (two of the American students studying at VGUES this semester) were given their turn, and they asked about specific spheres of investment and economic free zones in the Far East, as well as the Russian Federation’s efforts to fight climate change.
After listening to 15-16 questions, he began to speak about his lack of knowledge concerning United Russia’s corrupt acts, and how he was not involved. He repeated over and over, “I am Putin’s man.” At that, he expressed his aversion to the questions asked, but did his best to address the questions that he felt he was capable of answering as an official face of the government. He addressed Otter and Christy’s questions succinctly (“We are doing our best concerning climate change. The US and China have a bigger responsibility to deal with that issue.” “We are currently examining the question of economic relations with China in the Far East.”), as well as the questions of the other students, who were allowed to come based on their excellent grades.
While unexpected, this direct experience with the Russian government, and, through it, the Russian culture was quite eye-opening. For me, at least, it opened my eyes to how the young perceive their country and its government. It also made me realize that Russia has many of the same problems that America has, e.g., a lack of young voter turnout, the economic crisis of 2008, apathetic citizens, etc. All in all, I was really glad to have this special experience, and I’m sure there will be more of the sort during the rest of my six months here.