The year was 1974, and David Wirth, a Boston College professor of law, was spending the summer in the Soviet Union. Over a decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Wirth found himself in an utterly different culture.
Now, 34 years later, he is back in what is now Russia doing Fulbright research on sustainable development at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow.
Since Wirth was 19, he has developed an interest in Russian culture. After training to be a chemist as an undergraduate at Princeton University, he began to study Russian to fulfill a foreign language requirement. To his surprise, he developed a fascination with the language, taking it each semester for four years. After graduation, he wanted to supplement his college instruction by experiencing the country for himself.
Wirth enrolled in a summer course sponsored by Dartmouth College in 1976 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). At the time, taking the course merely seemed like a positive way to enhance his overall proficiency in Russian. Nevertheless, he never could have imagined what an impact this experience would have on him.
“I met people in St. Petersburg who had never met a foreigner, let alone an American,” Wirth said.
From that point on, Wirth’s professional and personal life have often converged with Russia. He worked at the State Department after law school, instructs various international-focused courses at BC Law, and specializes in international environmental law.
When his sabbatical approached last year, he saw no better alternative than to explore Russia. It had just so happened that the Fulbright Program partnered with HSE’s Faculty of Law to host a Distinguished Chair in Sustainable Development, and Wirth was a perfect fit.
He was awarded a teaching and research grant for the academic year to encourage a more holistic view of sustainable development. He currently teaches two courses in the master’s program at HSE, one regarding regional trade agreements and another looking at the intersection of sustainable development and international economic policy and law.
The teaching opportunity is perfect for him, because he not only gets to teach about the environment and its connection to other issues, but also to interact with an impressive group of 30 students who are Russian nationals. They perform simulated negotiations and draft multilateral agreements, all of which they impressively take on in a second language. Wirth also coached a team working in a simulated course experience on international investments and supervises research papers.
He is also collaborating with a Russian colleague on research on the Paris Agreement. Particularly, he is examining how to incorporate the social cost of carbon into the price of goods and offset that at the border if, for example, a state of export has policies that aren’t consistent with international minimum standards.
From a policy point of view, it is currently a thrilling time to be in Russia. While President Donald Trump is considering withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change, there is a flurry of domestic debates with Russia over whether or not the country should ratify the agreement. On top of this, working with a Russian colleague and experiencing the research firsthand at HSE is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“In every sense, it’s like being a faculty member at Boston College, but in an entirely different cultural, institutional, and professional setting,” Wirth said.
He thinks that an experience like this is worthwhile because of the personal and professional enrichment that one gains from it. As a faculty member, he has the terrific opportunity of viewing himself as a work in progress, so this is a chance for him to move to the next level in terms of expertise.
He thinks that everyone in his line of work should have language facilities and a regional focus. Working at the State Department, for instance, one looks at the world from a bird’s eye view. But it similarly helps to be able to look at the world from the point of view of a different culture.
The Fulbright program is designed to enable the types of interactions he has had and give him a refined understanding of a different culture. In a time in which the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia are a controversial topic, the program provides individuals, scholars, and researchers with a way to perform citizen diplomacy.
“The governments may have differences, but that does not mean that the people of those countries cannot interact in a positive, professional way that provides a baseline standard for future cooperation to keep things going during difficult periods,” Wirth said.
Through his experience in Russia, Wirth has noticed that the Russian people are commonly misunderstood. One day when he was getting on a long-distance train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, a book happened to fall out of his briefcase onto the tracks. Within minutes, the official working for the train company came out with his book in hand, concerned because there were a few smudges on it.
Wirth’s experience has taught him that one has to visit a country before making a definitive judgment of it.
“It’s very heartwarming as a foreigner to be accepted to such a hospitable, welcoming climate, regardless of the state of bilateral relations between the governments,” Wirth said.
Featured Image Courtesy of David Wirth