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September 12, 2005

Source: Wilfrid Laurier University:

Laurier students get firsthand look at democratic challenges in Siberia

Four Laurier students get firsthand look at democratic challenges in Siberia
Monday September 12, 2005

>From Breslau to Siberia: Today, Meghan Snider will leave her small town far behind and set out for the Russian city where the last czar was murdered.

Today, when most students are sitting in a lecture hall, Snider, 20, and three other Wilfrid Laurier University students are stepping into the unknown.

Instead of lining up at a book store, they're boarding a plane to Moscow where they'll catch another plane to a history-steeped city in the Siberia region of Russia.

They'll be among very few English-speaking people in Ekaterinburg, a fast-growing city in the foothills of the Ural mountains, a city at the border zone between Asia and Europe.

It's a beautiful city famous for its history and architecture.

In 1918, the last czar, Nicholas II, and his family were murdered in a house in the city's centre where they'd been kept prisoner.

The house was destroyed in the 1990s when Boris Yeltsin was president. Yeltsin, himself, was born near Ekaterinburg, and it was his power base before he moved to Moscow to become president.

A central industrial base in the mountains, Ekaterinburg -- formerly Sverdlovsk -- is also home to one of the elite universities in the country, Ural State University.

At the university, Snider, Christina Woolner, 21, Christian Mahlstedt, 29, and Joey Raso, 20, will meet their student mentors, stay in residence, and immerse themselves in the Russian language.

They'll get a sense of the people and culture, and Russians will get a sense of them.

After about a month, they'll begin working with their new Russian colleagues on projects involving women and poverty; teaching youth about AIDS; helping schools form parent-teacher councils; and assisting the university's student council with its electoral process.

They won't come home until mid-December.

For Snider, all of this comes with a beginner's knowledge of the Russian alphabet; all this with one high school exchange trip to China under her travel belt.

Sound exciting? Sound scary?

You bet, said Snider, a third-year global studies and political science student.

But when opportunity presents itself, you either grab it or regret leaving it behind.

"I'm excited, but it's mixed with a lot of trepidation," Snider said.

"It's a complicated culture in terms of its beauty and strengths and particular social challenges."

More than 40 universities across Canada applied for grants from the Canada Corps University Partnership Program to finance students promoting governance strategies in other countries as part of their academic credits.

Eleven proposals were accepted by the program, managed by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and financially supported by the Canadian International Development Agency.

WLU's proposal from global studies co-ordinator Len Friesen was rated near the top. Friesen, who studied in Russia, approached the students, who leaped at the chance.

"They'll come away with an appreciation of the enormous challenges facing this country," said Friesen, who has 500 students majoring in global studies.

"There will be a massive youth culture fascinated with alcohol," he said. There's also a high abortion rate, poverty among vulnerable groups like seniors and single mothers, a high rate of family breakdown.

The students will also discover a growing interest among Russians in religion and the paranormal, Friesen said.

Snider's challenge will be learning to speak enough Russian to get by.

"It's a tremendous challenge to train yourself to look at a letter and program your brain to look at it in a different way," she said.

Fellow student Christina Woolner of Kitchener has been listening to language CDs and practising with a friend who speaks Russian. Woolner, who is in her third year in global studies and religion and culture, has been trying to imagine what it will be like to live in Russia.

"Two weeks ago, I was trying to fall asleep. I was thinking 'I'm going to be lying in a bed in Russia in two weeks.' I was trying to picture it. I couldn't.''

Woolner has been to China, Brazil and Chile.

"This is completely different. It's very, very unknown."

Friesen, 49, lived in Russia in 1987 and 1988 with his young family while completing his PhD in Russian history.

He has returned to Russia about 20 times in the last 25 years, fascinated by the language and the rhythm of life in a country he regards as a "kinder society, more thoughtful society."

Russians are intensely interested in their Communist past and their future with democracy, he said.

They don't talk about the weather. "It's 'how would you fix this society?'

"What you have in Russia right now, I think, is a hybrid system of emerging democratic institutions and other individuals and structures that harken back to the Soviet era," Friesen said.

"You have the opportunity to see a country go through, in some ways, enormous shifts. . . . But in other ways, it's the very same country."

Friesen helped set up the visit with the relationships he has built in Russia. He leaves Friday for a week in Russia to see the students and associates at the university.

Then he'll go back for a week in December to assess the students' experience and help establish a long-term relationship between WLU and the Institute of Regional Policy at Ural State University.

After spending time in Ekaterinburg, the students will travel outside the city to the villages and also visit Moscow and St. Petersburg. They'll even have a chance to visit a "dacha," a cottage in the Ural mountains.

Friesen is confident the four students will return to Canada with Russia in their blood.

"They're entering into a country at a remarkable time in its own history."



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