In late September 2016, Joss Meakins (MARS-REERS ’17), a University Consortium (UC) Fellow, traveled to Moscow’s Higher School of Economics for UC’s annual two-day conference about Euro-Atlantic relations in the post-Cold-War era and beyond. The UC, which launched last year thanks to a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, is a partnership between six leading institutions in North America, Europe, and Russia, that promotes training, research, engagement and policy outreach on Euro-Atlantic issues critical to addressing the crisis in Russia-West relations. Meakins looked forward to the opportunity to meet with Russian faculty and students, but he also wondered just how productive the experience would be. “It’s very difficult to know how to engage a country that doesn’t want to engage,” he told me.
During the conference Meakins did encounter what he describes as “bellicose rhetoric from both students and professors on the Russian side.” In spite of this, he found the event to be quite valuable. “There was actually much more to engage on with my young counterparts than I expected,” he told me, recalling, in particular, a lunch hour he shared with a Russian student. At first, the student told Meakins that it would be impossible to improve relations between Russia and the West. “By the end of our lunch, I had convinced him that it would be possible but difficult.”
Meakins, who hails from the United Kingdom, became interested in Russia at age fourteen. His interest was piqued by a Russian language teacher who had grown up in a closed Soviet military city with a colonel for a father. She spent the first lesson telling her students how she’d learned to fire Kalashnikovs and grenades during adolescence. “I thought, this is quite unusual, I want to continue with this,” recalls Meakins.
Meakins continued to study Russia as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and spent his junior year in Moscow interning at the auditing firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC). Just two months after he arrived, in the fall of 2013, protests against the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych broke out in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). It was exciting to be in Moscow as the Ukraine Crisis unfolded, but, after Russia invaded Crimea in March 2014, it became the only topic anyone wanted to discuss. “It very quickly brought home just how easily this Cold War mentality could come back, and made me wonder whether it had ever been eradicated in the first place,” said Meakins.
Back at Cambridge, Meakins took a course on Ukraine and started writing about the Ukrainian Crisis for outlets like the Kyiv Post and the Euromaidan Press. “I became more and more interested in the attempt to transition, and post-Soviet transitions in general,” he said. He decided to go straight to graduate school, and, due to the overwhelmingly theoretical nature of academic work in the UK, elected to pursue his studies in the U.S. He started his Master’s at the Harriman Institute in the fall of 2015, and was surprised by how intimately his professors engaged with the world beyond academia. “They’re publishing all the time, they’re cited in the New York Times, they have much more of a media presence than I was expecting,” he said.
After taking a course on strategic balance in the Baltics, Meakins became interested in NATO and the spread of democracy. Last summer he received a Harriman PepsiCo Research Travel Fellowship to enroll in a course on security studies and the history of politics of Central Europe, which took place during the NATO summit in Warsaw. “We focused on the history of the region and how the summit might change the politics on the ground,” said Meakins, who was able to attend various events connected to the summit as part of his coursework.
Currently Meakins is writing his MARS thesis about the influence of Russian security services over Russian politics. After graduation he plans to pursue a career in think tanks or academia.