STATEMENT AGAINST THE DESIGNATION OF RUSSIA AS A CATEGORY 3 RISK LEVEL COUNTRY FOR TRAVEL

February 19, 2018

Dear Ambassador Galt,

As presidents of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL), an organization that includes 720 scholars, college professors and high school teachers of Russian and other Slavic languages, literatures and cultures, we write to express our serious concern about the recent designation of Russia as a Category 3 risk level country with the recommendation for American citizens to “reconsider travel.”

We completely support the Department’s designations for regions of Russia such as the Caucasus and Crimea – indeed, these are areas where American tourists can encounter terrorism and harassment. We also understand that after the Russian government forced dramatic cuts of staff in the US embassy and consulates, the State Department has significantly fewer resources to provide necessary help to Americans in Russia.

However, we would like to point out that in Central and Northern Russia as well as in the Urals, Siberia, and Far East, the danger of terrorist attacks or bombings in large cities, let alone smaller places, is grossly overstated. From the perspective of a possible terrorist attack, Moscow or Krasnoyarsk is no more dangerous than London or Paris. While some harassment of US citizens traveling in official and business capacities has taken place, it is certainly not an everyday occurrence and not commonly directed at tourists or exchange students. We know this because we follow events in Russia as professionals. This will not be the case for parents of students who hope to travel to Russia to improve their language skills and expand their cultural horizons.

This is why we believe that this designation will significantly damage all study abroad programs that send students to Russia. It is obvious that the US needs and will need more rather than fewer qualified experts in Russia and that education in situ is crucial for the formation of such specialists.

We support our colleagues at ACTR and also want to draw your attention to the harmful effects of this designation, which might deprive an entire generation of American Russianists of first- hand experience in the country of their expertise. This could damage American foreign policy and might have numerous other negative consequences on international relations.

Respectfully,

Mark Lipovetsky, Current President of AATSEEL,
Professor of Russian Studies, University of Colorado-Boulder

Kevin M. F. Platt, Past President of AATSEEL, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities, University of Pennsylvania

Michael Wachtel, President Elect of AATSEEL,
Professor and Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Princeton University

Response from Ambassador Galt

March 2, 2018

Dear Drs. Lipovetsky, Platt, and Wachtel:

Thank you for your letter describing the importance the American Association of Slavic and East European Languages places on U.S.-Russia exchanges and your concerns about the Department of State Travel Advisory. We appreciate the longstanding commitment and support of the AATSEEL and its members to U.S.-Russia exchanges. The safety and security of U.S. citizens and program participants is our top priority at the Department, and we at ECA are committed to ensuring the safety and security of every participant in the programs we oversee. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) administers a number of U.S.-Russia exchanges, including the Fulbright, National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), and Critical Language Scholarship programs. We understand the value and impact of these programs in building mutual understanding between the people of the United States and those of other countries, including Russia, as well as for increasing linguistic, regional and cultural awareness and expertise among the U.S. citizens participating in these programs.

ECA closely tracks the status of the Department's Travel Advisories, as we know the exchange community does as well, and factors advisory levels into our decisions regarding the operation of our exchanges around the world. Our goal is to have sufficient measures in place to ensure the safety and security of program participants and to provide close monitoring, support, and oversight throughout the exchange. For those program models without extensive ECA-supported infrastructure to provide direct monitoring and oversight in country, we may choose not to operate that program in countries with higher Travel Advisory levels. This is the case with our decision to limit destinations for the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program to countries with Level 1 or 2 Travel Advisories. We will not operate the Gilman Program in Russia, but we do currently plan to continue Fulbright, Critical Language Scholarships and NSLI-Y exchanges there.

A great strength of the United States is our robust civil society, including the many higher education institutions and non-profit organizations that are active in exchanges between the United States and Russia. We know that, similar to how ECA manages our own exchange programs, each institution will need to decide how best to reflect the Department's Travel Advisories and other factors and considerations into their own policies and procedures regarding study abroad and exchanges to Russia. The Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) has the lead on determining Travel Advisory levels within the new Travel Advisory System that went into effect on January 10, 2018. Russia is currently designated as Level 3 - Reconsider Travel. As a Level 3 country, the Travel Advisory for Russia contains clear reasons for the assigned level, available on the website at https://travel.state.gov/.

