Photo courtesy of Ksenia Semenova.
0713 Russian Delegates
Russian delegate Sergey Aleksan- drovich Fedoreyev participates in a demonstration at the Hoover Public Safety Center during his visit to the United States. Fedoreyev wasa member of the 10-person party that made the jour- ney to learn more about accountable governance and democracy.
Inez McCollum hadn’t given much thought to her plants or appliances being anything unique. But to her visitors last month, they were intriguing. One of them asked her questions about the gardenia, and the other she found taking pictures of her air conditioning unit.
The two were staying with McCollum at her Camelot Woods home for a week, sharing in breakfast, dinner, Sunday morning church service and shopping trips — all of which were new experiences for them.
As two of a group of 10 delegates from Russia, they were in Birmingham to learn about American democracy. And they were curious to learn what was behind a country whose streets were clean and, at least in this region, where many more people go to church than in their native country.
At home, their democracy is young. It was only in 1991 that the Soviet Union dissolved, and, as the delegates noted, much in the country is still corrupt.
The delegates, leaders in their own country, came through Open World Leadership Center, an independent agency of the United States Congress, with a focus on learning about accountable governance from the area’s political and business leaders.
Their weeklong visit would take them to Helena, Birmingham and Montgomery, but first they came to their home base, Hoover, where they met with Mayor Gary Ivey and Rep. Paul Demarco before touring the Hoover Public Safety Center.
They also made stops at Galleria Woods, Golden Corral and Costa’s Mediterranean during the week, and their farewell dinner was held at the Farmhouse at Greystone.
Eva Herron and Jackie Matte, both Hoover residents, planned an itinerary focused on how business interacts with government as a part of their membership in the Friendship Force of Birmingham, a club that hosts domestic and international visitors. This is the eighth time the club has hosted Russian delegates through Open World.
“Our primary concern was to get the delegates familiar with all accountable levels of government, from national to state to county to municipal,” Herron said.
Delegates were also interested in political party issues, elections, medical reform, education, Herron said, so local professionals in these areas also spoke with them.
Since their arrival in Birmingham, Ksenia Semenova, one of two group facilitators, said they had been most struck by how green the city is and, of course, by everyone’s friendliness.
“All the people here are greeting us heart-warmingly,” she said.
No matter where they went, the delegates noticed how everyone openly spoke of both successes and problems.
“Here people express their minds really openly,” Semenova said. “They are not afraid of it. This is what we really need (in Russia). You can read political speeches online, but it’s not the same thing.”
They found Mayor Ivey very interactive, Semenova said, and enjoyed getting to talk past their allotted amount of time with him.
“We were surprised that the mayor had small businesses, too,” she said. “We were interested in whether (his position as mayor) gives him advantages, but he said he differentiates between the two. It’s unusual to hear a mayor would not take advantage of that.”
While in Hoover, the group was particularly interested in learning how people start businesses and how the city helps them.
They liked Hoover’s program of attracting businesses to the region via providing incentives, Semenova said.
Another thing that stuck out to them about Hoover was the number of nonprofit organizations they saw, even ones whose reach spread internationally—a number much greater than they see in Russia, especially in small towns.
On a tour through the City’s public safety building, they were fascinated by the jail facilities, as well as the forensic science lab.
Delegates were interested in how the municipal court had limited jurisdiction—it doesn’t try juvenile, civil or felony cases — as one court covers all cases in Russia, said Municipal Court Director Susan Fuqua, who coordinated their visit to the court. They were also interested in how the court communicates with other departments in the building.
Fuqua, like others who interacted with the Russians over the course of the week, emphasized that the sharing wasn’t just one-way.
“They explained to me as much as we explained to them,” she said. “I wish we had more time to learn more about what they do and to share what we do.”
The local Friendship Force chapter will hold its next meeting Sunday, July 21 at 2 p.m. at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Vestavia Hills. Visitors are welcome.