The Birmingham News (Birmingham, AL)
Posted on September 15, 2004
By Marienne Thomas-Ogle and Jeremy Gray
They're here to study the American political process, but eight Russian delegates visiting the Birmingham area this week seem just as interested in the American way of life.
The first-time visitors arrived in Atlanta Thursday and are touring Birmingham, Hoover and Helena as part of a week-long cultural exchange program focusing on government at the federal, state, county and municipal levels.
Tuesday, they ate breakfast with the Helena Kiwanis Club, toured Helena City Hall and Old Town Helena, visited The Birmingham News and dropped by a Hoover polling place. They planned to attend a victory celebration Tuesday night for the new Hoover mayor-elect.
Affiliated with Russian political, civic or economic agencies, the group members are meeting with their American governmental counterparts. But some members said they are also taken with the personal side of the host country.
"The different ways people live their lives are so numerous, you can't count them - from church services to the everyday lives in the home to the way they work," said Eugeny Zhuravlev, 29, a department head for the Kaluga City Duma,
its legislative body.
One difference is the involvement of private citizens in American government, Zhuravlev said. "Most important and positive is the role nongovernment organizations and nonprofit organizations play," he said. "We can learn a lot from how Americans are actively involved in the civic process and the democratic process."
Aleksandr Vorobyev, 31, a transport and communications specialist with the Tula Region Leninskly Municipal District Administration, agreed with Zhuravlev's views on the personal and political habits of Americans.
"Americans are workaholics; that you can discern right away," he said. "That doesn't mean Russians are bad workers, just different. We're also good workers."
Vorobyev said America's work obsession has its good and bad points. "Americans are often able to achieve more. But, in my opinion, they are sort of isolated from the rest of their world because they're too busy dealing with problems."
Both men said they believed American democracy could be more representative. Zhuravlev said greater representation could be achieved by scrapping the electoral college and electing the president by popular vote.
In Russia, Vorobyev said, non-governmental agencies have the right to introduce articles of legislation. By having only elected legislators introduce legislation, Americans often are excluded from the lawmaking process, he contended.
Zhuravlev said his visit to the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta opened his eyes to the difference in work style between the two countries.
"I work in a similar state agency building, but during the work day it is like a beehive," he said. "In the Georgia Capitol building, I first thought it was a museum because everyone was in their offices working."
Both delegates said that while their tour of Alabama agencies has afforded them interaction with government and business officials, they miss access to "ordinary people" like their host families.
"In Atlanta, we went to a bar to talk to people and have a good time, and are going to Pub 261 [in Pelham] tonight to strike up conversations with patrons there," Vorobyev said. "My impression is that Russians and Americans have a lot in common."
Zhuravlev said he believes citizens of the two countries should meet more often.
"Within the last years Russia has done a lot of building of democracy, but America has more experience in this area," he said. "We have a lot to learn from America."
[Reprinted with Permission]