TRANSCRIPT: Ambassador Sullivan’s Interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta

John Sullivan file image, adapted from image featured at usembassy.gov

(U.S. Embassy Moscow – Oct. 23, 2020)

Mr. Konstantin Remchukov, Editor-in-Chief, Nezavisimaya Gazeta

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA: So, Mr. Ambassador, as you mentioned, the time for the last months was unusual, so many frustration for people, so many bad news. And culture has always been a good retreat for people to boost up their energy, morale, spirits, and everything. So I’m very happy to talk to you about cultural positive aspects of your activities and Russian-American relations. So please tell us about the initiative regarding the Hermitage Foundation and Hermitage State Museum.

File Photo of U.S. Embassy Moscow, with Russian Foreign Ministry Building in DistanceAMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Well, thank you, Konstantin. It’s a pleasure to be talking about something is as exciting and as important as this program. I have to say we were [talking] at the outset about how COVID has impacted the world since we last saw each other at the beginning of this year in January. Among other things, it’s prevented me from going to St. Petersburg in my first 10 or 11 months as ambassador, which I was looking forward to. I haven’t been there since 1988. And I was looking forward to visiting the Hermitage, among other things.

File Photo of Hermitage Art MuseumSo you’ve referenced this grant that we’ve made through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation to support the Hermitage. And I can give you a little bit a little bit of detail on that. The project is actually a partnership among four organizations. There’s this Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, which is part of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. That’s one. And then there’s our role at the U.S. Embassy. And you mentioned the Hermitage Foundation, which is based in New York City. And then finally, there’s the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. And among all four of these, these organizations, we came together to come up with a project to restore three frescoes of the Raphael school as part of the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael.

And that’s what we’re focused on. These frescoes were painted between 1523 and 1524, on the wall of a villa in Italy, and they were actually acquired by the Hermitage in 1860. But over the past 500 years, the frescoes have suffered considerable exposure to the elements and prior restoration efforts were imperfect. So the program that we’re sponsoring, is to restore those frescoes which is urgently needed. And as I say it’s done in connection with the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death. And we’re hopeful that after they’re restored, that there will be really an unveiling of the true beauty of the frescoes not just to the Russian public, but to the world. Which is, you know, the Hermitage Museum is, of course, a cultural treasure of Russia, but really, of the world. I mean, the Hermitage is such a – literally – a treasure of art and culture.

So with this grant we’re doing, the program is done – we’ve been working with the executive director of the Hermitage Foundation and I want to credit her, Saranna Biel-Cohen [working] on behalf of the foundation, and of course the director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky. I want to credit them for their hard work on this project. And next week on October 28, the foundation, the museum, and myself, the embassy, will have a virtual launch of the project, and anybody, any of your readers or you, if you’re interested, it’ll be at 5pm on Wednesday, the 28th. And we’ll learn more about the frescoes, how they’ll be restored, and the cultural significance.

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA: Very good. And could you say a couple of words about this Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation? As I understand it is a deliberate foundation to preserve treasures cultural treasures throughout the world.

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Yes, indeed, it was established, [nineteen] years ago [in 2001]. It’s a program that’s operated in over 100 countries. And it’s managed out of the State Department in Washington. And there is a process to review proposals and get approval from the Department of State to provide the funding. So this program that we submitted on behalf of the Hermitage Foundation and the Hermitage, was in a competition against hundreds of other proposals from other U.S. embassies worldwide. And the fact that this project won this grant is a sign both of the significance of the project itself, and of the cultural partnership between the United States and Russia. And this will be I think, the [seventh] project that we have funded in Russia over the last 20 years or so. So it’s an important sign of the cultural bonds between the United States and Russia

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA: Very good. You’re lucky that you prepared the good papers. And we are lucky, of course, Russians that this will be restored. And may I ask you some questions about other cultural people to people, so to say, relations between Russia and America, like Sisters Cities program, or the U.S.-Russia business cooperation, or cooperation in space, Arctic, because there are a lot of dimensions of coexistence, rather only all the military and strategic ones.

