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Sanibel Law Professors Award Scholarships to Russian Legal Students

Wendy Humphrey
Sidney and Jane Picker with Russian Law students Guzel Sakaeva and Egor Federov

The new administration may change relations between Russia and the United States and hasten the need for Russia to adapt its legal system to global realities.  Two Sanibel law professors have been helping Russia do exactly that. It began 25 years ago with Jane and Sidney Picker’s quest to help Russian law students understand U.S. rule of law by awarding them full scholarships to study in the U.S. Now, this year’s students are spending the holidays with them on Sanibel.

The Pickers said they realized it was to each country’s benefit to understand each other’s legal system when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992.  

“When there was the Soviet Union and the Cold War, there was very little legal interaction between the East and West,” said Sidney Picker.

“The two systems never touched each other; there was a rivalry, but no interaction. Once the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia would begin to interact in every respect with the rest of the world: financially, commercially, in trade terms, in cultural terms, intellectual property terms.”

So the Pickers raised money for Russian law graduates to attend American universities to learn about common legal systems in America. The aim is to help them understand how things actually function here.

“Our objective isn’t to have them know U.S. law as much as to get some sense of what a rule of law legal culture is like in operation,” said Sidney Picker. 

Having worked and traveled extensively in Russia, the Pickers understood the need for Russian law students to comprehend areas of law totally absent under communism and the cold war.

“In Soviet times, there was no need for insurance because everything belonged to the state,” said Picker. “Now that socialism is gone, insurance becomes a significant area of law and part of the objective is that the student acquires an awareness of an area of law that is going to be developing in Russia.”

Russian student GuzelSakaeva said she believes the implications go right to the heart of the legislative process.

Russian Law Students Egor Federov and Guzel Sakaeva
Credit Wendy Humphrey

“If the legislature has to decide some new questions and if they have people who have (an) international experience they will copy the experience they already have learned,” said Sakaeva. “For example, our president signed the first, second and third part of our new civil code and the most part of the group who work on this code they study in Germany so they copy some decisions and they insert it into the new Russian code.”

Exposure to the transparency and fairness of the American rule of law may also eventually influence Russian judges. Student EgorFederov said what surprised him most was the detailed analysis that explained why a judge ruled the way he or she did.

“Here it’s not only the legal analysis that is used for the judgment but a lot of social analysis that is important economic analysis as well and I think that is great about the judgments here,” said Federov. “That is completely different from the Russian federation well, from any civil law country. The only thing they use there is he application of legal rules.” 

The Pickers have now awarded scholarships for 91 Russian students. Initially, they raised funds through university partnership agreements funded by the United States Information Agency. Sixteen years ago those funds disappeared so they set up the non-profit Russian United States Legal Foundation or RUSLEF. They’re President and Vice President of the seven-member board and receive no salary or reimbursement for expenses.

Six U.S. universities provide tuition.  The Pickers believe that’s because of the quality of the Russian students in the program.

“In a classroom where the Socratic method of questions and answers used in the American legal education, it’s difficult for foreigners, often, to adapt to that; but not for Russians, they take to it instantly,” Sidney Picker said.

“The Russians are the ones who are out there dominating the classroom discussions,” said Jane Picker.  “The teachers love them. There’s nothing like standing in front of a classroom and looking at all these students who don’t respond, but the Russian kids always do.”

RUSLEF awarded six students full scholarships this year. That’s important to GuzelSakaeva because she said she cannot work.

“In America it’s forbidden to work and that’s a very conscious decision because it makes the student concentrate on studying,” said Sakaeva.

RUSLEF is now the only U.S. foundation that offers scholarships to Russian legal students. The number offered each year is entirely dependent upon the generosity of donors who are, for the most part private people across the political spectrum and former students who have returned to Russia.  

Asked about the possibility of increased funding for Russian legal students in the U.S under the new Trump administration, Sidney Picker said they will just have to wait and see.