Sarov visit erases Cold War memories

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Sister City > Trip transforms council chair’s view of Russia

By Arin McKenna

According to the Los Alamos Sarov Sister Cities Initiative website, Los Alamos and Sarov, Russia, became Sister Cities in the early 1990s “to promote world peace and understanding through local activities.”


The Sister Cities have many parallels. Russia’s first nuclear bomb was developed in Sarov, and the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics (VNIIEF) is located there. Scientists from LANL and VNIIEF have cooperated on various arms control and nuclear safeguards programs.

Counterparts in both countries have developed a “work plan” for the type of exchanges they hope to promote, which includes culture, art, science, education, business, legal affairs, medicine and civic conduct. The towns also alternate hosting exchange students every other year.

This year, the Sarov municipal government asked Los Alamos to send representatives from the county administration and fire department. Council Chair Geoff Rodgers, County Administrator Harry Burgess, Fire Chief Troy Hughes and Deputy Fire Chief Justin Grider joined LASSCI board member Paul White and translator Tatiana Klimov for the exchange in late October.

Los Alamos County Council Chair Geoff Rodgers called the trip to Sarov an eye-opening experience.

“I’ve traveled. I lived in Europe for four years and traveled to many, many countries, most of which the experience I’ve forgotten. But this one I will not forget.”

For Rodgers, the contrast between present-day Russia and his memories of growing up and serving in the army during the Cold War were especially striking.

“I can still remember the duck-and-cover drills and that kind of thing. I remember all of the videos on TV about how drab and dreary the Russians were, and how they hated Americans and we should be suspicious of them and hate them back.

“I lived in Europe for four years, from ‘84 to ‘88. I was a pilot in the army, and we were there for the sole purpose of repelling the Soviets. I flew along the eastern German border. I had not just second hand experience from TV about what the Soviets and the Russian people were. I had firsthand experience.

“We weren’t in Moscow 30 minutes when all of that was washed away.

“And therein lies the value of the sister city relationship. At a time when our national leaders are suspicious of one another–maybe rightfully so–it is the friendships that are forged in these kind of relationships that I think will keep both countries–potentially the world–on the road to peace, rather than some kind of future confrontation.”

The delegation recovered from the 14 hour flight with two days in Moscow, before boarding an overnight train to Sarov. Rodgers was astounded to find a modern metropolis with every kind of Western boutique, as well as BMW and Mercedes dealers, instead of the drab city he anticipated.

“It’s a very cosmopolitan city. It’s a city that doesn’t sleep. The people were friendly. It is just truly a modern, vibrant city,” Rodgers said.

One of the councilor’s favorite moments came when he said “coffee” and used gestures to indicate the size he wanted, and the server responded with, “Do you want room for cream?”

Rodgers and County Administrator Harry Burgess were both struck by how similar the municipal government was to ours. The city’s 90,000 residents elect 34 representatives to the Duma– or council–by district. The Duma then elects a chair/mayor and two deputy mayors. Those three positions are full time, paid positions, charged with working with the city administrator and staff to oversee the day-to-day operations of the city.

“Much like we have here, the council can chew on things and revisit things and go back and talk again and again over things, but the county administrator and his staff have a standing set of policies that they just continue to make sure the day-to-day operations take place,” Rodgers said.

“So the grindingly slow democratic process, believe it or not, is shared not only by us and other counties and cities in New Mexico and it is also shared by people in Russia as well.”

What struck Rodgers most was “the deep spirituality and religiousness of the Russian people.”

“Going back to the days of the Cold War, growing up, we were taught that Russians were godless,” Rodgers said.
“They are one of the most deeply spiritual people I’ve ever encountered. Even the security detachment that was with us the whole time we were in Sarov, every time we went to a holy site, or a church, they were observant. You could tell that they themselves were true believers and awed to be in some of the sites that we were allowed to go in. And that was something that I just really didn’t expect.”

Rodgers was also impressed by the quality of life in the city. The group visited places such as arts schools, a museum and health and fitness facilities.

“That’s one of the other things that really jumps out at you is just how insanely healthy and athletic the Russian people are. And they pride themselves on it. This image of old, dour people just doesn’t hold true.”

Rodgers noted that over the course of several days he began to understand Russia’s deep cultural roots.

“We joke about the Russian novels being so long. I think I understand why now,” Rodgers said. “When I would say something and it would be interpreted, it didn’t matter who the interpreter was, the Russian was always two to three times longer than what I had said. And I asked one of the interpreters about that, and the response, as best she could describe it to me, was that it is a much more detailed language, a much more in depth language that describes all kinds of things.

“Their language seems to reflect a depth that I for one have never known or appreciated until our trip there.”

The trip not only left a lasting impression about Russia but about the sister city program.

“I’ve always supported the sister city relationship, but I more fully understand it now,” Rodgers said.
“The people who live in Sarov, the people that we encountered, as well as the people who live in Los Alamos–we understand the power that is locked behind our fences.

“But we also understand the power that’s unlocked by not having fences. And that is the true value of a continued exchange between the people of Sarov and the people of Los Alamos.”