Global Bridges’ First Study Trip to Russia

Kolomna, Moscow and St. Petersburg

September 23 to 30,  2017

“Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” said Winston Churchill. In order to solve this puzzle at a time when more is talked about others than with others, a delegation from Global Bridges traveled for the first time to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Bridge-building was easiest for us during the excellent cultural portion of the program. The exchange with Russian avant-garde artists both in the Kolomna monastery, which lies approximately 120 kilometers southeast of Moscow, and in St. Petersburg, as well as the visit to the grand Bolshoi Theater for the freedom opera “Prince Igor” and to the Mikhailovsky Theater for “Swan Lake” underscored Russia’s profound contribution to European culture. In the carefully restored Kolomna monastery, we were able to visualize the renaissance of the Orthodox Church, which, after 70 years of repression under the Soviets, is still reviving and gaining popularity. The abbess expressed great skepticism towards questions regarding further cooperation with western churches. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg belongs undoubtedly to the most astounding art collections in the world. Thanks to the outstanding tour guide, we had the chance to admire some of its most precious treasures, and the topic of “stolen art” was not simply swept under the rug.

The conversations involving economic relations were heavily influenced by the discussion about the reasons and consequences of the economic sanctions. According to our Russian partners, the weak Russian economy can only be partly explained by this. With the aid of economists and think tank representatives, we were able to carve out a much more thorough explanation: The combination of a one-sided focus on production of raw materials in times of low global market prices, insufficient diversification and modernization, as well as burdens that come with bureaucracy and legal uncertainties, has prevented the largest country in the world from taking advantage of its enormous potential. Independent from these sanctions, the Kremlin is pursuing a localization strategy with protectionist elements. In the low-tech sector (for example, in the food industry), this aims at short-term payoffs; however, it can be detrimental to the long-term development of a worldwide competitive industry. As a result, one must adjust oneself to a low growth rate in Russia for a measurable time.

Overall, the Russian market still offers great opportunities, and German businesses enjoy, as before, a reputation of reliability – also because they themselves would have to prove staying power under such difficult political frameworks. Russia continues to be one of the most important countries for companies like Dr. Michael Otto’s, our honorary chairman – also because competition there through Amazon is so weak. Silicon Valley giants are not strongly represented in Russia at all, and they have heavy competition through private companies.

The achievements made by Russian tech companies can be explained by looking at the country’s quality higher education system. At the Gornyi Institute, St. Petersburg Mining University – a traditionally close partner with Germany’s Bergbau University, Freiberg – and the St. Petersburg University of Humanities and Social Sciences, Global Bridges could receive a better picture about the hopes and concerns of the young generation through conversations with the university’s students.

The political conversations were carried with the initial intention of understanding the other side’s point of view. Russia views itself as a European country, but one that is closely tied to Asia. Through this tradition, Russia has intensified its relationship with China and has put forth the effort to participate in its “Belt and Road” initiative. Through these measures, according to think tanks, Russian leadership will have to experience the painful reality of China being the stronger trade partner. Incidentally, we could sense disappointment among some of our Russian partners directed towards the Chinese, lamenting that their Chinese partners are not taking their alliance seriously enough. They claim a lack of direct investments from China and that China has primarily used Russia so far as an outlet for its surplus productions.

Views on the conflict in the Ukraine were widely varied, as we had expected. While the West denounced the Kremlin’s annexation as a violation of human rights, the Russian side considers its actions legitimate. Nevertheless, agreements have been made among political leadership with regards to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine through a common interest: weapons there should be silenced for a lasting time in order to improve the humanitarian situation of the civilian population.

Independent pollsters showed us how the Russian’s attitude towards the West has altered over the years. After an initial Western euphoria in the 1990s, the desire for a closer relationship with the United States and the European Union experienced a setback due to the wars in Iraq and Georgia – after which, for the most part, this desire experienced a recovery. The atmosphere surrounding the Kremlin’s annexation and its consequences is constantly worsening. Since then, Russian nationalism has been booming, and the Russian population openly welcomes a more defined separation from the West.

A year before the World Cup, the appearance of the street and overall public security in Moscow and St. Petersburg looks to be in brilliant condition. Historic buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been sanitized and supplemented with impressive, modern architecture.

Repression towards oppositionists has also increased. In the immediate vicinity of the delegation’s hotel was the location where leader of the opposition, Boris Nemzow, was shot within plain sight in front of the Kremlin. Citizens continue to lay flowers at the scene daily. Kremlin critic Alexei Nawalny was also arrested during our trip.

Political foundations reported of increasingly worsening work environments. According to recent legislation, foundations that are funded from a foreign patron must be registered as “agents.”

The numerous conversations drew a differentiated picture of one of the largest cultural nations with tremendous, untapped economical potential. This trip was dedicated to our founding father, Walther Leisler Kiep, who strove his entire life to create a constructive and respectful dialogue with the largest country in the world.

In this context, Walther liked to quote the architect of the “Ostpolitik” Egon Bahr: “For Germany, America is indispensable, but Russia is immovable.” In this sense, Global Bridges will continue with Global Forums on Russia, invite Russian Young Leaders, and also offer a challenging framework within the next Study Trips so that our members can gather their own picture firsthand.