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Holidays made brighter by Russian guest

December 15, 2012


The Christmas season at the Salter household was made brighter this year by the presence of a nontraditional guest — a young political party official from Russia named Marina Savlova.

Savlova, 24, is a press and public relations director for the ruling United Russia political party executive committee in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Nizhny Novgorod is the fifth largest city in Russia with a population of 1.2 million and is the city formerly known as Gorky.

At first blush, Marina speaks in the measured, deliberate tones of one schooled in making guarded comments to the media. She earned a master’s degree from Dobrolyubov Nizhny Novgorod State University and is conversational in English and German.

While Marina’s credentials are impressive for a 24-year-old, she is also like her American counterparts in that age bracket in so many familiar ways. Our houseguest, like our own grown children, has an inseparable connection to her cell phone and ear buds, loved music, liked to shop for jeans and shoes, and loved chocolate candy and root beer.

We laughed as she apologized for the number of times her parents called to check on her and we listened as she patiently answered our questions about her life in Russia. Our daughter, Kate, remarked how incredibly similar Marina’s life is to her own and likewise her tastes, her hopes and her comforts.

Breakfast was an adventure at times. Marina tried Leilani’s famous biscuits and pronounced them “very good.” On the third morning, we introduced her to grits. She chewed slowly, swallowed hard, and when I asked how she liked them: “They are, uh, OK.” I took that to be Russian for a polite “yuk!”

But she was a trooper. And when the time came to put her on the plane bound for home, there was some sadness. We had become accustomed to her company and her enthusiasm for America, for our freedoms and for her bright and impressive mind.

Savlova’s trip to Starkville, and that of her four Russian colleagues, was part of an Open World exchange program to expose young Russian leaders to U.S. systems of participatory democracy and free enterprise. Administered by the Washington, D.C.-based Open World Leadership Center, the Open World program works to educate young political leaders from Eurasia and the Baltic States on democratic processes of local government organization, good governance and accountability.

The MSU Department of Political Science and Public Administration, and the International Institute at MSU are hosting the delegation. During their stay in Mississippi, the Russian delegation lived with five Starkville families as a means of assimilating into American culture. We were lucky enough to be one of those families.

While in Mississippi, the Russians traveled to Memphis to the National Civil Rights Museum, to Indianola to the B.B. King Museum, to Jackson to the state Capitol and a meeting with state government officials, to the Tenn-Tom Waterway and to a number of resources in Starkville and at MSU.

But our best times as a temporary “family” was at the breakfast table — drinking coffee and answering questions — as Leilani and I have done with our own children and grandchildren.

Those conversations made the world seem smaller and left me with memories of my own travels in Russia — a country so very different than the Cold War myths I learned as a boy.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or

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