Finding the correlations between Sarov, LA

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County > Delegation finds similarities between countries

By Arin McKenna

When Los Alamos County Administrator Harry Burgess was asked to contrast our governance with that of Sister City, Sarov, Russia, he replied, “Largely, what struck me were the similarities.”
According to Los Alamos Sarov Sister Cities Initiative (LASSI) board member Paul White, the recurring theme for the delegation was, “The more we interact, the more similarities we find.”
The delegation found similarities in the forms of government, in the respect for history, in commercial enterprise and in daily activities, although unique experiences also stood out.
“Probably the more lasting impression is consistent with the purpose of the trip, in that we interacted with people, and made friends,” Burgess said.
“I think its one person at a time that we’re introduced to each other. But as we get more people who’ve had that experience, it just grows our ability to convey our thoughts between the two communities, and benefits even more each subsequent trip as we have people who’ve experienced it here willing to assist in their experience, too.”
The similarities Burgess noted included an elected Duma (council) which then elects a mayor and two deputy mayors from their ranks. Those three positions are paid, with delegated duties, and work closely with the city administrator.
But one difference surprised Burgess: the power Moscow still holds over local governments. The mayor, who arranged the trip, and the chief of police were both called to Moscow for the entire week the delegation was there.
“When you get called to Moscow, you go, apparently. So it wasn’t like, I have visitors here. It was like, yes, I’ll be there tomorrow,” Burgess said. “And that was probably the most apparent difference. Their deference to that authority seems to be ingrained in their culture.”
The contrast between visiting the cosmopolitan Moscow, where the delegation spent two days, and going through the checkpoint into Sarov (which remains a closed city) also struck Burgess. The delegation had highly structured days filled with activities, but were not allowed to leave the hotel at night.
Burgess was very impressed with the investment in community activities. The group saw neighborhood sports facilities and after school programs in art, dance, crafts and sports. A group of girls ranging in age from four to 11 performed traditional Russian dance for them.
“It seemed like there was still an effort to provide employment to anyone who wanted it, so you had many people who were employed in community services activities, such as teaching the arts to kids or using sports as a way to work with kids,” Burgess said. “Everybody had a place, and they had a lot of the afterschool activities for the population.”
For White, who has visited Sarov approximately 10 times and Russia over 50–twice with LASSI and the rest representing Los Alamos National Laboratory–the changes in Russia were the most salient.
“I’ve been going since 1993. My first visit to Sarov was in 1994. That was just a few years before the Soviet Union had collapsed. Part of the reason for the collapse was the economic hardship that the country had. The soviet system did not have a healthy economy,” White said.
“And as a result, what I saw in 1994 was dedicated people who did not have the infrastructure. Buildings looked old, streets were in disrepair, equipment was in disrepair and old.
“Now I saw dedicated people working with modern equipment, new construction, new paving on the streets, up-to-date fire department equipment and vehicles, a going, private enterprise in the city, from restaurants to hotels to shops. And that change ­— of course, it’s been over time, over 20 years — but that sunk home.”
A parallel dedication to preserving history also hit home. “Their city had a rich history and a rich cultural background before it became the site of a laboratory–and thus of the modern City of Sarov–just like ours does,” White said. “We have the rich history of Northern New Mexico, dating back to the Ancestral people that occupied Bandelier and the mesas, up to the ranches and the ranch school, and then the laboratory came. And we remember and celebrate that history just like they do.”
Burgess was especially impressed with efforts to recapture historical and religious treasures in Moscow. The people are reconstructing cathedrals that were torn down or had their onion spires removed during the soviet era and rediscovering frescoes and tiled paintings that workers had covered up after they had been ordered to destroy them.
“I began to understand how the people have dealt with their soviet era history and overcome it, and kind of had a resurgence of both their faith and their culture in the post communist era,” Burgess said.
Of course, each member of the group had their personal favorites.
Burgess, who managed underground resources for Carlsbad Caverns National Park, was thrilled with visits to an underground basilica and to a gypsum mine which houses the Museum of Mining and Speleology
A dip in a 34 degree freshwater spring on a 28 degree day (along with Council Chair Geoff Rodgers and Fire Chief Troy Hughes) also made a lasting impression.
White’s most notable experience was at the other end of the spectrum. The group accepted an invitation from the Russian firefighters to participate in a banya, or Russian steam bath.
“They were gentle on us. They only heated the room to 100 degrees Celsius, or 212 Fahrenheit. My introduction was at 110 degrees Celsius. They do it at 120 degrees Celsius,” White said.
“It’s very, very invigorating, refreshing, spiritual. You do it as part of a group. It’s a social event, as well as a physical health experience, and you cap it off by sharing food and drink. My term for it is ‘banya bonding.’ It was terrific.”
Burgess came back with ideas for hosting exchanges from Sarov. “Having done it myself now, I understand where they are and maybe more of what they might want to learn and experience while they’re here.”
White felt that LASSI’s goal, “to get personally involved in knowing and understanding their sister city and the people who are their counterparts in Sarov,” was accomplished.
“We saw people who have been part of the sister cities interaction in the past, and we greet each other like old friends, having been apart for a little while, so we can celebrate our being together again after that gap,” White said.
“And we meet new people who open their arms to us in the same way, people we haven’t interacted with before but who celebrate the fact that we have this relationship and can learn from each other.”