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Life Arts

People to People in Volgograd

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Sharon Tennison shared this on June 29, 2015


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Plans for Volgograd had changed during the final weeks. We weren't quite sure how the schedule would work out. We arrived at 8:25 am on a bright sunny morning. The train came to a halt and we hurriedly got our luggage to the exit door. I was among the last to deboard and emerged to see what looked like a sea of eager faces coming toward our car. They were weighted down with flowers.[tag]

From Square of Sorrow, Mamayev Kurgan
Square of Sorrow, Mamayev Kurgan
(Image by BBM Explorer)
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Our women in the train cars ahead were already receiving long-stem roses and bouquets. Running toward our car was Alexander (Sasha) Malashkin, the raging entrepreneur pictured on the front of my book, The Power of Impossible Ideas. Hugs and exclamations abounded. We had never had such a welcome here before! Always it was warm, but nothing like this. More on this to follow.

Our Volgograd friends had rented a van, apparently not accepting our intent to travel by taxis and metros. They whisked us off to our hotel in downtown Volgograd. I'd been gravely concerned about this hotel, remembering it as a tired old rundown piece of Soviet architecture. Since inexpensive was "in" for this trip, I took the low price and hoped for the best. Pulling up to Hotel Volgograd the exterior appeared as before, drab brown Soviet architecture; upon entering I was shocked. Renovated with 19th century moldings, gold leaf, walls full of gorgeous fabric and paintings, plus two sleek Otis elevators ". it all bespoke of foreign money. Who would have invested in this old building in an outlying Russian city? Waiting for passports, I marveled at the new stained glass behind the registration desk. On inspection, the rooms were small but elegant----and all of this for $50 to $70 a night depending on occupancy.

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Later I learned that a former Mayor had purchased the hotel for a song in the 90s and renovated it himself. This was during the period when bureaucrats were making lots of money off of Russia's struggling entrepreneurs -- our alums may have contributed to this elegance, but not necessarily by choice. In any case, today Volgograd has a classy hotel that operates efficiently, has excellent food, and accommodates guests in style. I recommend it highly if you visit Volgograd in the future.

Following a fast breakfast we were taken straight to a Rotary Meeting. Since we couldn't be in Volgograd on their normal Rotary day, they chose our day of arrival! Their van drove up to an old building I'd remembered from two decades earlier. It sits in the harbor area down near the Volga River----and probably had earlier housed employees with river-related work.

The exterior was the same as in years past; however, inside it had morphed into a "business incubator" on the scale of Silicon Valley! The same types of bright techy faces peered out of cubicles similar to such incubator spaces near Palo Alto, CA. Several of them proudly gave us their product spiel. All were start-up operations ready to break into the market. It became obvious that this whole business incubator belonged to Sasha. He is mentoring and sharing his enthusiasm for micro-businesses with Volgograd's millennial generation. They couldn't hope for a better coach.

In the 90s, Sasha systematically began creating what became the largest wholesale food operation in the Volga Region. He is the owner of several other enterprises and also is this year's president of Volgograd's only Rotary Club. Those who have read my book realize that Sasha started out desperate to feed his young family in 1991. He had no way to make a living, so he borrowed a truck, drove to Moscow, picked up a load of cookies to sell around Volgograd's metros -- and in the process made enough extra money to go back to Moscow the next week and get more cookies to resell. In 2001, he told Secretary of State Colin Powell his story complete with becoming the largest food distributor in the Volga region. Powell was so excited by his story that when leaving the hall, he broke ranks with his handlers and ran over to shake Sasha's hand----hence the photo on the book cover!

This young man, educated to be a lawyer, moved into entrepreneurism to feed his wife and small son when the ruble was worthless. Today he is a multi-millionaire and is just hitting his stride.

Volgograd's Rotary meetings are held in a hall inside his business incubator. It was a typical meeting----Rotary is Rotary wherever one goes! On this day there were Russian and American flags side-by-side, Rotary banners, the Four Way Test, and excited faces that were considerably younger than in most American Rotary clubs.

Sasha rang the Rotary Bell and called the meeting to order. A large screen lit up with their club's insignia and information. Music came from all sides----the Russian anthem began; all of the Russians stood and sang in unison with gusto. Those of us who knew the melody hummed along. After the anthem, the screen gave a history of the club which was chartered by the Rocky River and Lakewood Clubs in Cleveland, Ohio back in the late 1990s. These clubs are still in touch with each other. Phil Ardussi, past President of the chartering club, sent greetings to the Volgograd Rotarians. Next on the screen the club's service projects were shown along with their newly opened Rotary Park for Disabled Children! We were the club's speakers for the day. We introduced ourselves, the 15 states we came from and told why we were making this trip.

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After the Rotary meeting, we went to the new Rotary Park which is central in the city where people of all ages can get to it. A sign shows the contributors who participated in the building of this park. Different kinds of play equipment for disabled youngsters included a large swinging container into which a wheelchair can be strapped! The backdrop of it all was a park-wide lovely mural with flowers, animals and children playing in a happy world.

Volgograd's 38 dedicated Rotarians are clearly proud of their contributions to their city. The average age of club members is probably 45. They are entrepreneurs with adequate personal funds to meet financial expectations from Rotary International. Quite a few of them are Paul Harris Fellows (meaning they have contributed $1000 to RI's Foundation Fund). Some are multiple Paul Harris Fellows. They certainly embody Rotary principles and the Four Way Test.

Next we were taken to an elegant "countrified" restaurant, Gretel, in the center of town. It is owned and operated by Sasha's lovely wife, Oxanna. Gretel is something like our Blackeye Pea restaurants, but is a little more upscale. She treated us to a great lunch.

Afterward, we met with Volgograd's Rotaract Club at their service project for disabled children. The Rotaracts were delightful young people in the typical 18 to 30 year age bracket. The Center we visited was heart warming and seemed to be run by a tiny little lady, maybe 3.5 feet tall. She was all over the place, running around making introductions, getting the music makers organized, helping us feel at home. We were serenaded with songs by a combination of Rotaract members and the Center dwellers.

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Born in Phila, I spent most of my adolescent and adult years in Europe, resulting over time in several unique books, my latest being Cuba, Diary of A Revolution

CUBA: Diary of a Revolution, Inside the Cuban Revolution with Fidel, Raul, Che, and Celia Sanchez

Lunch with Fellini, Dinner with Fidel: An Illustrated Personal Journey from the Cold War to the Arab Spring


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