Obama’s speech on U.S.-Russia relations

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Text of President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday at the New Economic School graduation in Moscow, as provided by the White House:

Thank you so much. Well, congratulations, Oxana. And to the entire Class of 2009, congratulations to you. I don’t know if anybody else will meet their future wife or husband in class like I did, but I’m sure that you’re all going to have wonderful careers.

I want to acknowledge a few people who are here. We have President Mikhail Gorbachev is here today, and I want everybody to give him a big round of applause. I want to thank Sergei Gurief, Director of the New Economic School. Max Boiko, their Chairman of the Board. And Arkady Dvorkovich, who is the NES board member, President of the Alumni Association and is doing an excellent job for President Medvedev, because he was in our meeting yesterday.

Good morning. It is a great honor for me to join you at the New Economic School. Michelle and I are so pleased to be in Moscow. And as somebody who was born in Hawaii, I’m glad to be here in July instead of January.

I know that NES is a young school, but I speak to you today with deep respect for Russia’s timeless heritage. Russian writers have helped us understand the complexity of the human experience and recognize eternal truths. Russian painters, composers and dancers have introduced us to new forms of beauty. Russian scientists have cured disease, sought new frontiers of progress and helped us go to space.

These are contributions that are not contained by Russia’s borders, as vast as those borders are. Indeed, Russia’s heritage has touched every corner of the world, and speaks to the humanity that we share. That includes my own country, which has been blessed with Russian immigrants for decades; we’ve been enriched by Russian culture, and enhanced by Russian cooperation. And as a resident of Washington, D.C., I continue to benefit from the contributions of Russians — specifically, from Alexander Ovechkin. We’re very pleased to have him in Washington, D.C.

Here at NES, you have inherited this great cultural legacy, but your focus on economics is no less fundamental to the future of humanity. As Pushkin said, “Inspiration is needed in geometry just as much as poetry.” And today, I want particularly to speak to those of you preparing to graduate. You’re poised to be leaders in academia and industry; in finance and government. But before you move forward, it’s worth reflecting on what has already taken place during your young lives.

Like President Medvedev and myself, you’re not old enough to have witnessed the darkest hours of the Cold War, when hydrogen bombs were tested in the atmosphere, and children drilled in fallout shelters, and we reached the brink of nuclear catastrophe. But you are the last generation born when the world was divided. At that time, the American and Soviet armies were still massed in Europe, trained and ready to fight. The ideological trenches of the last century were roughly in place. Competition in everything from astrophysics to athletics was treated as a zero-sum game. If one person won, then the other person had to lose.

And then, within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Now, make no mistake: This change did not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful.

With the end of the Cold War, there were extraordinary expectations — for peace and for prosperity; for new arrangements among nations, and new opportunities for individuals. Like all periods of great change, it was a time of ambitious plans and endless possibilities. But, of course, things don’t always work out exactly as planned. Back in 1993, shortly after this school opened, one NES student summed up the difficulty of change when he told a reporter, and I quote him: “The real world is not so rational as on paper.” The real world is not so rational as on paper.

Over two tumultuous decades, that truth has been borne out around the world. Great wealth has been created, but it has not eliminated vast pockets of crushing poverty. Poverty exists here, it exists in the United States, and it exists all around the world. More people have gone to the ballot box, but too many governments still fail to protect the rights of their people. Ideological struggles have diminished, but they’ve been replaced by conflicts over tribe and ethnicity and religion. A human being with a computer can hold the same amount of information stored in the Russian State Library, but that technology can also be used to do great harm.

In a new Russia, the disappearance of old political and economic restrictions after the end of the Soviet Union brought both opportunity and hardship. A few prospered, but many more did not. There were tough times. But the Russian people showed strength and made sacrifices, and you achieved hard-earned progress through a growing economy and greater confidence. And despite painful times, many in Eastern Europe and Russia are much better off today than 20 years ago.

We see that progress here at NES — a school founded with Western support that is now distinctly Russian; a place of learning and inquiry where the test of an idea is not whether it is Russian or American or European, but whether it works. Above all, we see that progress in all of you — young people with a young century to shape as you see fit.

Your lifetime coincides with this era of transition. But think about the fundamental questions asked when this school was founded. What kind of future is Russia going to have? What kind of future are Russia and America going to have together? What world order will replace the Cold War? Those questions still don’t have clear answers, and so now they must be answered by you — by your generation in Russia, in America, and around the world. You get to decide. And while I cannot answer those questions for you, I can speak plainly about the future that America is seeking.

To begin with, let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia. This belief is rooted in our respect for the Russian people, and a shared history between our nations that goes beyond competition. Despite our past rivalry, our people were allies in the greatest struggle of the last century. Recently, I noted this when I was in Normandy — for just as men from Boston and Birmingham risked all that they had to storm those beaches and scale those cliffs, Soviet soldiers from places like Kazan and Kiev endured unimaginable hardships to repeal — to repel an invasion, and turn the tide in the east. As President John Kennedy said, “No nation in history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War.”

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