Like many Russian towns, Valdai has hooked up with a "sister community" in the United States, in this case: Canyon City, Colorado. Valdai clearly hopes to benefit from American experience and, bluntly, from its financial resources. Canyon City has come through. It is sponsoring a family crisis center, the first of its kind in the region.
Thanks to this sister-city system several people from Valdai have had the chance to visit America over the past few years. One of these is English teacher Valentina Fedotova.
"We are patient, and we hope for a better life. It will be better, but it will take time."
Lest we think everything about Russia is grim, Valentina introduces us to the Smirnov family. Liuba, a gangly 15 year-old with an irrepressible attitude to match her brains, is her top student. She's already plotting how she can escape what she calls "boring old Valdai."
"I want to find a good man," she says, "a Russian. I want a very good man in Moscow or St. Petersburg; I don't care."
"Not Valdai?" I ask her.
"Not Valdai!" she says laughing at the absurdity of such an idea. "There are no good men in Valdai."
"There aren't?" I say.
"All drunkards," she replies matter-of-factly and we laugh with her.
"It's true," she says. "All the good peoplewho have money, of coursego away to Novgorod, Moscow, St. Petersburg, other big cities. They don't stay in Valdai."
The teakettle announces it's time for dessert. The Smirnovs, highly skilled computers specialists, live in a comfortable three-room apartment with evident signs of success. Yet four years ago this family had nothing.
Like many we've met along the way, these Russians had to leave their home in a former Soviet republic: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Estonia, and, in the Smirnov's case, Kazakhstan. Liuba says life in newly independent Kazakhstan became impossible because of economic decline and growing anti-Russian sentiment.
We had to move," she said. "We didn't want to, but we had to. It was very hard. We didn't have a flat, enough money to live, and … my parents didn't have work."
They rebuilt their lives from scratch. Though Liuba's father Aliosha drives an ancient car, she sports a new set of braces, and the family has a computer, as well as access to the Internet. For Radishchev, contact with the rest of the world was hard to come by. Censorship and limitations on travel extended through the Soviet period. Now the world is at Liuba's fingertips.
"I know the English chat where I can talk to people from many countries," Liuba tells us. "We talk in English, and of course this is very good practice for me"
Liuba arrives at the site where she checks her email.
"When I am on the Internet for many hours," she says and giggles, "a big bill comes to us, and I have to make my time little. Of course I want to be on the Internet everyday but I can't unfortunately."
Liuba says her father cries when he sees the big bill, but Aliosha Smirnov denies his beloved daughter very little. She is just one of two students in her class of 30 with Internet access, but access to Western culture extends beyond cyberspace.
Although Liuba would prefer the Spice Girls or Ricky Martin, her parents' tastes run to Frank Sinatra. During our visit, the Smirnov family treats us to their rendition of "Strangers in the Night."
Sinatra is rated the most popular singer in all of Russia, and everyone in the family knows all the words.
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