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Russian takeover? Not quite

As the election approaches, a reporter and a photographer set out for Washington, D.C., via America. We tell stories from seven towns, touching on seven issues from politics and real life.

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PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — The Russians descended upon the hills and valleys of eastern Tennessee this summer with great stealth, and they went to work.

They served seafood at Boston's Shrimp Bucket, scooped ice cream at Baskin Robbins and waited tables down the road at the American Steak and Buffet. They took inventory at Off Road Equipment Parts, danced at the Electric Cowboy and even bagged garbage at Dollywood, the adventureland so solidly American you wonder if it was here before the pioneers.

Mission accomplished, a group of them bid adieu to the Smoky Mountains on Saturday night, their luggage packed with Ralph Lauren gear, cameras and laptops.

"I really, really love America," one of them said.

The warm feelings were reciprocated from most quarters.

The Cold War is over, after all. Isn't it?

The letter from the Blount County mayor was frank. It came in December, the merriest of seasons, addressed to the director of the Sister City International program, which has a mission to "Promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation."

Enough is enough, the letter said.

"There is a lot of adverse comment about all the Russian kids coming here in the summer," Mayor Jerry Cunningham wrote. "They are competing with our kids for jobs, etc., and I have heard story after story relative to displeasure over the deluge."

The local newspaper, Daily Times, obtained a copy of the letter, then got the mayor on the telephone to elaborate.

"People are complaining," said the former Marine, who also made note that a Russian armament killed some of his buddies in Vietnam. "I'm getting calls from Sevierville people asking why we're sending all the Russian kids up there to take jobs away from Sevier County kids and Blount County kids. We need to take care of our kids first."

The story and letter were posted to the newspaper's Web site with a "Breaking News" headline, and soon, great concern spread through Zheleznogorsk.

• • •

The bridge between Russia and the Smoky Mountains was built by a soft-spoken former state legislator named Howard Kerr.

A nuclear engineer, Kerr worked for 37 years at Oak Ridge, Tenn., the secret city base for the Manhattan Project, the large government operation that developed the atomic bomb.

His life's work was to build bombs to kill Russians.

In 1993, Kerr was begrudgingly dispatched with a delegation to Russia to give the government a technical assessment of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. One night, half a world away, he was heading to dinner at a youth camp when a Russian boy leaned out of a window and asked Kerr if he was American.

Yes, Kerr said. Are you Russian?

Yes.

Well, Kerr said, come down here and let's talk.

The boy brought his pals from camp — 200 of them — and they clamored to ask the American questions.

"It occurred to me that these kids looked like they could be my grandkids," Kerr said. "And here I'd spent my whole life building weapons to destroy them."

He couldn't sleep that night.

Back home, he told his boss he wanted to dedicate himself to good. He got involved in nuclear nonproliferation and soon he was inviting Russians to the Smokies through a YMCA summer exchange program.

The summer of 2000, 42 Russians came to Blount County. Thirty-six went to work at Dollywood. The media was alerted and theme-park attendance spiked.

Everyone was happy.

The next year, 135 came. The next, 150. Soon, Blount County joined Sister City International and was paired with Zhelezno­gorsk, and that city's leaders began making trips to Tennessee.

The Blount County locals didn't know what to make of the Russians.

"At first, they thought we were all strong and always wearing country clothes," said Olga Sokolova, 29, who was in the first wave. "They asked funny questions, too. Do you have salt and sugar in Russia? And one boy said, 'We heard Russian girls don't shave their armpits.' I said, 'Yes, we do.' "

John Crabtree remembers being skeptical when a Russian woman took a job on the line by him at Denso Manufacturing.

"Exactly what are you here for?" he asked.

Then something interesting began to happen. The Russian kids and American kids started getting along. Sometimes, really well.

Crabtree proposed marriage to his Russian colleague in his Toyota pickup, even though his grandmother wouldn't let her in the house because she feared the Communists. Anna Kirillova became Anna Crabtree, and she now knows more about Tennessee Volunteers football than your correspondent.

Sammy Weeks needed money to buy a plane ticket for his Russian girlfriend to return to the United States. He sold his shotgun.

They've been married four years now and are expecting their first child.

Olga Weeks says she'll name the baby girl Iris, after Tennessee's state flower.

• • •

Howard Kerr was in Russia, meeting with Zheleznogorsk officials, when the mayor's letter made news. Kerr assured the officials that the viewpoint was not shared by all.

"We should be eating dinner with our enemies, not rattling sabers," Kerr said. "The best defensive posture is when you have good friends all around the globe."

In Blount County, the Russians were steaming.

"I read this letter, and I was just really mad," said Anna Crabtree, who teaches public school now. "This man didn't even know what he was talking about."

"We've spent seven years teaching people about the culture, seven years working to break down walls, and all that is threatened by one political figure," said John Crabtree.

Kerr was more forgiving. He said that it was a knee-jerk political reaction and that he knows the mayor didn't mean any harm. He knows because, years ago at the University of Tennessee, they were roommates.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Russian takeover? Not quite 09/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 3:43pm]
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