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Russians Get Taste of Virginia Politics

February 19, 2011

By Meredith Rigsby and Catherine Leth
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia General Assembly usually focuses on state issues. But last week, some of the attention at the statehouse was on international visitors – a delegation of Russian officials learning about American government.

Mikhail Musatov, Artem Osmanov and Sergey Sokolov visited Richmond as part of the Open World Leadership Center, a program created by Congress to develop better relationships and understanding between the United States and Eurasian countries.

The three men are local and district officials in the Russian oblast, or state, of Tver, north of Moscow – more than 5,000 miles from Richmond.

“It’s a good experience for them, and I hope they will benefit a lot from this trip,” said Olga Safronova, a Russian who accompanied the delegation and served as Open World’s facilitator and occasional translator. “I hope that politicians here in the United States will benefit at least some from what we shared with them.”

The group arrived in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 9 with a handful of other Open World delegations from Russia. While in D.C., the Tver group received a briefing from Jeannemarie Davis, Virginia’s official liaison with the federal government, and visited the Capitol Hill offices of U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and U.S. Reps. Eric Cantor, Bobby Scott and Rob Wittman.

After the orientation in Washington, each Open World delegation traveled to a particular state. Virginia Commonwealth University coordinated the visit for the group that came to Richmond. VCU’s School of Mass Communications, Global Education Office and L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs teamed up on the project.

Musatov, Osmanov, Sokolov and Safronova each stayed with a host family in Richmond. During the week of Feb. 14-18, the Russians attended seminars at the Wilder School and met officials and watched government in action at Richmond City Hall, the Henrico County Government Center and Capitol Square.

Delegate Bill Janis of Henrico County, who speaks Russian from his stint in the U.S. Navy, gave the delegation a presentation about legislative redistricting and other political issues. The group sat in on legislative committee hearings and sessions of the House and Senate.

Osmanov was impressed by how easily citizens could access any of the General Assembly’s activities. He said that in Russia, policy makers work behind closed doors.

“It was very surprising and interesting for us to see at the subcommittee meeting, people could just come in and support or say something about the bill,” he said through a translator.

Musatov was pleased to see groups of children touring the Capitol during the week, learning about Virginia’s history. “Unfortunately, back in Russia, we do not cherish our history,” he said.

The Russian visitors also went to Virginia Beach, where Sokolov decided to go for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean. The water temperature was about 45 degrees.

“He is a polar bear back in Russia, so it was not that cold for him,” Safronova said.

While in Virginia, the visitors also enjoyed shopping at the outlet mall in Williamsburg and Short Pump Town Center.

A farewell reception for the Russians was held Friday at VCU’s Scott House. Faculty members from the Wilder School and the School of Mass Communications attended and exchanged gifts of appreciation with the delegation.

“Now we are coming back with good relations and understanding each other,” Sokolov said.

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