The large number of travel companies that have withdrawn from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine include numerous study abroad organizations. Many of them have suspended programs and recalled students they had in Russia, citing difficulties caused by Western sanctions and the immediate need to repatriate students due to limited flights out of the country.
But several such organizations are working to provide students alternatives to studying in Russia and also making preparations for an eventual return to the country. Russia welcomed more than 324,000 international students last year, a 9,000-student increase from the 2019-20 academic year.
So where might study and travel abroad providers turn to conduct programs they would have run in Russia? Several are looking at neighbouring countries.
“Realistically, we would look at a Russian-speaking (area) that’s not in Russia,” said Dana Thompson, the Russia program manager for One World Now, a Seattle-based non-profit organization that was making plans, prior to the invasion of Ukraine, to resume Covid-interrupted Russia programs in the summer of 2023.
“For instance, you could go to the Republic of Georgia and have a Russian-language program. We had been considering Kyrgyzstan for this coming summer, but we decided against it because of Covid.”
Another study abroad providers have already taken similar steps. The Maine-based Council on International Educational Exchange, which announced it’s suspending its spring programs in St. Petersburg, sent students to other locations in Eastern Europe, where they could complete Russian-related studies in their international programs.
Meanwhile, California-based SRAS, which runs study abroad programs in numerous former Soviet republics, relocated its cohort of 18 students from Russia to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It’s also ramping up activities in Central Asia for those still eager to study in the region. But having to depart Russia was bittersweet for many students.
“The last thing they wanted to do was leave,” said SRAS director Renee Stillings. “They’d just made friends, settled in their classes, (and) fell in love with their new host city.”
But as Russia is increasingly shut off from much of the world, when will study abroad providers feel comfortable about returning there? Of course, CIEE stated it hasn’t made any decisions regarding its summer and fall programs in the country.
Meanwhile, Thompson responded that One World Now would make plans to return when it could ensure its students’ safety but not just from the war. She expressed concerns about how students might be received in Russia in the future.
“Traditionally, the vast majority of Russians have never been anti-American,” she said. “That could change with all these sanctions and with how much of a hardship this is going to be. And especially if they’re not getting the full story (about) why all these sanctions were put in place.”
When asked how she would measure any possible anti-American sentiment in Russia, Thompson said she would rely on information from its Russian partners as well as US citizens based there although she admitted it would be a while before large numbers of Americans return to Russia. She added the organization would refer to the State Department’s travel advisories, which contain information about instances of anti-American behaviour.
Despite the challenges study abroad providers face in resuming their programs in Russia, both Thompson and Stillings remained committed to taking students back to the country. Thompson believes the war could inspire more people to donate to her organization’s Russian program, stating that its donors — who have typically spent time in Russia — view study abroad programs as a form of citizen diplomacy.
Likewise, Stillings views the conflict as a reason why more students should study the country’s language and culture. Only 400 U.S. students studied in Russia during the Covid-stricken 2019-20 academic year, the most recent one from statistics are available, a sharp decline from the 1,300 the previous year.
But although the number of people studying Russian worldwide has decreased in half since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian speakers in the US, Canada, New Zealand have collectively risen from 1.2 million to more than 4 million since then. In the US alone, the number of Russian speakers has quadrupled since 1980.
“If the country is open and safe to our students, it behoves us to learn about the country and connect those bridges,” Stillings said. “Those bridges are still there. I fear if those bridges didn’t exist at all, the situation could be even worse than it is.”
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