“Abraham Lincoln: Lessons of History and the Contemporary World”
18 February 2009, Opening Remarks from the Director of the Fulbright Program
As the newly appointed director of the Fulbright Program in Russia, it is a pleasure to be speaking here today at the Russian State University for the Humanities. RSUH is one of the Fulbright Program’s closest partners in Russia, having 22 current and past fellows in Fulbright exchange programs to the United States, including numerous professors as well as the rector of the university, Yefim Iosifovich Pivovar. At the same time, RSUH annually hosts more American Fulbright fellows in Russia than any other university, and we continue to work closely with our colleagues from across the university, including from the American Studies Program as well as the American Center.
Having personally studied Russian history, I am particularly surprised and honored to find myself standing here and speaking at an event dedicated to one of America’s most esteemed historical figures, President Lincoln. In advance of today’s opening, I found myself wondering what I would say about Lincoln. At a time when President Lincoln has reemerged in the public eye, with references to him throughout the recent American presidential election and at President Obama’s inauguration ceremony, I find it humbling to stand here and address an audience full of experts on President Lincoln and American history. Nevertheless, I will offer you the following thoughts:
Throughout my studies of Russian history, I was many times drawn to the year 1861, when Tsar Alexander II issued the Emancipation Manifesto, in which he freed the serfs throughout Russia. This action has been credited with initiating a period of industrialization, urbanization, and modernization in Russia. And it was only one of a number of major reforms that were implemented in the wake of the Crimean War.
Comparisons have been made between the emancipation of the slaves in the United States, following our own Civil War, in 1865, and the freeing of Russia’s serfs. Further references have been made to similarities between President Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II. Of course, a detailed study of these two subjects will show many unique qualities that challenge simple comparisons between the two events, however close they may appear in historical timing and outward appearance. However, my point here is not to debate whether or not such comparisons are fundamentally accurate. Rather, as the director of the Fulbright Program, I mention these historical comparisons, because I believe that they illustrate the importance of international exchange in allowing us to ask such questions in the first place.
Already, I have alluded to two wars, the Crimean War and the American Civil War. Each of these wars ushered in a period of great reforms. Another war, World War II, also ushered in a period of reforms and changing geo-politics. And while the historical focus of the post-war period has often been on the deteriorating relationships between two war-time allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, an important reform was taking place in the United States Congress that would work towards improving relations between the United States and countries throughout the world.
In 1946, the Junior Senator from the state of Arkansas, Senator J. William Fulbright, proposed the creation of a program for international education exchange. With a firm conviction that a future world war must be avoided, Senator Fulbright believed that better understanding between people of different countries, on a personal level, could help improve relations between countries and reduce the risk of future conflicts. The Senator elected to support international educational exchanges as a way to achieve mutual understanding through the exchange of peoples, cultures, and knowledge. Since 1948, when the first U.S. participants were sent abroad, over 285,000 Fulbrighters from over 155 countries have taken part in mutual exchanges. Of these 285,000 fellows, 39 have received Nobel Prizes, including two just last year.
While there are many opportunities for Russian students, teachers, professors and administrators, as well as artists, musicians, and others, to travel to the United States, the Fulbright Program is unique in its emphasis on bilateral exchange—the idea, in the case of Russia, that it is important both to encourage Russian citizens to travel to the United States and see the country with their own eyes, while at the same time allowing American citizens to travel to Russia and experience life here as well. The Fulbright Program is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary year of existence in Russia. The first scholars, 6 from the United States and 6 from the Soviet Union, took part in the program in 1973/1974. Since that time, the program has expanded significantly and now boasts programs for scholars and professors, graduate students, teachers of English, university administrators, and experts in academic, professional, and cultural fields. The list of fields from which individuals may apply has expanded to include the humanities, social sciences, sciences, professions and the arts. And Russia has one of the largest and most active Fulbright offices in the world. During the current academic year, over 200 individuals will travel between the United States and Russia as Fulbright Fellows—150 from Russia, and 60 from the United States.
Just a few days ago, I read an opinion piece in the on-line version of The New York Times. A number of short articles referenced various international views on President Lincoln. In Germany, it seems, there were comparisons made between Lincoln’s and Bismarck’s struggles to form their separate nations. Another view of Lincoln within Germany was that he was a supporter of the working man and that his support to free the American slaves should be viewed through a Marxist lens. From Japan, Lincoln is viewed positively for his personal dedication and hard work and for the example that America provided in successfully rebuilding itself after the Civil War—something the Japanese succeeded in doing after the Second World War. And while Americans and individuals all around the world continue to revisit their past history and present day situations in relation to the challenges that Lincoln faced and overcame, I appreciate those of you who have gathered here today to share your own views on Lincoln and what he means for America, for Russia, and for the world in which we live today.
I thank my colleagues from the Russian State University for the Humanities for inviting me here today, and I wish you all a successful conference.
~Anthony Koliha, Director, Fulbright Program