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Shooting water guns and playing tennis Wednesday afternoon at Urban Park, these kids seemed as American as any Los Alamos High School students.
Yet, the dozen or so teens were more than 7,000 miles from home.
Los Alamos has long held ties with its sister city Sarov, Russia – sometimes as competitors and often as friends.
The two cities have been comparable since the 1940s, when both were established to the development of their respective countries’ nuclear capacities. Sarov’s All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics tested its first atomic bomb just four years after the Trinity tests, and both cities continue to excel in the field.
However, the Los Alamos Sarov Sister Cities Initiative, which brought the Russian students to Los Alamos this summer, is not about bombs at all. Rather, it hopes to foster a positive, mutually beneficial relationship between the two “secret cities.”
“We are trying to expand our relationship,” said Olga Mayorova, one of the group’s leaders, who has traveled to the Hill a number of times through the Open World Program, of which the Sister City Initiative is a part. “I have been taking part in the Sister City Initiative for four years, and we have succeeded.”
She said the program still has much to look forward to, including not only many more student exchanges, which have been underway since 1994, but a trip for Los Alamos businesspeople to Sarov in September and for Sarov librarians to Los Alamos later that same month.
Mayorova said each of her visits to Los Alamos has strengthened her positive impression of the county.
“I have had only good experiences … and made lots of friends,” she said. “I’m sure there is nothing else in the world like this … I’m sure our children will never forget this visit.”
Tatiana Satyukova, an English teacher traveling with her 14-year-old daughter, Anastasia, agreed. “They will have much to share when they come back to Russia.”
Anastasia said she found some aspects of American culture surprising, especially the large houses and the number of cars a single family might drive. She also hadn’t expected U.S. cities to be so clean, she said.
Of the group’s rapid fire tour of the state, which included trips off the Hill to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Bandelier, White Sands and Carlsbad, among other stops, she said she most enjoyed seeing a bat colony fly out of Carlsbad Caverns – a sentiment echoed by nearly every other visiting Russian student.
Overall, she said, “I like the people. I like the mountains very much … Sarov and Los Alamos have so much in common, I feel like I’m at home.”
George Tolushkin, 16, said his host family, the Barkers, has been “very kind” and have helped him work on his English by speaking slowly. He is also spending part of his time with the Ketterings, who invited him after getting to know his mother a few years ago through another exchange.
“His mother is a really nice person,” said Brett Kettering. “And she taught us to cook genuine Russian borsht.”
Tolushkin’s mother and father are both electrical engineers. When asked what careers interested him, he said, “I like science, of course. I would want to work at the national lab, and speaking English will help me very much. I’ll be able to communicate with scientists from other countries.”
Many of the Russian students expressed satisfaction – in English – with their first trip outside of their home country.
Seventeen-year-old Oxana Doroganova said she had met a lot of new friends in Los Alamos during the first week-and-a-half of the group’s two-week stay. She said she hopes to stay in touch with them through e-mail after she goes home.
Nadya Grachyova, 17, added that although people “live better” in the United States than in Russia, people seemed essentially the same – “They still like to get together and communicate,” she said.
Irina Ratkevich, 17, appreciated the scope of attractions the group had gotten to see.
“We saw atomic bombs. We saw a lot of bats,” she said. “I’ve had a very, very good time. It’s wonderful.”
It was wonderful for local families, as well. IRINA’s host mother, Lynn Zollinger, said she likes getting to know the Russian students in part because “it’s good for my kids.”
Zollinger and her husband adopted three girls from the Ukraine in 2004, Vicka, Tanya and Anna, who are now 20, 17 and 16 years old, respectively.
“The girls like it because it gives them a chance to use their Russian,” Zollinger said, adding that her son Ian has also latched onto the program, and even went to Sarov last year for a summer camp.
Fourteen-year-old Emily Tencate went, too,
“I had a really good time,” she said. While she said she would recommend other students visit through the exchange program as well, she warned that Sarov is still a closed city.
“Security guards boarded our bus to check our identification cards,” she said. “At the hotel, they took away our cameras, phones – all our electronic equipment. And we walked around the city with an official.”
A few guests at Wednesday’s picnic were not involved with the Los Alamos Sarov Sister City Initiative, but they share the exchange program’s goals.
Lori Heimdahl Gibson, one of the organizers of JUNTOS (Joining & Understanding Now, Teens Overcome Separation), attended Urban Park with JUNTOS members Maneesha Chitanvis and Kayla Arnone.
“JUNTOS is about bringing people together,” she said. “It’s the same goal (as the Sister City Initiative). We hope that next year, we can even send a couple of JUNTOS members to Russia.”
Those interested in going to Sarov in 2009 may call Lawry Mann (662-4590), Lynn Zollinger (661-8263) or Bob Thomsen (662-4409). Access the initiative online at www.losalamossarov.org.