Russian journalism professionals tour North County

NORTH COUNTY — A group of Russian media professionals representing various news outlets and universities is flying home on Saturday morning having spent a week touring the Central Coast on an educational visit.

Members of the group, which included five journalists, a Russian facilitator, and an interpreter stayed with hosts from the Paso Robles and Atascadero chapters of Rotary International.

Bob Fundero, the Paso Robles Rotary’s president elect-nominee served as the local facilitator overseeing a packed itinerary starting with Hearst Castle on Oct. 28 and concluding with a tour of the Cal Poly Journalism Department and the student-run television and radio facilities on Nov. 2.

In between, they stopped at as many forms of local media outlet as could be fit in the schedule, met with the district representative for Congressman Salud Carbajal’s office and with civic leaders, making presentations at two Rotary Club meetings, as well as some cultural enrichment breaks and time to embrace the warm weather fashion of California for a contrast to home this time of year.

For instance, after touring San Miguel Mission the day before, and leaving the noon to 2 p.m. meeting of the Atascadero Rotary on Oct. 31, the group set out for Re:Find Distillery where they learned how locals are making vodka out of wine grapes.

“We took part in the program 10 years ago and were asked if we could facilitate again this year,” explained Fundero. “My job is to make sure that it’s not just a sightseeing tour but that when they get on the plane to leave they’ll be thinking about what an interesting trip it was.”

The five journalists — Konstantin Aleksandrovich Alekseyev, Yevgeniy Sergeyevich Belyanchikov, Yelena Yuryevna Burdovskaya, Yevgeniya Aleksandrovna Potekhina, and Nataliya Vladimirovna Poplavskaya — represent different regions (although readers will be most familiar with the landmarks of St. Petersburg and Moscow) and disciplines and the majority have gone beyond daily reporting to teaching the next generation at the university level.

All went through an extensive selection process for the opportunity to take part in the trip, sponsored by the Open World Leadership Center, an independent agency of the U.S. Congress.

That doesn’t mean they were all new to the role of cultural ambassadors.

Poplavskaya, deputy dean for international relations at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in Moscow, told the Atascadero Rotarians on Wednesday that a popular in-joke at the school is that it serves as a mini-United Nations, hosting students whose home countries may even be in armed conflict with one another.

“The school,” she said, “proves that the way to find solutions and build bridges and create bridges is for us to sit down together like this.”

Sentiments shared by the group when a member of the audience asked what had been a surprisingly similar feature of life they’d found on their trip.

“Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprising after all, people are very much similar. We’re humans all over the world sharing similar values and aspirations.” 

The Open World program is designed to provide some of those experiences, not just between the U.S. and Russia or in the field of journalism, although the timing is interesting to explore those cultural differences and similarities. Since 1999, non-profit and educational institutions have been awarded grants in partnership with local civic organizations to host trips for professionals in varied disciplines from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Estonia, Kosovo, Moldova, Mongolia, Serbia, and Ukraine in addition to Russia.

The visitors did not shy away from discussion of freedom of speech or thought in the press, noting that while print media has some of the same challenges facing it in the U.S. to remain profitable in the Internet age, print is broadly seen as a more trusted news source in Russia.

An interesting take given in conversation after the group presentation was on what freedom of the press means to them when roughly 50 percent of Russian media is state-owned, i.e. journalists are free to tackle any subject they wish, so long as they’re taking a side in the debate on an issue. Although the current generation of journalism students is being given access to a more objective tone, publications represented focus more on giving people news they can use and avoiding direct controversy.

After the meeting Atascadero Rotary president Don Idler said he found the optimism and outlook of the group refreshing, admiring their genuine appreciation for communication.

More information about Open World is available online at

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