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Well, Konstantin, you’re absolutely right. And I would say, you know, there are relations between the U.S. government and the government of the Russian Federation, whether it’s on strategic and military issues, political issues, and we all know how fraught those relations have been over the last several years in particular. But there’s a much broader relationship between the United States and Russia between our peoples, including cultural and educational exchanges, in business, in space, in the Arctic, and a small topic that I like to emphasize, but my colleagues here at the embassy are probably sick of hearing me talk about – ice hockey – which is a personal interest of mine. But it’s those connections, I think, Konstantin that are among the most significant that we have. And they are a bond that keeps us together, when the political situation seems most dire. And one thing I’ve observed in my tenure here is how much the relationship between the United States and Russia has changed, just in my professional lifetime.

You know, I came I mentioned earlier in our conversation that I visited St. Petersburg in 1988. I was a private U.S. citizen had a great interest in Russia and Russian history. I visited Moscow, what was then Leningrad, but I visited the Soviet Union then, and I visited Leningrad, not St. Petersburg. And if you think of all that’s happened in our relationship between our two countries over the last 30 to 35 years, how things have changed, the ups and downs, what’s grown has been the cultural, business, all of those ties between our two peoples that have grown dramatically.

And that distinguishes this era, from that sort of late Soviet era that I grew up in, in the 70s and 80s, when we didn’t have those many ties that keep us together, when the political sea gets choppy. So now, for example, we have more than 1,000 U.S. businesses invested in doing business here in Russia. And that means Russians and Americans working together. It’s not just the Bolshoi traveling to New York and performing in New York City, or, you know, an equivalent theatre company coming from the United States and performing here. It is day to day personal interaction between colleagues in business. And that’s significant. And it provides a little more ballast for the relationship, when, as I say, the political seas, can get choppy.

But as those of us who are old enough, with some perspective, can look back over the last three or four decades and see how our relationship has changed. Our counterparts 20 or 30 years from now, the U.S. ambassador and your successor, you know, I’m sure they’ll be remarking too on how much things have changed since 2020. And the relationship between the United States and Russia remember those dark old days with, you know, with Ukraine – Crimea – and Syria, and Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Belarus, and election interference and cyber this – and God knows what our successors are going to be talking about 35 years from now. But what I will say is, the fact that we have made the connections that we’ve made over the last 30 or 35 years in business, in the arts, in sports and entertainment, will make it more likely that it’s a positive outcome and more positive developments. Not just focused on the day to day negativity.

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA: Yeah, you mentioned the amazing figure that a thousand U.S. businesses are dealing with Russia, despite all the sanctions and all the risks connected with sanctions. And our cooperation between military in Syria also exist and they exchange information. So I really share your view that the infrastructure of many, many spheres of interrelations is a good support to these big politics.

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: And part of that, you’re absolutely right, a part of that infrastructure is something you mentioned, Konstantin – Sister City partnerships. We’ve got a large number. This is a program that’s been in existence for decades, established by and managed by the U.S. government. So there’s an official U.S. government relationship that’s involved here.

[Note: Sister Cities International is a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit which serves as the national membership organization for individual sister cities, counties, and states across the United States. Sister Cities International was created at President Eisenhower’s 1956 White House summit on citizen diplomacy. But it is an independent, nongovernmental organization. End note.]

But these Sister City relationships, you know, date back into Soviet times, into the 1970s when I think the first five Sister City relationships happened. And now, you know, we’ve got cities all across the United States that are joined with cities across Russia, so Sarasota, Florida and Vladimir, for example. Burlington, Vermont and Yaroslavl, Louisville, Kentucky and Perm, Chicago and Moscow. And it’s, you know, it’s a small thing, but it’s an important part of our relationship. And, I’d also make the link with business as well, Konstantin, because what we’ve done here at the embassy, and my colleagues at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and our counterparts at the Ministry of Trade, is that we have made connections, business-to-business connections, with regions and cities in the United States.

