In more than just miles, Hannibal is a long, long way from Tula, Russia. Thanks to the U.S./Russia Peer-to-Peer Dialogue Program, the cultural gap between high school students in the two communities will be bridged in 2016.

In more than just miles, Hannibal is a long, long way from Tula, Russia. Thanks to the U.S./Russia Peer-to-Peer Dialogue Program, the cultural gap between high school students in the two communities will be bridged in 2016.

“This program is a cultural exchange between teenagers of Hannibal, USA, and Tula, Russia, aimed at building cross-cultural awareness, knowledge and understanding of Russian and American literary heritage,” said Susan Johnson, superintendent of the Hannibal public school district.

Henry Sweets, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, cites the cultural and literary learning opportunities the program will offer.

“The Peer-to-Peer Dialogue Program is a great opportunity for local students to gain exposure to a different culture through literature. Not only will this involve in-depth study of a foreign author, Leo Tolstoy, but includes travel to Russia to visit sites that inspired him. Likewise, the Russian students will travel to Hannibal to see firsthand the sites that inspired Mark Twain. This will be augmented by discussions between the students and their counterparts and meeting local experts on the writers,” he said, explaining the museum’s role in the program will include helping provide background information on Twain, organizing field trips to the area Twain sites, and bringing in other authorities as needed.

“Many Russians have an affinity for Mark Twain and his writings. Many of Twain’s books have been in print in Russia for decades and he remains widely read,” added Sweets. “This exchange is based on the knowledge that Tolstoy in his writings approached problems of childhood as Twain did. So a comparison of the two writers will prove an interesting learning experience for all involved.”

HHS Principal Ted Sampson says the trip to Russia could change a Hannibal student’s global perspective.

“The opportunity for students to personally experience the culture of a foreign country is difficult to duplicate,” he said. “I firmly believe any individual who has traveled to a foreign country has the ability to have a different outlook on the world after the experience. I am excited that a group of students from HHS will have this opportunity.”

An invitation to participate in the program was extended earlier this year.

“I was contacted by Henry Sweets, Mark Twain Museum, and Youlya Vronskaya (of the Leo Tolstoy Heritage Fund) from Russia to see if our school district would be interested in collaborating and writing for this grant,” said Johnson, noting that the invitation was extended to HHS students because of Hannibal’s connection to Mark Twain. “I felt that this would be an awesome opportunity to expose our students to another culture while learning to appreciate literary scholars like Mark Twain from other parts of the world.”

According to Johnson, work on the grant application started at the end of last school year. The application, which requested $86,610, was approved by the Board of Education at its June 17 meeting. At the October school board meeting it was announced that $90,144 had been approved.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Johnson of receiving more than was requested. “But a venture like this is costly and travel costs are unpredictable.

“Most of the money will go toward travel and expenses with also some money allotted for supplies. At this time, the only costs not covered by the grant would be money needed for passports.”

Up to 10 Hannibal students will be eligible to make the week-long trip next summer to Tula, a city of just over 500,000 people that’s located approximately 120 miles south of Moscow on the Upa River. A comparable number of Russian students will travel to Hannibal next year.

Student participation criteria has yet to be finalized.

“We have several ideas on how to select students,” said Sampson. “We are looking at some of the extracurricular clubs at HHS to see which ones have a focus that relates to this wonderful opportunity.”

A number of details pertaining to the program have yet to be finalized.

“We are early in the process, and have a few meetings coming up that should help clear up many details,” said Sampson.

“Details are being worked out to prepare for the execution of this grant,” added Johnson. “Youlya Vronskaya is planning a trip in late November and/or December to work out the details.”

Reach reporter Danny Henley at danny.henley@courierpost.com