Urban is taking the first – but certain – steps in the study of international diplomacy, and he explained to us how ordinary trains can sometimes bring together entire nations and countries.
Urban, what put the idea of the Train of Friendship into your head, and what is the innovation that you see in your project?
I got the idea for the project as I read the daily news reports about the conflict in Ukraine in Western and Russian media. What struck me the most was how much the people in the EU and in Russia were supportive of their governments’ positions and how my own friends started developing negative stereotypes about the other side based on unverified and often propagandistic media reporting.
Firstly, the Train of Friendship project goes against the predominant political and media discourse of mutual accusations, political escalation and economic sanctions in both the EU and Russia – it focuses on the differences between our societies as something positive – it suggests we should try to understand before we judge and that we should learn from each other. The project takes differences as something that can enrich us. Secondly, the project promotes the idea of people-to-people diplomacy. As such, it tries to engage young people from different countries, cultures, ethnicities, religions and language groups in a direct dialogue without the intermediation of political institutions – we will operate according to the horizontal network rather than the vertical organization principle, ensuring inclusive participation without creating hierarchies. During the course of the project, participants will assume the role of unofficial ambassadors of their countries. Thirdly, the project will be conducted in the form of a train journey – drawing on the metaphor of the train as a means of connecting people and countries.
Where do you plan to locate your project and activity?
The Train of Friendship will start its journey in St. Petersburg and will travel all the way to Vladivostok. We will stop in 7-10 cities (depending on the availability of local support in organizing the logistical part of the project), where we will have meetings with youth representatives, students, civil society representatives, local authorities and journalists. In each city we will conduct workshops in intercultural dialogue, where we will try to undermine stereotypes and learn about each other’s culture, way of life, exchanging best practices and coming up with recommendations to be presented to the authorities in our respective countries.
How much time will your project take, and what is the geographic back-drop?
The project itself will take approximately 5 months to prepare, and there are follow-up activities envisioned to ensure that the project does not end with the train journey, but that it is only the beginning. Geographically, we are considering stops in the following Russian cities: Saint Petersburg – Moscow – Voronezh – Rostov-on-Don – Volgograd – Saratov – Ufa – Chelyabinsk – Yekaterinburg – Omsk – Novosibirsk – Krasnoyarsk – Irkutsk – Ulan-Ude – Belogorsk – Khabarovsk – Vladivostok. The idea is to cover as much territory as possible to allow European participants to experience Russia in all its diversity, deepen their understanding of the country, and get a more representative image of it. At the same time our aim is to visit the biggest cities and therefore to try to maximize the impact of our project (physical presence, media exposure).
Could you explain your vision of international relations between the European Union and Russia? Where in your mind there are problems and where there is potential?
I am very sad to see the relations between EU and Russia worsen, especially because I believe this could have been avoided. This conflict is completely unnecessary and is causing harm to both sides: in a globalized and interrelated world, such a conflict can only have a lose-lose outcome. I believe the crucial problem is the lack of trust. NATO in particular has failed to fulfill a number of promises given to Russia, among which three stand out: a promise that NATO would not expand into the post-Soviet space, a promise that its anti-ballistic missile shield would not be directed against Russia, and a promise that the intervention in Libya would not lead to regime change. As these promises were not kept, Russia adopted a much more realist approach towards West – from Syria to Ukraine. Many foreign policy decisions made by Russia can be criticized and disagreed with, but they first have to be understood; and so far, few people in the West have genuinely tried to do that.
How in your country do people perceive Russia?
Most people in Slovenia have never been to Russia, and their perception is based on the political and media discourse, which is under the heavy influence of the West (USA and the EU primarily, but also organizations like NATO). In Slovenia, Russia is seen in two ways: as a culturally and linguistically related country (as a sort of a big uncle in our Slavic family) but also as a big power in the region and, since Slovenia is part of the EU and NATO, as a potential threat. There are also lots of cultural stereotypes floating around – everything from how cold the climate is to how much alcohol people consume. I am happy to see that with more and more Russian tourists visiting Slovenia, things are slowly changing and people are less prone to generalizations.
How do you understand “collective memory”? Are there some elements of this phenomenon you would like to use in your project?
Collective memory can be understood in many ways. I understand it as a sort of unconscious reservoir of social perceptions and representations from the past. For instance, the German obsession with price stability can be seen as influenced by the collective memory of hyperinflation in Weimar Germany in the 1920s. For the Americans, the trauma that underlies their identity as the World’s Policeman is their unpreparedness for Pearl Harbor and 9/11, while for Russians the trauma that explains their self-perception as a challenger to the current geopolitical order is the sense of sacrifice during the Second World War and the demise of the Soviet Union. In our project, breaking down stereotypes necessarily involves changing collective representations that have been internalized by millions of individuals. It requires critical thinking about the past to be able to deal with the problems of the present.