Akervall sees power and hope in Russia
As Wilsonville City Councilor Kristin Akervall spun a gigantic globe located in the State Duma — the lower house of the Russia assembly — she noticed a blotch of red nail polish covering the Crimean peninsula.
Crimea was controlled by Ukraine until the Russian government annexed the region in 2014, a move that was castigated by the United Nations, and the polish boldly represented Russia's stranglehold over most of the region.
The sight left Akervall awestruck.
"That tangible image slapped me in the face," Akervall said. "It was an absolute raw expression of power."
As part of an exchange organized by the American Council of Young Political Leaders, Akervall and six other delegates from across the United States spent 12 days in Russia — talking with politicians, ambassadors and grassroots leaders about the state of Russia and relations with the U.S.
Akervall was interested in the opportunity in part because she felt her understanding of the tensions between the U.S. and Russia —which came to a head during the 2016 U.S. presidential election when the Russian government allegedly waged a hacking and social media campaign to help Donald Trump win the election — was one-sided.
"My preconceived ideas of what's going on there was a singular storyline," she said. "I knew that would be incorrect but we don't have a lot of rich information about that in the U.S."
Akervall's days consisted of as many as nine meetings with various Russian officials and the group spent most of their time in Moscow but also visited Chuvashia. Her fellow delegates included a chairperson for the Young Republicans National Federation, a city councilor in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a Wyoming state senator, a key player in the North Carolina Justice Department and an escort for the Boise City Council.
Akervall said the delegates' political views conflicted but the group found common ground and spent much of their time processing and analyzing perspectives from Russian officials.
Some officials claimed that, contrary to reports, the alleged poisoning of former British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March was not conducted by the Russian government. And Akervall sat through a presentation by an elections committee official who detailed the steps the government takes to make sure election results are fair and accurate.
Meanwhile, Akervall said she heard a markedly different story from independent media and voting rights groups. Akervall was wary of going into more detail to avoid putting citizens in danger. Throughout the process, she said she had a healthy degree of skepticism.
"When you're hearing one view from someone in the morning and in the afternoon a completely different view, it was kind of like being a detective," Akervall said. "I felt like I had so much respect and admiration for their (the groups hoping to affect change in Russia) courage because they are doing their work in a very different climate than what is here in the U.S. The dichotomy of control and courage and power and hope, I felt like I saw that constantly."
Akervall was also struck by the plethora of Western businesses operating in Russia. She said one mall, filled with Banana Republic, H&M and other popular retailers, looked eerily similar to an American mall. And in a meeting with Procter & Gamble officials, she learned that some Russian companies are embracing modern corporate practices such as diversity training and emphasizing inclusivity. She also enjoyed learning about the history of a shopping center near the Kremlin and how it morphed from state control to private control.
"You can see these different state controls of commerce and how it's played out in that physical space. That was interesting to see," Akervall said.
Though the United States and the Soviet Union were potentially minutes away from nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s, Akervall said some Russians felt that tensions between the two former Cold War adversaries was more strained than ever before.
"When the potential for destruction is grave, the importance of finding ways people in both countries can build relationships is so important," she said.
And Akervall found that the Russians knew way more about America than
she believes Americans know about Russia.
"I think often not just with Russia, Americans have a limited understanding of what political landscapes are like in other parts of the world," she said. "To experience something that's vastly different than home, to meet people, talk to people and really try to listen, that's needed on all levels."
In terms of local politics, Akervall was surprised to learn that part of a Moscow elected official's responsibilities was to conduct building code inspection. Contrastingly, the Wilsonville City government hires building inspectors.
"She was on people's rooftops inspecting things," Akervall said. "It sounded like the scope of work her role encompassed had some pretty big contrasts."
Overall, Akervall said her worldview has broadened and her appreciation for the established governmental process in Wilsonville, which is formalized and includes ample public process, has deepend.
"Coming home, in my role on city council, I have a deepened sense of appreciation for our political process, the transparency, public involvement, for the importance of those actions in building trust, the expectation for those actions," she said. "I think I have a broader understanding of some people's viewpoints and their own experiences and I have a real appetite to learn more about that."