Because of COVID, we had to do this virtually, but we were planning a trade mission from Texas – Texas companies and the government of the state of Texas – to the Yekaterinburg in the Ural region. We had to do it because of COVID, we did it virtually, but it was a full day event. The government of the state of Texas was involved, the governor of the state himself. And making those types of regional connections for business, I think is a is a profitable way forward. And I’ve spoken to Secretary Ross, our Secretary of Commerce, about this. And I know that the Secretary himself had a phone call recently with Trade Minister Manturov. And that’s an area where we’re going to continue to pursue making those connections regionally, as well, not just government-to-government.

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA: Very important, because a lot of asymmetric information is available in regions. People wants to do something, but they lack adequate information. So thank you for that effort in Yekaterinburg, because it’s our industrial, I think, number three or number four, city in Russian. Do you have any plans for cooperation in the Arctic because Arctic seems to attract attention.

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Yes, it’s a very relevant and timely topic in our relationship, Konstantin, because, as you know, Russia will take over the chair of the Arctic Council in just a few months in 2021. And the Arctic Council is a very important institution that promotes this vital region, as a zone of cooperation free from conflict. And the Council itself is an institution where we can discuss sustainable development, the environment, protection and development of indigenous peoples. And it’s a shared interest of the United States, Russia – Russia, of course, has a huge chunk of the Arctic region within its northern border – but the United States, Canada, the other members of the countries that border the Arctic region, we all have a shared interest in its development and its protection. And so my colleagues in Washington and our embassy here have been engaged directly with the Russian government, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular. I met with First Deputy Foreign Minister Titov a couple of months ago, to talk about Arctic cooperation and Russia’s role assuming the chair of the Arctic Council. And those discussions have continued between our two governments, between Washington and Moscow, and the pace of interaction will increase as we get closer to 2021 when Russia does assume the chair.

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA: Okay, thank you. And the last question, but our younger audience is always interested about student exchange. And now with COVID, a lot of Zoom classes may have. But still, what is number of Russians which are enrolled in American universities and colleges?

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Well, terrific question. And I could guess, off the top of my head, but what I’m going to propose is that we get back to you with the precise figures for your publication.

[Note: The latest Open Doors report shows that for the 2018-2019 academic year, more than 5,000 Russians studied in the US. We do not have the figures for current enrollment in online programs. End note.]

But what I would offer, Konstantin, is we had – I participated in a virtual program, that the United States government, that we the embassy helped organize. We usually do it in person, we bring over representatives from colleges and universities in the United States. And they come here to Russia, to Moscow to other cities, and they’re available to Russian families, Russian students, parents, who are interested in having a student study in the United States. Because of COVID, we weren’t able to do that in person. We did it virtually.

But here’s the benefit, though, of that, if there’s a silver lining, we got many more U.S. colleges and universities able to participate virtually, who wouldn’t have been able to, to send either afford to or couldn’t send somebody, to participate in a program in in Moscow. So what that meant was that the Russian students and their families that were interested and participated got a wide variety of much wider variety of U.S. colleges and universities presented and interested in recruiting them to study in the United States. And I know you yourself studied at Penn. I won’t embarrass you by saying how many years ago it was, but I was long out of college myself by then. So we’re, neither of us is a youngster anymore. But you yourself can testify to the benefit of study abroad, and getting to know another country, and seeing how their education system works.

And I know a number of my colleagues here at the embassy, have studied at Russian institutions, Russian language, Russian culture. So it’s a key component, and has been for a long time, and we’re really looking to, to encourage that. And it’s always fun to meet Russians who have studied in the United States and compare notes about their experience, with our expectations. I will say, and these were, these were my remarks, and I wasn’t just trying to flatter the Russian participants. It’s a fact that we hear from us colleges and universities, that Russian students are among the most desired, are the most serious, hardworking, and just great additions to the student body, which isn’t this surprise for those of us who know or aspire to know, to know Russia. It’s an important part of our relationship, the broader relationship between our two peoples. And we certainly want to encourage it, and we’re doing all we can, in the face of the COVID pandemic, to make sure that those relationships continue, and that they don’t wither or diminish just because we’re not able to have in person interaction. So my hope is that we’ll have a large number of Russian students traveling to the United States and enriching our schools and our campuses as you did in the 80s in Philadelphia.

