Last May Administrator Larry Kruse had the opportunity to travel to Boryspil, Ukraine as part of a Local Government Civic Leadership Exchange Program.
The team of Minnesota officials included: Mayor of Hopkins Eugene Maxwell and his wife Ilene; Molly Parks, former Sunfish Lake Mayor; James Brimeyer, member of the Metropolitan Council; Sara Folstad, Renville County Administrator; Former City Manager Richard Fursman his wife Irina, with daughter and college sophomore, Elizabeth.
Kruse submitted this column about his experience in the Ukraine:
The Ukraine/Minnesota Local Government Exchange Program was developed and coordinated to advance the skills, and build capacity of local government officials in Ukraine and Minnesota through emergence in open government practices. In the Ukraine, I had the opportunity to exchange ideas within the context of another culture, while building relationships with my new Ukrainian friends and ironically, with my Minnesota team members. Following the weeklong intense formal program, I and three other team members then traveled overnight by train to Yalta, to further explore the Ukrainian way of life in preparation for our counterparts’ return visit.
We arrived after a 15-hour journey from Minneapolis to the Boryspil International Airport. The area is shaking off a hangover of the drab Soviet look and feel with a major terminal and runway expansion that will rival the best airports in Europe and America. Leaving the airport, the roads where busy with a mix of old small boxy cars from the early Russian days and newer BMWs and Audis. I quickly learned that having a car is still a luxury many cannot afford.
About half of us stayed with host families, who were either employees or elected officials. The others stayed in a rather plush, bed-and-breakfast-type of rural hotel.
I felt fortunate to live with a family for a week so I could fully understand their daily life. My hosts live on the fifth floor of a large, concrete, multi-family building with about 200 units. These plain-looking, multi-family buildings with no elevators were the most dominant feature in and around Boryspil and Kiev. Each building was a copy of the next with a small green space and tot-lot for children.
My host Victor, is a young lawyer about 25 years old who works for one of the Ukraine’s 24 oblasts (provinces). He lives with his fiancé who is also a lawyer, and his father Yuri, who is a colonel with the Fire Department and his mother Victoria who works as a nurse. Their routine of getting up and off to work was not unlike our daily dash in Minnesota. After a long day, dinner was served which featured fresh vegetables, a local meat dish, many discussions and several toasts of vodka.
Their system of governance was very different than anything I have experienced as a city administrator. There are 48 council members in Boryspil comprised of 13 different political parties. When attending a Council meeting we observed the Mayor and party majority leader sit up front on stage while the rest of the Council sits on one side of a 200 seat auditorium with staff and audience on the other. The parties caucus prior to the meeting on how they will vote and negotiate coalitions much like the legislature does. On three memorable occasions during the meeting, a lone communist party member gave vociferous short speeches which were met with laughs or groans, followed by an equally strong rebuttal. The agenda included debates on new taxes, funding for infrastructure, and updates on numerous projects. It was interesting to see a different system handling the same issues we struggle with all the time.
A good portion of our time was spent in strategic planning sessions with anywhere from 20 to 50 people representing elected officials, city staff and citizens of Boryspil. Throughout the day, the large groups were broken up into small sub-groups to discuss various topics, exchange ideas and then report their finding back to the larger group for further discussions and consensus building. There were elected officials and staff mixed together with members of the community at all the functions. The students and community members where delighted and emotionally moved to be sharing their thoughts and ideas alongside of the Mayor and other officials. We were assigned translators, who were mostly college volunteers with a desire to practice their English skills and participate in visioning for their community. For the most part they did very well and communication was not a problem.
During our stay it was easy to see the contrasts and contradictions of a City with a 1,000 year history steeped in the past while trying on the trappings of a 19 year old independence. We memorialized our visit by gifting thirty trees which we planted in a cemetery/park. The hallowed ground held thousands of remains from many people who starved during the 1932/33 Ukrainian Famine, fallen WWII solders, and victims of the Holocaust. The most striking story was of the mass starvation Ukraine endured. Stalin's favorite killing tool was mass starvation, a tactic he used ruthlessly against his own people. The collectivization program in Ukraine resulted in a famine which cost 6 Million lives in 1932/33. “It was a Stalin-made famine," reported Time Magazine in its January 1, 1940, issue. Eighty years later we were planting trees with the hopes that our relationship, like the trees, would continue to grow.
My fellow Minnesota participants and I have a hard time explaining what a life changing event this has been for us. We had the opportunity to meet and live with people who not long ago, were considered to be our enemy (Cold War). Those walls quickly broke down and be became fast friends. As an example, I rode to daily sessions with a former Russian soldier, who was trained that Americans were the enemy and not to be trusted. Initially, that distrust and coldness was evident, but by mid-week that had softened and I could feel a change. I saw a tear in this former soldier’s eye and received a hug as I departed. They learned that we did not have an agenda and were not as some politicians had portrayed us to be. In return, we learned how to remove barriers and build relationships with people who speak a different language and view the world from a different cultural and historical reference. My belief was reinforced that if this can be done in a foreign country, we can do this back home where sometimes we don’t cooperate with our neighbors as well as we could. I arrived home with a sense of excitement to go back to work and with a positive, can do attitude about many of the challenges I face as a local government manager.
Beginning Sunday, Sept. 25, a delegation of Boryspil civic leaders, business people and residents will visit Minnesota for a week of leadership exchange involving local government and economic development. The group will spend the day in St. Michael and Albertville on Wednesday, Sept. 28. Assuming all goes well, we anticipate another delegation to again travel to the Ukraine next summer.