Mark Lanning has a resume to envy. He’s earning a Masters at Princeton in Public and International Affairs and has served internships with Colin Powell, the Carnegie Foundation, and Chevron-Texaco. To boot, he knows a handful of languages including Russian, German, and now some Chinese. He took some time to talk with us about internships and his experience at MGU and with SRAS.
SRAS: I know that your interests are global, but when and why did you first become interested in Russia?
Mark: I grew up in the twilight of the Cold War. I remember fearing nuclear holocaust and crying over U.S. Olympic losses to the Soviets. The Soviet Union was always this grand mystery. As Russia began to open up I developed even more interest and took a Russian history class as an undergrad. While working at the State Department I spoke with Russian experts and realized I had to learn the language and live in the country in order to really understand Russia and its future.
SRAS: You worked at the State Department? What did you do for them?
Mark: During the summer of 2002, I worked as an intern on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s travel and logistical staff, called “the Line” by State Department people. We handled the Secretary’s traveling schedule (which is diverse and hectic as you might imagine) and his paper load (which is also enormous). While not the most intellectually stimulating job, the atmosphere and pace was what kept me interested. I also worked with the State Department’s elite Foreign Service officers who worked with the Secretary. I got the chance to meet Secretary Powell at a party once and came away from the internship inspired by his work ethic, genius and humility.
SRAS: You must have come to same conclusion about “learning the language” about many other languages, as we know that you already know a handful. What advice would offer about how to learn a language?
Mark: Learning languages is not like physics or economics; it is performance, not science. There are two important rules: 1) learn to just speak! (don’t think so much) and 2) “the native speaker is always right.” My Russian language teacher always said: ошибки — путь успехов (mistakes are the path of success). I’ve also found that technology can help us learn better. I recommend beginners to read short, interesting texts off the Internet (for example news websites) and for the more advanced to use the Lingvo electronic dictionaries. Learning a language is a very humbling and mind-altering experience. The best approach is to imitate the child: never be afraid to speak, make a million mistakes and watch very closely how others around you talk.
SRAS: What about the language courses at MGU? Would you recommend those?
Mark: The language program I was in was just for foreigners and included less serious (but helpful) aspects such as singing, performances, and excursions to museums and historical cities. It was very well run, especially for a state university with a… well… state budget. Irina Yatsenko, my Russian language professor was great! She was very professional and loved to get the students to see different parts of Russia.
SRAS: And your other studies at MGU, how were those?
Mark: I studied at the History Faculty, as a visiting scholar, taking three year-long courses: “History of Russia from Kievan Rus’ to 19th Century,” “Twentieth Century Russian History” (taught by Prof. Alexander Dovin one of the most famous Russian professors for ethnic history in Russia) and Russian language classes. The classes were similar to U.S. programs in history. There were lectures once a week with a seminar/discussion period another time once a week. I was very impressed with the levels of the professors and the demanding coursework they expected of their students. I had a “dozent” (assistant professor) named Alexander Laushkin who challenged me in my survey history course; he was a favorite.
SRAS: We know that you also served an internship in Tashkent. Did you encounter any particular challenges or successes while there?
Mark: Working in Tashkent was a new experience in many ways for me. It was the first time I had lived in 1) a dictatorial state, 2) a Muslim country and 3) a country where power outages and water safety were salient concerns (shows you the sheltered life I had lived previously!). Mostly, I was working on issues related to youth (drugs, health, education, etc.) but one big success from the internship I’ll always remember was when my colleague and I helped get a human rights activist freed from prison through our assertiveness and connections with the U.S. Embassy. I remember how happy the activist was when he left the prison gates safely in the embrace of his wife and family.
SRAS: You’ve also served a number of internships while in Moscow. How do you find (and land) them all?
Mark: I came to Moscow with a job lined up at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank associated with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. I worked on issues of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Russia. Nice colleagues from Carnegie helped land me an internship at CBS News where I helped cover issues ranging from U.S. troops in Uzbekistan, to the space launching of a U.S. astronaut to art and architecture. This led to another internship at ChevronTexaco in Moscow in their business development section researching future business investments for them. As in most countries in the world, jobs come best when you know people who can give you information and make well-placed calls.
SRAS: Of course, who you know is important. But I also have to ask: how have you financed all this?
Mark: I’m a Thomas R. Pickering Fellow, meaning the U.S. State Department pays for undergraduate and graduate schooling and in return I am committed to serve 5 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. In addition, my time in Russia was paid through the Department of Defense’s National Security Education Program Fellowship (NSEP), which gave me $20,000 for the year abroad. I tried to use this money for both tuition and living expenses and for travel, which I consider to be just as important of a learning experience.
SRAS: Here perhaps one should mention that that logic is one reason why SRAS offers travel-study in its repertoire of programs. But advertisements aside, what do you plan to do after your stint in the Foreign Service?
Mark: Good question! I might like to stay in the Foreign Service and become Ambassador to Russia! However, I am also interested in high-tech electronic production, particularly from Asia. I have considered working for a corporation or start-up dealing with the international trade of such products.
I am currently researching the economic relations between the Russia and rest of the East Asia peninsula (Japan, North and South Korea, and China). This is a fascinating corner of the world in terms of the economic, political and security interests of the United States, particularly in the area of energy production. Within this rubric, I’m interested in how Russia’s East Siberia will be developed (perhaps with Chinese or Japanese help) and what the future of Sino-Russian relations will be, given the political changes that have occurred since their heyday after WWII.
SRAS: We certainly wish you luck in the future. Any advice you would offer to students looking to Russia for opportunity?
Mark: Russia is an amazing and diverse country that is difficult to quickly understand. Russians are a very proud, talented and educated people. The Russian mentality is similar to the U.S. in its broad, global perspective. These characteristics mean Russia will always be important in terms of political, economic, scientific and military affairs, not to mention its rich tradition of grand literature and unsurpassed music and theatre. The particular areas I find the most fascinating are the metal and energy sectors, possibilities for outsourcing, transitions to capitalism and democracy and Russia’s overall role as the leader of the former Soviet world. The world’s largest country with an incredibly large «запас» of resources will always be important to understand.