Russians are coming
A leadership exchange program gives foreign legislators a taste of the American dream
A trio of Russians made its way through Sacramento, scavenging for state secrets. Government officials here, rather than stopping them in their tracks, were collaborating, acquainting them with the secret of America’s success—democracy—as well as a lovely bag of Central Valley swag.
The Russians, in a program sponsored by the Library of Congress’ “Open World” leadership program and the Sacramento Council for International Visitors, were learning everything they could about how democracies work, specifically the American recipe for federalism. The delegation included three businessmen who also serve as their equivalent of our state legislators: Sergey Gennadyevich Dudin, the deputy director of Pervonmaiskiy Commercial Bank; Igor Kharitonovich Tsogoyev, the manager of Regional Development Bank; and Vyacheslav (Slava) Petrovich Vorontsov, general director of Ples LLC, a chemical wholesaler and retailer. Anna Aleksandrovna Yevstropova, from the Moscow representative office of KPMG Limited, served as their interpreter, and John Lewis, publisher of a Sacramento-based Russian-language magazine (Infoguide) acted as a local escort and occasional interpreter.
During their nine-day trip, the Russians met with the mayor as well as a variety of state and county election and legislative officials. They received overviews of California’s legislative process and the relationship between federal, state and local governments; the role of the legislative counsel’s office; the role played by campaign consultants during elections; and the interesting electoral process here in California. Also discussed: techniques for a good barbecue.
One day, they met Yolo County Supervisor Lynnel Pollock and watched the board of supervisors at work. Learning how Yolo County, one of California’s poorest and mostly agricultural counties, functions was instructive to legislators from similarly cash-strapped Russian republics.
The Russians politely but urgently fired off questions: Are you part of the state? What are your sources of funding? When there are excesses in crops, does the state buy the crops to keep the prices up? Do you provide assistance to private business start ups? What are the problems in the county? When you run for re-election, what issues will you run on? Drugs and juvenile delinquency are not big issues you need to address?
The visit underscored the irony that immigrants often are more interested in our history and in how our government works than we Americans are. When we talk about government, Americans often use Soviet-style language to describe colorless bureaucrats. But for the Russians, state government is dynamic and powerful stuff.
Dudin told the supervisors, “We are very excited to learn about your government, meet your elected officials and just observe. Although Russia is a country with a very rich past, our democracy is young, and we’re here as students. I would like for you and us to help construct a better world. All the problems your country is facing are also problems for Russia. Maybe we can learn something from your experience.”
The Russians were particularly impressed with our emphasis on freedom of speech and open government. “The best example of this is your free access to all the government buildings. You don’t need to show your ID, and they don’t search you. You can basically find any person you want right away. In Russia, a person would never be able to walk up to the mayor of a city, even if he had a prior appointment,” said Dudin.
Another surprise was America’s tendency to super-size. “Everything is so big here,” Dudin said. “For example, the sandwiches are huge, and you are never able to finish it.”
For Vorontsov, America’s economics were a revelation. “I was surprised how easy it is to get credit here, that almost every person can qualify to get a car or a home. This is not the case in Russia. It is very, very different, and this is something we were pleasantly surprised to see.”
“A very important thing we need to bring to Russia, which is already being established, is that those people who run the county and the city are all elected. There are no appointed positions,” said Tsogoyev. “In Russia, it used to be the case that people who were appointed were dependent on those who appointed them and not on the people who voted for them.”
The Russian people want the higher standard of living that capitalism brings, but what about democracy?
“We started to have participatory democracy during Gorbachev’s years, but that didn’t lead anywhere,” said Tsogoyev. “People were ready to participate in all the meetings and assemblies, but they did not get the results that they wanted. So, right now, that explains the popularity of our President Putin. They see you can receive all the economic benefits, [and] at the same time, you can have a very strict leader who can bring order to the streets, to the lives of people. The people will support a strong leader unanimously without any participatory democracy, as long as this leader brings prosperity to everybody.”
Still, Russian politicians, like elected officials everywhere, are always eyeing that next election.
“The only slogan any candidate can have is, ‘For the good of all the people,’” insisted Dudin, who’s not a fan of mottos or campaign slogans.
Vorontsov, on the other hand, is sound-bite-ready: “My slogan is, ‘Burn within yourself, inflame others and be ahead of others.’”
When not specifically learning about the democratic process, the visitors also got a crash course in all things Northern Californian. They toured Old Sacramento, Sutter’s Fort, The Woodland Opera House and the state Capitol building. They saw Lodi wineries, Lake Tahoe and San Francisco.
Although the Russians knew next to nothing about Northern California when they arrived, when it was mentioned that Russian fur trappers were among the first to settle in this area, Dudin joked, “Of course. Russians were the first in everything.”
As they departed, their suitcases bulged with souvenirs. From Yolo County, they each got a small burlap bag with a tractor on it that contained, among other things, a Bogle Vineyards merlot, a Davis Hardware bottle opener and a Sacramento River Cats foam finger.
But the Russians were discouraged when it came to shopping for one American icon: blue jeans. “We looked at the jeans and figured out that we could get the same [at home], and this label is made in China,” said Dudin. “I would like to get a cowboy hat. That’s an American souvenir.”