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Kemerovo: Land of a Good Governor 1/26/06

Downtown Kemerovo.

Christmas Day, on the Russian Orthodox Calendar, I rode into Kemerovo, capitol of the Kemerovo Oblast in central Siberia. Something seemed different. Snow? Yes, there was a lot of that. Indeed the most I had seen since arriving in Siberia. It hit me, the city looked prosperous. We rode past well-designed modern office buildings where one new shopping center or auto dealer seemed to try to outdo the other. The wide streets were lined with trees. The old buildings in the city center had been refurbished, cultural centers glistened under spotlights, and the large white government building was awash in undulating bands of color. It seemed to pulse. More than that, the streets were clean. Not an empty vodka or beer bottle was in sight.

"Galena," I said to my host Galena Feshkova, dean of the University of Culture's Dance Department, "Kemerovo is beautiful."

"Yes," she said.

Statue of Lenin.

Even the statue of Lenin in the central square, pointing the way, seemed justifiably proud. "What's the reason?" I said. "I mean, how did this happen."

"We have a good governor," she said. It was a refrain that I was to hear from our drivers, teachers, directors of museums, doctors, students and many others throughout my stay.

Kemerovo Oblast has a population of approximately three million within which live 130 different ethnic groups with the largest being Russian, Ukrainian and German. The primary industry is mining, however under the leadership of its current governor Aman Tuleyev, recognized as one of the best in Russia, the economy has greatly diversified. Tremendous investments have been made in the arts, renovating all five cultural centers in Kemerovo; in healthcare, especially noteworthy are programs for the disabled; in environmental cleanup and restoration; rebuilding the infrastructure (notably bridges and roadways); and the rebuilding of its religious temples, most dramatically the Znamensky Sobor Russian Orthodox Church, the largest church east of Moscow. It should be noted that the strike by the miners of Kemerovo dramatically directed world-wide attention to the economic chaos in Russia under the leadership of President Yelstin and forced the repaying of salaries to miners, educators and others, many of whom had gone without income for two years.

Kids painting was at Kemerovo's Center for Rehabilitation of Disabled
Children and Adolescences: “Flamingo”

I arrived at the invitation of Professor, Ekaterina Leonidovna Kudrina, rector of the Kemerovo State University of Culture, one of five such universities in Russia (others are Moscow, St Petersburg, Karazan and Krasnoyarsk) and one of several other institutions of higher education in Kemerovo, and through the efforts of Galena, a participant of the East Siberian Academy of Culture's 45th Anniversary and conference who headed our rector's call for greater cooperation and collaboration amongst Russia's premiere arts education institutions to increase support for the arts and engage in specific projects of mutual interest. Galena attended my conference presentation, and, along with about thirty others, and myself participated in a post conference retreat at Lake Baikal. She felt that my experiences in arts administration and arts in healthcare could be beneficial to her university, department and their planning process. The two rectors, and the U.S. Embassy and Fulbright office in Moscow agreed, and thus I found myself spending the final week of their fall term in Kemerovo.

Beginning with a Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve church service, that reverberated to the rich sounds of Znamensky Sobor Church choir and an invitation to her family's dinner, my stay quickly sprung to a jammed schedule as temperatures seemed to drop five degrees a day till it reached near -50 c. (-58 F.). This is not wind chill, but the real deal without factoring in a breeze. At -38, elementary schools closed. Many of the kids took to the parks where they whizzed down ice shoots while their parents walked briskly about with mittens held to their faces. Trees developed a thick coating of frost. The air became hazy. Hardy souls flew by on cross-country ski trails that laced the parks and, belaying Galna's fears, while a few presentations showed a modest drop in attendance; others were packed and resulted in people being turned away.

Above: the frost a tree develops at -40

Left: Kids sliding at 45 below.

I have to say our day strolling around the outdoor museum, which included checking out petroglyphs along a river bank, was finger numbing; but I was later baked in what had to be the hottest banya I've ever experienced that included a thorough thrashing with birch branches - so hot that I sat outside in -40 degree temperatures with nothing on but a sheet for a good fifteen minutes while our driver romped in the snow. I add that using the outside privy helped me set new records for the shortest time spent so relieving myself. 'What have I let myself in for?' I thought on this my second day.

Naj with the leadership of the Psychiatric Hospital.

A great time meeting some of the most hospitable, talented and determined people crammed into one city. True the governor deserves special kudos, but it was clear from my first meeting of the rector and members of her club of thirty-seven, the vice rectors, and the faculty and students, through the packed schedule that Galena and her team arranged, and my great translator and sage Albert's ability to handle any situation and keep pace, that the Governor reflected the spirit of his Oblast. There was a can-do attitude everywhere. Whether it was teaching a class in rustic furniture making, leading a seminar on art arts administration for cultural leaders, faculty and students, giving a grand rounds presentation on arts in healthcare doctors, nurses and rehabilitation specialists, meeting with the medical leadership of the regional psychiatric hospital, attending one of a dozen cultural events or museums, all the people I met were eager to learn and had many valuable experiences to share. The city didn't look as prosperous as it did by accident.

Memorial Statue to the Miner's of Kemerovo.

Do they have problems? Of course. A massive impact on the landscape by the open pit coal mining that has been the region's economic engine for hundreds of years, terrible air pollution wrought by the power stations and vast increase in traffic, severe threats to the very survival of many of their indigenous cultures, and many others. What they are doing is facing them, and with great ingenuity. No better example than the City's Center for Rehabilitation of Disabled Children and Adolescences "Flamingo", which provides services for children aged 3 to 18, and their caregivers. Not only do they provide the full range of services, but they have been creating and manufacturing all manner of equipment and tools to help their young clients lead as fulfilling a life as possible. What they are hungry for is information, most especially on how better to serve the families going through the emotional, financial and physical challenge of caring for their loved ones, an effort the University plans to assist through training artists to work with them and similar programs.

Right to left: Naj, Albert, Galina and the director of the Philharmonia.

It was hard to leave. I felt I had learned far more than I gave. Galina's ability to generate press opportunities could be model for a Harvard Business class to analyze. Their generosity was overwhelming. I returned with twice as much as I arrived including a pair of birch bark slippers that a local museum curator asked if I'd be willing to donate. Already the lines are humming between the Academy and the University, and the Fulbright and Embassy web sites are being gleaned over.

"I think this is the beginning of a long relationship," said Vice Rector Victor Ivanovich Markov, holding up his glass of that famous Russian clear liquid on my final night in the waning hours of the Russian Orthodox New Year. "I think your being here as we end one year and begin another says so, yes?"

His fellow vice rectors, Galena and Albert held up their glasses and beamed. I noted that mine seemed to be in the air as well.

Who was I to say no?

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