Maria Gershuni: Russia

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Maria Gershuni, class of 2019, spent her summer working for the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow as an intern for the Euro-Atlantic program. She is a European and Eurasian concentrator at SAIS and found the internship through her department, which sent out a list of available opportunities in Europe. Upon receiving an offer, she replied with a definitive “Absolutely.”

A native of New York, Maria grew up speaking Russian with her parents and was thrilled to share her experiences living and working in Moscow.

Could you briefly describe what the RIAC does?

It is a Russian international affairs think tank that was set up in 2010. They’re a little different than the way Americans think of think tanks because they don’t have a lot of their own scholars. I think in Russia the concept of a think tank is relatively new. The way they’ve adopted that model is by prescribing a platform for established scholars, writers and academics to post their work and give lectures. The majority of their work is project-based; they have scholars write about Arctic issues for the Arctic project, but don’t necessarily have in-house scholars in the way that Americans generally imagine a think tank environment.

They also set up a lot of events with other organizations abroad. In my time, we set up an event with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), and the European Union Experts network. It’s really interesting that the RIAC doesn’t have its own scholars that can only publish if they represent the organization.

What were some of your daily tasks and responsibilities?

As the Euro-Atlantic project intern, I dealt with Europe, the United States and Canada. My daily tasks were a wide range of things the project needed. For example, a lot of it was editing and translating—standard intern stuff. Some of the cooler things I got to do was to participate in the events that they hosted. I met the former Secretary of Energy in the United States, Ernst Moniz, through the NTI, and got to go to press conferences after the Trump-Putin summit this summer, for which I had to do a lot of research. I was basically their research person for that because I could read English and Russian language news sources.

What do you think was the most difficult challenge working at RIAC?

With any organization you are going to work at, especially abroad, you have to adjust your way of thinking so that the U.S. isn’t the center of the world. A lot of things that get published, a lot of things that they organize and a lot of the speakers they invite have perspectives you’ve really never heard before. You have to adjust really quickly to that. You don’t think “That’s not right!” You just have to learn to understand the way these people think, the way people interpret events, and you have to put it in the context of a larger global network.

What was your living situation like?

I loved living in Moscow. I speak Russian so I think that helped, but the public transportation there was wonderful—really quick and so much better than the metro. One of the highlights for me was being able to get to where I needed to go quickly in a huge city.

I was there during the FIFA World Cup for a month which was one of the best months of my life. It became a very international city, but not in the sense of New York. There were a lot of people from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Peru and a lot of other places who were all very excited to be there. The city was a huge party. People were walking around with beers and music was playing all the time. Whenever Russia won a game we would walk around and cars would be beeping at each other, honking their horns. The atmosphere was really wonderful.

Were you living in an apartment? How did you find housing?

I have family that’s Russian, so I lived in an apartment that was a little bit far from the city center, but like I said the public transport was great. It was a very old, Soviet-era apartment with lots of homeless cats in the basement and there was an older lady, who was basically a concierge, but she just sat in the front of the building making sure no one sketchy came in. We became friends because we both love cats.

Too many cats does not sound like a problem at all.

Absolutely not.

During your internship, did you draw from any SAIS classes in particular?

I did. I took a class called “Nuclear Nonproliferation in the 21st Century” in spring 2018, which was a really fascinating class. The final paper that I wrote was about post-Soviet denuclearization, and one of the articles that I wrote [during my internship]—the first one in my cohort to get published—was on how Kazakhstan could act as a model for North Korean denuclearization. That came right at the time of the Trump-Kim summit, so it got a lot of traction. It got retweeted by the Russian mission to the U.N. and was published in two languages. I want to credit that class because without it I wouldn’t have the technical knowledge or the background. I wouldn’t even have thought of that topic, but it became really popular and I’m proud of that one.

The second article I wrote was about the way that memes have become political messages. I wrote about Brexit and about the 2016 election, comparing the two and how memes have evolved from rick-rolling to hate symbols. That wasn’t really a class, just my teenage years.

How did the internship change or confirm your goals after SAIS?

I really enjoyed my internship a lot. I love the idea of working at a think tank not being a scholar, but giving scholars a platform. But I think the biggest takeaway, for sure, is that I really want to spend significant time abroad. I like traveling. I managed to travel to Estonia when I was there, I managed to travel pretty much all around Russia. I like being in different environments. So I think it definitely confirmed my desire to get out of the United States. See as much of the world as you can while you’re still young and free.