Among the many factors that went into the Level 3 assessment designation for Russia were terrorism, security, harassment of U.S. citizen religious workers, business persons, and students, a lack of clarity and uneven enforcement of Russian visa rules, and reduced capacity to assist U.S. citizens due to the Russian government imposed drawdown of official staff. Level 3 and Level 4 travel advisories are reviewed every six months or as warranted by the circumstances in country. If you have any further questions regarding the travel advisory for Russia, please contact Teresa Mendel in the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, American Citizen Services, at 202-485-6245. Thank you once again for your continued engagement with and dedication to U.S.-Russia exchanges.

Sincerely,
Jennifer Zimdahl Galt
Acting Assistant Secretary


AATSEEL STATEMENT ON THE EVENTS IN CHARLOTTESVILLE

As an organization uniting scholars and teachers of Slavic and East European languages, literatures, and cultures, we are very familiar with the historical consequences of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and ethnic nationalism. In Europe and Russia, millions perished and millions more were persecuted because of nationalist and racist ideologies. The events in Charlottesville demonstrated that these tragic lessons have been forgotten by parts of American society. These lessons also have been forgotten by Russian politicians and ideologues who support and promote ultra-nationalism in Europe and Russia. Finally, we reject those movements and figures in Europe and the United States who praise the politics of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia in Russia and who identify it with the Russian people or its future. We believe that our mission as Slavists is to resist nationalism, racism and white supremacism both in our classrooms and in scholarly publications. We express solidarity with those who suffer from these appalling ideologies, and we support those who oppose them in the culture and politics of the United States and Slavic countries alike.


STATEMENT AGAINST ARREST OF KIRILL SEREBRENNIKOV

September 25, 2017

On behalf of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL), we are writing to protest in the strongest possible terms the arrest and prosecution of the famous and culturally vital film and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov. This case presents all the hallmarks of political repression of the creative arts, which are now, as they have so often been in Russian history, crucially important as a bastion of free expression, progressive thought, and open political debate. Serebrennikov stands accused of the misappropriation of state funds that were provided for the production of a series of theatrical shows. This accusation appears, on the face of the matter, highly improbable, given that the shows in question were indeed produced to wide acclaim and at obviously great expense. As many commentators have observed, the ulterior motives for the director’s arrest are nearly certainly related to his fearless treatment of social and political issues, as exemplified, for instance, in his open criticism of religious extremism in his film (M)uchenik (Student). Yet other evidence of the political motivations that stand behind the persecution of Serebrennikov is to be found in the banning, just days before his arrest, of the director’s Bolshoi Ballet production depicting the life of Rudolf Nureyev, which presented the famous dancer’s homosexuality in a frank and honest manner. More and more in recent years, prosecution for financial crimes has become a potent weapon used to silence opponents of those in power in Russia. AATSEEL calls upon the Russian state to drop these spurious charges against Serebrennikov and to uphold the principles of freedom of expression and artistic license. Otherwise, Russia risks returning to the darkest days of political censorship of art and literature.

Mark Lipovetsky, Professor, University of Boulder, Colorado (AATSEEL president)
Kevin M. F. Platt, Professor, University of Pennsylvania (AATSEEL, past president)
Michael Wachtel, Professor, Princeton University (AATSEEL president-elect)


IN SUPPORT OF CHUGIAK HIGH SCHOOL IN ALASKA

May 2, 2017

To Whom It May Concern:

We have just learned that Russian language program at Chugiak High School will not have a Russian program next year due to severe budget cuts and low pre-registration numbers. As presidents of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL), we are deeply concerned, especially since this step will only add to many previous steps effectively putting an end to the teaching of Russian at all levels in Alaska high schools and universities. We urge you to reconsider this decision, if at all possible. Knowledge of Russian, the language of one of Alaska’s closest international neighbors, is essential for the economy and security of Alaska and, indeed, of the United States.

