MOSCOW, Russia — Throughout the world, the U.S. State Department extends its embassies’ scope of opportunity through American Spaces. These dynamic spaces facilitate cultural dialogue and understanding between Americans and citizens of the host country. There are 141 host countries in total that often provide the physical space at no cost to the U.S. government. Both countries benefit from the strong intercultural relations created every day in these spaces at the individual citizen level. The American Center in Moscow is one of the many locations to provide these great opportunities.
The American Center in Moscow (AMC) is situated in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia’s largest and oldest American Space. The Center was founded in 1993 and had more than 25,000 visitors within the first two years. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Irina, an RGU college student who now works at the American Center said, “I can say for sure that the American center has changed my life.” The Borgen Project also spoke with Viola Talakhadze, the Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Center, and Dina, a frequent visitor to the AMC and a freshman at the Higher School of Economics, about their personal experiences with the Center.
A Practical Service for Moscow
Talakhadze spoke about the practical skills taught at the AMC “in areas that are relevant to the world today and the demands and challenges they might face outside of the American Center’s classroom.” The American Center provides opportunities that are constantly developing. The Center creates dialogues to find solutions to localized obstacles, some of which fall under human rights violations.
One of these violations is access to the internet, which was declared a human right by the U.N. in 2016. A 2019 study done by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that 16 percent of Russians do not use the internet, the majority of whom are older and come from rural, less educated and lower-income populations. The American Center provides free access to computers and the internet as well as the largest English-language electronic library in Russia.
Dina emphasizes that the “AMC also has a lot of the U.S. periodicals available for reading. [There are] a whole bunch of resources for you to get a real insight of the U.S.” The issue of trust in Russia has ballooned in recent years. Now, only 26 percent trust the Russian media and only 34 percent trust their government. The AMC fills an important role in providing its visitors a trustworthy source of information.
In 2018, the American Center started focusing on promoting media literacy with a current events club called “Last Week in America.” The following year, the AMC hired a media literacy fellow, and an American student taught media literacy over the course of the first half of 2019. Dina seeks out these media literacy and mass media industry classes because she believes that it is essential to have media literacy. Learning from American instructors, Dina and other students can take the critical eye for news that they develop in the classroom into their daily lives.
Broadening Horizons Past Russia’s Borders
The American Center provides opportunities for students of all ages. The students learn skills that can help them think on a more international scale and develop marketable proficiencies they wouldn’t otherwise be able to pursue. Talakhadze, the Education and Outreach Coordinator, identified the Center’s most popular courses as “practical courses or workshops and STEM camps that cover such fields of study as the English language, media literacy and media production, computer programming, and entrepreneurship.”
Both students, Dina and Irina, honed in on public speaking as the most valuable skill they gained through their experiences at the AMC. Irina currently leads her own Debate Club to help people practice public speaking. This facilitates participants to discuss solutions to unresolved societal questions. Dina attributes her ability to speak her mind to clubs such as Debate Club at the Center. The aim of the club is to develop thought organization and critical thinking skills.
In particular, Dina and Irina’s ability to deliver their messages in English is what draws them and numerous other Russians to the American Center. Talakhadze pointed out that many visitors are attracted to the English language practice available at the centers. Only 11 percent of Russians speak English. This is due in part to the difficulty of the language and method of English instruction in schools. By hosting three to five events in English every day, the American Center provides opportunities for its motivated English-language students to overcome the numerous pitfalls of learning such a different language from their own.
Dina calls the AMC “the platform for me to get to know various experts in many fields.” Russia’s ongoing brain drain, due to political and economic reasons, makes meeting experts increasingly difficult in Russia especially ones with unconventional views. Irina was able to meet a Grammy Award-winning singer, a NASA astronaut and an American ambassador.
Talakhadze summarized the American Center’s goal as providing more meaningful and creative cross-cultural interaction,” which was what initially inspired her to apply to work there. The American Center focuses its work on strengthening the individual, “people-to-people” relationship between the two countries, Talakhadze explained to The Borgen Project.
Talakhadze extols this diplomacy as it involves motivated Russians being introduced to differing, cross-culture issues. People learn how to surmount both cultural and language divides to eventually become “better global citizens.” The Moscow American Center provides opportunities that aren’t available in the rest of Russia.
The 2017 State Department’s Annual Report on American Spaces highlights that there are 650 public engagements across the world serving as safe places for people who seek to experience the freedom and opportunity to learn and speak their minds. The location of the American Center in Moscow in the embassy helps visitors not only feel like they are in the U.S. but they are in the U.S.
– Daria Locher