Last spring, Henry Shepherd '08 began exchanging e-mails with students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, after being put in contact with them by Terrence Hopmann, professor emeritus of political science.
"I wanted to have some sort of dialogue between Brown students and students at their school (to) bridge misunderstandings," Shepherd said.
After communicating by e-mail, one of the Russian students suggested holding a conference in Moscow the following spring with students from both countries.
That correspondence gave birth to The Working Group for Russian-American Relations, which will hold its first meeting tonight at 6 p.m. in the Buxton House lounge.
The group is somewhat amorphous - not quite an official Group Independent Study Project, but not just a student club either.
Shepherd said he began talking about the idea with students he knew from his classes, who immediately took to the idea, and a core group of eight began discussing ideas.
The students were interested in more than just a trip to Moscow. They wanted to get together to discuss the U.S.-Russian relationship in depth and to bring speakers to campus.
The conference, which will likely include group discussions and guest speakers, "will be a forum for discussion, not a debate with a winner and a loser," said Hristo Atanasov '10.
Details for the trip are "not set in stone yet," Atanasov said. The group needs to formally put together a delegation, potentially including students from other universities, and find funding.
Although the group has done little so far to advertise itself, "there are already at least a dozen students who want to take a leading role," Shepherd said.
Between Russian language classes, Eastern European cultural clubs and students who are concentrating in international relations, the "incentive is already there" to discuss these issues, he added.
Nat Brown '10, who studies Russian, said he came to the group "more from the language and culture side."
"It's a refreshing thing for me to address Russian in the context of international relations," he said.
With a tense military situation in Georgia, the group leaders said, now is a crucial time to research and discuss relations between the two countries.
The working group will serve as a forum to take on "controversial and difficult" topics like NATO, the role of the U.N. and energy, said Max Rusnak '10.
"Reality with Russia is something that can't be sugar coated," Shepherd said. "It has to be dealt with pragmatically."
Sergei Khrushchev, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies and son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, said many mistakes result from cultural misunderstanding and that people of different countries need to understand each other, "especially if you are planning to rule this country in the future."
"It's not about the Cold War," Khrushchev added. "It's about day-to-day interaction with other cultures."
Members of the working group have had conversations with Khrushchev about the project and have spoken to other professors, including Professor of Political Science Linda Cook, who studies former Soviet states.
Cook said she thought relations between the U.S. and Russia were presently at a very low point. "I think that the Georgia conflict in particular and the response to it on both sides shows a deep difference in perceptions," she said. She supports the students' project because it is something that "promotes mutual understanding, or at least a dialogue between young people," she said.
For the moment, the working group is focused on building interest and momentum among students.
"Getting a whole group engaged would be a really strong sign that this is desirable or needed at Brown," Shepherd said.
Though planning for the April Moscow trip is not the sole purpose of the working group, it will be a large component of the agenda of tonight's meeting, Shepherd said.
The Moscow school is affiliated with Russia's Ministry of Foreign Relations, and is well connected politically and logistically, so the Brown group is letting the Russian students take the lead on planning the conference, he said.
"We're giving them input on what interests us," Shepherd said. "At the same rate, we understand that they have their own way of organizing it."