The University of Alaska Anchorage program started cutting advanced levels in recent years and they also lost their full-time professor of Russian. Out of six high schools teaching Russian, West High School in Anchorage has canceled beginning programs, and three regular Russian middle school programs ended the same year (Gruening and Romig in Anchorage and Wasilla Middle School). Although Gruening was put back in this year, its fate for next year is unknown. Retirements ended programs at Bartlett, East, and Service, since no new teacher was hired. The state and regional Olympiada of Spoken Russian lost at least 75 participants at the beginning levels due to those cuts. Some US organizations bring teachers from Russia to support teaching and immersion activities during the regular school year and in the summer. However, this is not enough, and the number of students of Russian in Alaska is steadily declining. With the elimination of the Chugiak High School program in Russian, the last regular high school Russian program in the Anchorage School District, and one of few programs in the entire state of Alaska, will disappear.

This is especially troubling; of all US states Alaska has the deepest historical connection to Russia. It is impossible to learn about a country and people without learning their language. Russia and its people are so close to and interconnected with Alaskans that cutting off Russian Studies would have significant political and economic repercussions that will affect relations with this powerful neighbor. In today’s economy a knowledge of Russian is a strong asset for any graduate (whether from school or college) seeking employment in Alaska’s businesses and state organizations. Given that the Russian government has recently been acting much more aggressively towards its neighbors, a knowledge of Russian is also a matter of national security and potentially even of defense. Furthermore, to neglect the study of Russian in Alaska is to neglect its history and geography. By economizing on the teaching of Russian Alaska is cutting off its cultural identity and depriving the next generation of the legacy that is reflected in Alaska’s museums, its topography and even its place names.

A near-sighted decision to cut the Russian program at Chugiak High School will have far-reaching negative consequences. If it is still possible to avoid them, we urge you not to make a decision that would have large-scale negative effects on Alaska’s cultural and historical memory, identity, economics, politics and security. Instead, we urge the support of high-school Russian, perhaps by means of creative measures that might add visibility and prestige to the study of Russian and recruit more students. Please let us know if we can provide any help in supporting Russian Studies in Alaska on all academic levels.

Sincerely,
Mark Lipovetsky, Professor, University of Boulder, Colorado (AATSEEL president)
Kevin M. F. Platt, Professor, University of Pennsylvania (AATSEEL, past president)
Michael Wachtel, Professor, Princeton University (AATSEEL president-elect)


IN SUPPORT OF THE EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY AT ST. PETERSBURG

The European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP), which is among Russia’s leading institutions of higher education, has recently been sanctioned by the Russian state oversight agency for higher education, Rosobrnadzor, for ostensible violations of administrative standards and regulations. AATSEEL stands in full solidarity with the EUSP, its administration, staff and students, as they seek to eliminate any possible lapses identified by the agency, and in their legal defense of the institution and its mission.

The European University at St. Petersburg is unquestionably a leader in Russia education and scholarship. Its professors are globally recognized authorities in a range of social-scientific and humanistic disciplines, whose publications appear in the most visible and highly rated scholarly journals and presses of the world. The graduates of the EUSP go on to become important and productive professionals in business and government, and also to pursue careers as successful scholars in their own right at other leading institutions in Russia and elsewhere. The EUSP’s programs for foreign students are among the most important centers offering the riches of Russian scholarship and culture to the world.

In all of this activity, the EUSP is one of the most important institutions presenting Russian scholarship to the world and interpreting global scholarly life for Russia, contributing in this way to global communication and mutual understanding.

This makes the recent administrative actions of Rosobrnadzor, which have placed the functioning of this extraordinarily valuable institution in question, highly regrettable. With this letter, AATSEEL expresses complete support for the EUSP and urges the Russian state and its agencies to work with the institution to overcome any regulatory concerns that might impede its important educational and scholarly work.

Kevin M. F. Platt
Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities
Chair, Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory
President, AATSEEL