Program write-up – Open World Program: Visitors from Sister City Kostroma

Open World Program Kostromo GuestsThe U. S. Congress chartered the Open World Program in 1999 as a pilot program to invite leaders from the former Soviet Union to visit the United States as an introduction to our version of democracy and free enterprise.  Beginning in 2011 the program began focusing on leaders younger than 36.  Open World pairs these visitors with local organizations such as sister city programs, Rotary clubs, colleges, local government agencies and other non-profit groups.  Durham is one of sixty or so communities across the United States that have hosted about 18,000 participants over the years.

Each of the five members of the team from Kostroma in the Russian Federation plays a significant role in the legislative and administrative life of this important and historical community that lies about a four hour car drive from Moscow.  Ms. Svetlana Repina is the Acting Director of major construction projects in the city.  Andrey Makhin has a private security agency and is a deputy in the city council.  Businessman Sergey Sergeychik serves on the Commission on Municipal Services, Local Government and City Planning.  Aleksandr Yegorov, is also a businessman and a deputy in the city council.  The facilitator and translator for the group is Aleksey Andreyev who is from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.  Kostroma’s mayor, unfortunately, was unable to make the trip because of impending elections.

The wide range of experiences prepared for our visitors is tailored to appeal to their varied civic interests: economic development, local election issues and procedures, health care, infrastructure, waste management, and education among similar matters.

Our Kostroma visitors gave an interesting program—they called it Kostroma 101—about their ancient and vibrant city of about a quarter million inhabitants.  (I now regret having given away all those Russian history texts that got me through grad school.)  Located at the confluence of the Volga and Kostroma Rivers, the principality was founded in the late 12th-early 13th centuries.  In the 1230s, Mongols sacked the town and for many years local rulers were vassals of the Mongol khans.

Kostroma eventually fell under the sway of its more powerful neighbor, the Grand Duchy of Moscow.  The 16th century saw increased wealth reflecting the town’s important role in the Muscovy Company which facilitated trade with England and Holland.  Kostroma’s two famous monasteries, originally built of wood, were rebuilt in stone during the reign of Boris Godunov who succeeded Tsar Ivan the Terrible.  Kostroma is one of the ancient towns that form the “Golden Ring” of sites important to the development of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The town’s most famous hero was Ivan Susanin, a peasant who guided an invading Polish army into a swamp from which the Poles couldn’t find their way out and perished during the bitterly frigid winter.

Kostroma’s close connection to the Romanov tsars, Russia’s last dynasty, dates back four centuries to 1613 when Russia’s nobles elected Michael Romanov as tsar.  Michael was elected not because he was powerful, but because he was one of their weakest.  The nobles believed they could keep him on a short leash.  Over the years, Romanov tsars imposed themselves and strengthened their autocratic powers throughout Russia before crumbling in the 1917 revolutions.

Michael was living in Kostroma’s Ipatievsky monastery when the delegation from Moscow arrived to offer him the throne.  Legend says that his mother blessed her seventeen year old son with a 10th century icon of Our Lady of St. Theodore, the city’s most important surviving relic.  According to Svetlana, even modern Russian leaders come to Kostroma to pay homage to this icon.

Modern day Kostroma is shaped by the great fire that swept through the mostly wooden city in the late 18th century.  A rebuilt Kostroma with its arcades and beautiful fire tower emerged as a fine example of 18th century urban planning.

Residents and visitors alike enjoy Kostroma’s festivals, celebrations, cultural performances and commercial fairs.   According to legend, the Snow Maiden, one of Russia’s most appealing folk tales and the granddaughter of Father Frost, was born in Kostroma.  The city is home to a popular cheese festival, an annual jewelry fair and a national fireworks extravaganza.  For anyone wishing to experience a Russian winter in the summertime, Andrey described a Kostroma restaurant that celebrates New Year every Friday, complete with an room of ice—I wonder if we will spot the Snow Maiden and her grandfather!  The Russian National Ballet “Kostroma” is an internationally acclaimed ballet company—actually based in Moscow but supported by the Kostroma regional government—whose performances are based mainly on Russia’s ancient folk tales.

A tasty buffet dinner at Dos Perros (before the delegation headed off to a city council meeting) gave us a delightful opportunity to meet and converse with our guests informally.

Submitted by Allen Cronenberg

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