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US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday challenged Russians to open up their political system and embrace diversity and dissent, saying Cold War-era thinking would limit their prosperity in the 21st century.
Clinton spoke to university students in Moscow and in Kazan, the capital of Russia's religiously and ethnically diverse republic of Tatarstan. The informal meetings, which wrapped up a five-day tour of Europe, were aimed at helping redefine US-Russia relations.
Clinton appeared taken with oil-rich Tatarstan, where a mosque and church stand side by side inside the Kazan Kremlin. She talked with students about how their republic, with a moderate Muslim majority, could be a model for promoting religious tolerance.
"The level of religious tolerance and interfaith connection, the economic progress, the stability, is very impressive, but it also speaks to how we transfer these lessons," she said.
In Moscow, she stressed to the students that Russia's prosperity was dependent on its willingness to cultivate core freedoms, including the freedom to participate in the political process.
"Citizens must be empowered to help formulate the laws under which they live," she told about 2,000 students at Moscow State University. "They need to know that their investments of time, money and intellectual property will be safeguarded by the institutions of government."
Her message to the students appeared aimed in part at countering the fears of Russia's beleaguered liberal democrats that the US would no longer seek to hold the Kremlin accountable for the rollback of democracy and violations of human rights, in exchange for Russia's cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.
"In an innovative society, people must be free to take unpopular positions, disagree with conventional wisdom, know they are safe to challenge abuses of authority," Clinton said.
"That's why attacks on journalists and human rights defenders here in Russia is such a great concern: because it is a threat to progress," she said, standing in front of the university auditorium's monumental Soviet mosaic topped by a red hammer and sickle.
Clinton told the students that one of the books that most affected her life was "The Brothers Karamazov" by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, in particular the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which she saw as "an object lesson against servitude."
"I believe one of the greatest responsibilities we have as human beings is to open ourselves up to the possibility that we could be wrong," she said. "One of the greatest threats we face is from people who believe they are absolutely, certainly right about everything and they have the only truth and it was passed onto them by God."
Clinton returned to a favorite theme of US President Barack Obama's - the need to move past the Cold War.
"We have people in our government and you have people in your government who are still living in the past," she said. "They do not believe the United States and Russia can cooperate to this extent. They do not trust each other and we have to prove them wrong."
In closing, she expressed hope that Russians and Americans would come to feel like partners.
"I choose partnership and I choose to put aside being a child of the Cold War. I choose to move beyond the rhetoric and the propaganda that came from my government and yours," she said, telling them: "That's a choice every one of us can make every single day."
The students responded with polite applause.
The US is seeking Russia's support for tough new sanctions if Iran fails to prove its nuclear program is peaceful. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dealt Clinton a setback Tuesday, saying Moscow believed such threats were "counterproductive" and that only negotiations should be pursued now.
In an interview that aired Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Clinton insisted she was still "very pleased by how supportive the Russians have been."
"I believe if sanctions become necessary, we will have support from Russia," she said.
Prior to the meeting with students, Clinton attended the unveiling of a statue of the American poet Walt Whitman on the university's campus.
In Kazan, Clinton was met at the airport by Tatarstan's longtime leader, Mintimer Shaimiyev, who took her on a tour of the Kazan Kremlin, including its Kul Sharif Mosque and Annunciation Cathedral.
"You are well known as someone who has fostered religious tolerance," she told Tatarstan's president. "It really is a wonderful example of what can be done if people work together."
Clinton returns to Washington late Wednesday.