In this photo taken on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, students come out of a school building in St. Petersburg, Russia.

What Russian college students learn about US elections, history and race relations

A political science professor in St. Petersburg, Russia, tells The World what his students are discussing in class this week.

Most American students are required to take a civics class, where they learn about democratic values, civil rights, checks and balances and other concepts at the heart of American civic life.

During one of the most important elections in US history, many Americans are discovering just why those concepts are so important.

But what do these principles look like from the outside looking in — from a global perspective? Ivan Kurilla is a political science professor at the European University at St. Petersburg in Russia. He teaches Russian students about US history, US-Russian relations and US politics. Kurilla spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about the discussions taking place in his classroom this week.

Related: How Russia benefits from disrupting the US election, again

Marco Werman: How have you been teaching and talking about this year’s US election in your class? 

Ivan Kurilla: This year, the interest in American elections is significantly less intensive than it was four years ago, but still people are interested. Still, students are interested in the outcome. They’re interested in how American democracy works. We always need to discuss the American system of elections. And this is always an interesting topic.

I’m kind of surprised to hear that there’s less interest in Russia among your students than in 2016 with the election here. Why do you think that is? 

I think that four years ago there was a lot of hope that, well, if Trump will be elected, the relations will get better. On the one side, Mr. Putin and the Kremlin wanted Trump to be elected. But other than Mr. Putin, the Russian liberals also entertained some hopes that Mr. Trump will improve Russian-American relations and that will influence the domestic policy of the Russian regime. So it was a big hope four years ago. But, you know, for this presidency the relations were not improved. So people no more have any hopes that Russian-American relations can be improved. That’s why the interest is not as big as it used to be. 

How are Trump and Biden being portrayed in Russian media? And has that influenced your students’ perspectives? 

A visible majority of Russians still lean toward Mr. Trump. Not because Trump will improve Russian-American relations — this is no more the argument, no more the option —but because Mr. Trump’s agenda looks more comprehensible for the Russian domestic agendas, for something that the Russians would understand, while the Democratic Party is going way too liberal for the Russian domestic debates. It’s something from sci-fi, from some distant future, which is too far from something that ordinary Russians usually discuss. In this case, Mr. Trump looks more familiar. Whatever he is doing looks, well, more recognizable. This is something that Russians would probably expect from Russian politicians. What Mr. Biden is doing is something from a different planet. It’s like extraterrestrial from the Russian point of view.

Related: It’s ‘much riskier’ now to stand up to the Kremlin

What draws your students in St. Petersburg to learn more about US history and politics? What kind of relationship would you say many of your students have with the US? 

America is always in the Russian media and the Russian newspapers and TV for many more years, for much longer than Russia was so important for America. So that’s why. Of course, students want to know more, want to understand what is really going on and want to go beyond the propaganda. 

As to your students, what preconceptions do they come into the classroom with about the US, and how does that affect your teaching? Like on the subject of race and 400 years of history behind that, going back to slavery, what do your students bring as knowledge when you first meet them? And how do you address that? 

Exactly. This is one of the biggest problems because this is something very different from the Russian experience. And especially this year, I spend more time with students discussing the American race and American history of race, racial relations and about the very concept of race as a major, major explanation of social conflicts. Because, for Russian students, many of the scenes which Americans consider race relations are more, maybe, class relations, especially because of the Marxist legacy [in Russia]. And when we translate these same, very similar conflicts into American society, we see this is described as race relations in the United States. And this is something new. Very few students who come to my class would understand this diffidence. They come with questions. They come to my class asking why Americans describe everything with race. And we spend a lot of time discussing that. And with all of the history, how it all was built over centuries or how Americans came to … this set of references.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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