WASHINGTON – Viktor Shkenev liked what he saw of American democracy. American food and baseball were another matter.
“Every point of view gets heard here and politicians treat each other with respect,” said Shkenev, one of 12 Russian political and civic leaders who wrapped up a nine-day visit to Maryland’s 5th Congressional District on Friday.
Baseball, on the other hand, was not quite as “spectacular” as soccer, said Shkenev, who attended part of a Baltimore Orioles game Thursday with other members of the delegation. A Thursday evening visit to the Hard Rock Caf, also failed to score too high for Shkenev, a member of the Duma, Russia’s parliament.
The trip was “more work than play,” said Gary Hodge, local coordinator for the visit, which was supported by the Library of Congress’ Russian Leadership Program. The program aims to bring 2,000 newly elected political and civic leaders from Russia to the United States to study the American system of government.
The local group of Russians met elected, civic and business leaders from Southern Maryland, and toured the State House, government buildings and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“The young group was tremendously interested in bringing positive things to Russia and to move the system forward,” said St. Mary’s County Commissioner Joseph Anderson, who met with the delegation as part of a Southern Maryland roundtable Monday.
The 5th District was chosen to host the Russians because of Rep. Steny Hoyer’s involvement with international issues over the past several years. Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, is a member of the Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission.
In a prepared statement, Hoyer called the program “an investment in the future of world peace and security. The more they [delegates] learn and understand about how our complex, diverse and free society works, the better prepared they will be to begin building a free and democratic Russia, and the better prepared they will be to work with us as partners.”
Shkenev said that he met a lot of “open, free and smart people” during his visit. “I have not seen any other nation so spiritually close to Russians. Both cherish their history and culture very much,” he said.
He said he was particularly impressed when a roundtable meeting with St. Mary’s County officials opened with a prayer for the Russian delegation. On his return to Russia, he said, he would try to restore and revive certain traditions like a pledge of allegiance before starting council sessions.
“This will set our council members on a moral high ground,” he said. Hodge said the Russians had “a tremendous impact on us. I am convinced after spending these past few days with them that we need more contact with the Russian people.”
This visit, he added, was the beginning of “a continuing dialog with another great country.”