A dozen civic leaders visiting from Russia gleaned some American views on freedom and democracy Wednesday from political science students at St. Mary's College.
When professor Michael Cain asked his American Politics class which was more important--equality or freedom--most everybody raised their hand for freedom. Then the topic turned to whether politicians should represent what their constituents want or what's best for the people, and Viktor Shkenev, a city legislator in Russia, stood up to say his piece. Through a translator, Shkenev told the class how busy he was every day, pushing through muddled Russian policies.
"I physically have no time to consult every one of my voters," he explained. "When I have to make a decision, I have to look at my professional competence."
The class looked unimpressed with his earnestness, so he looked around and quickly added with a grin, "And I hope I will be reelected in the upcoming election."
Students responded with laughter and applause. They may not relate to the consumer goods shortages that still plague Russians as capitalism emerges, but they did recognize a familiar refrain in Shkenev's mock voter concern.
During the hour-long class, students in jeans and T-shirts gazed at the Russians' formal suits and stiff manners. They listened intently as the Russian language was spoken in class, and learned to pause when speaking so a translator had time to interpret.
"Interaction-wise, I never dreamed of being in a higher-education environment with Russian delegates talking about American democracy," said Andrew Mosley, president of St. Mary's student government association. "Wow, how far we have come. I think both our cultures have grown."
Earlier in the week the Russians questioned Southern Maryland elected, civic and business leaders, as well as representatives of the news media, about making democracy work. That exchange came during a round-table discussion at the Charles County Community College's Center for Business and Industry.
Much of that discussion addressed the balance between freedom in a democratic system and the Russians' desire to regulate what they perceive as the excesses of business as their society makes the transition to a free-market economy.
The stop at the community college and the trip to historic St. Mary's City were part of an 11-day visit by the Russian officials under the Library of Congress Russian Leadership Program. The tour, much of it in Southern Maryland, was organized to expose the future leaders from the newly democratic Russia to life and policymaking in the United States.
The Southern Maryland delegation yesterday wrapped up the visit, which was hosted by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md) and Gary V. Hodge, district coordinator of the Library of Congress program. The Russians met with community leaders from the tri-county area, went fishing at Solomons, toured local agricultural and military facilities, and stopped Wednesday at the St. Mary's campus.
After the political science class, the delegates were whisked to a luncheon and then to a forum open to all students at the state liberal arts college. Before heading back to Russia, they joined the rest of the 2,000 delegates in the leadership program for closing ceremonies in Washington.
CAPTION: Viktor Shkenev, right, deputy of a Stavropol city duma (council), speaks up during a St. Mary's College class discussion on American politics.
CAPTION: Yelena Nebabina, a senior specialist with the Ministry of Economy in Russia, listens during the class discussion.