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA: Thank you. And I, personally, I am very grateful to you for supporting this students’ exchange. Because, you know, if you live in the country, it is so difficult to influence you, in pushing any misperceptions, [to engage you in a] witch hunt. And it helps to understand the nature of people. And since 33 years ago, I returned back from Philadelphia. You know, I keep this interest towards America I read every day American papers, I read American books, I watch American television, I watched the debate. Tonight I put down notes, who said what, what is the argument of that.

And this is something very profound in our sympathy and relations and desire to improve it. Because I belong to that part of Russian society, and I always openly said at every level that we believe that good relations with America can benefit Russian people in medicine, in science, in culture, in sports, in engineering, in business, benefit it. It could be rather selfish from this point of view, but it is beneficial. It’s not hostile. And I wish that you in your position of Ambassador put all your efforts, pursue the line in these dark, dark days of COVID and the distraction of regular relationships.

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Oh, you’re so right. And I had a great experience a few months ago now. And I can add to all of the categories you listed, law and the legal profession. So I spoke to law students. It was probably a couple of hundred. It was a virtual, a virtual event I did it by Zoom or some other electronic means which my colleagues are much better able to describe and make function than I. I just sit in front of the camera and talk. But what was fascinating was, for many of those students, I was the first American that they really had a chance to engage with in their young lives. And we had a lot in common. We talked about our legal education. Some of their professors were on the call. And we got to share a few comments about law professors, and what it was like joining a profession, what their expectations were. And it’s just an example in our lives. I know we’ve both experienced this.

Russians and Americans, there are so many things that we have in common, whether we’re engineers, or ballet dancers, or hockey players, or authors, or lawyers. People are people, and the more that we can have these exchanges, trade experiences, explore how our systems are different and how they’re similar. It breaks down stereotypes, and it just makes things between our two countries, makes the relationship stronger, and makes it more difficult for political winds to blow the relationship in a really dangerous direction. The more we understand each other, the better we’ll be able to overcome some of these differences which would separate us now.

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA: Yeah, thank you, Mr. Ambassador. Do you know what I noticed that what you talked today was actually about the substance of Russian-American relations, because usually, a lot of experts view the need of Russia to America and vice versa only as a means to solve some others country’s problems, like, we need Russia to solve problem in North Korea, or in Iran, or in Afghanistan, or it’s here, but it’s never a table which belongs to us. All spheres, which you mentioned, just belong to Russia, and America, in every aspect. And I think it is most valuable in this relation that we have the body of mutual interest. And thank you for understanding that and pursuing this line.

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Well, you’re so right. And it’s not to diminish the importance of those geopolitical issues which I spend, you know, the vast amount of my time focused on and I know you write about, and we’re all interested in, and they’re extremely important to the world and global security and peace and prosperity. But if we’re talking about the United States and Russia, it’s not just those issues. And our relationship has a long history. I was joking with the First Deputy Foreign Minister Titov, we were we were talking about the Arctic. And I commented on the fact that I have to thank Russia, then the Russian Empire, for giving the United States a stake in the Arctic by selling us Alaska. Right?

So our relationship goes back a long, long way to when Secretary of State Seward purchased Alaska, and made us a part of eventually the Arctic Council. But we shared a laugh over that. But it just an example of over time, the United States and Russia, we have to deal with each other on these political issues, but on a broader level, people to people, we have stronger ties now than we did when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, and 80s. People to people ties, educational, and so forth. The political issues are as challenging and maybe even more challenging in some ways than they were for my predecessors 40 or 50 years ago when it was the Soviet Union versus the West and the United States. But in any event, as long as we keep talking about positive things like this, it will give us more space to try to work out the more difficult political issues as well.

NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA: Thank you very much for this interview and looking forward to talk with you on some other issues, maybe later, because there were a lot of substantial things you conveyed. It’s very important for our people, because they’re asymmetrically informed about the positions because they don’t understand how profound is your access to your job and your mission as Ambassador here.

AMBASSADOR SULLIVAN: Well, thank you, Konstantin. I look forward to continuing this conversation, I hope in person soon but if not, continuing through Zoom. So look forward to speaking again soon.