Like a dream come true, the Soviet students wandered through Cranberry Mall in Westminster, experienced American culture and renewed friendships they had made last summer with young people who had visited their country.
They said they enjoyed the trip, even if it was a little overwhelming at times.
"It's like an exhibition," Katia Khodenkowa said of the mall. "Wecan only be happy for all of you."
The 24 Moscow students -- six college-aged and 18 secondary school students -- will return home tomorrow after spending three weeks touring the Baltimore-Washington area.
"It's been great, just like a dream," said Khodenkowa, 19. "We have heard so much about the U.S. and we have so many friends in the Soviet Union who are excited to learn about the United States. We've seen all these things here and can tell them about it."
Brought tothe United States as members of Russian World -- the Soviet equivalent of the non-denominational Christian group, Young Life -- these students were hosts to American children in their country last summer.
Young Life -- as part of the Soviet program "Youth as Creators of the 20th Century," which invited four American groups to the Soviet Union -- set up a camp near Moscow last year to tell Soviet young people about Christianity and the United States.
"We learned about it from our friends," said Olga Sigeykina, 20. "They told us some Americans were coming, and we were very interested in Americans. We wanted to have some as our friends."
After spending time at the camp, the students decided to create the Russian World clubs based on the American Young Life program.
"We were interested in the ideas and getting to know God," Khodenkowa said. "There were many people who came tothe camp and didn't believe in God. The camp changed their minds. Itwas very beautiful."
The students said Soviet schools used to teach that God didn't exist, and that people who believed in him were foolish or insane. However, the loosening of state controls in recent years has allowed religion to be openly practiced and taught.
"It'snecessary for the youth to have a place where they can go and where they can feel they are not alone," said Sasha Oktiabrskaya, 19. "It'simportant that they know they have a best friend in God to help themevery time and everywhere."
While in the United States, the students visited Washington and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, saw an Orioles game and celebrated the Fourth of July with their host families.
They also went to Kings Dominion near Richmond, Va., riding the roller coasters they call "American mountains."
"I think my favorite place was the White House, just because (President) Bush lives there," said Sigeykina.
However, the young people said they were most impressed with how friendly American people are.
"Everything is so different between our two countries, but the people are the same," said Sigeykina. "They are so friendly to us, it's amazing. They treat us as if we are old friends."
Khodenkowa agreed, adding that they were eager to make new American friends and keep in touch with them after they leave.
"There are so many kind people," she said. "So much love, so much joy."
In fact, the young people said they couldn't think of anything they disliked about the United States -- short of the climate that is much hotter than their home.
"We haven't seen the bad sides of your life," said Sveta Khitrowa, 19.
Carroll County's Young Life chapters meet on Tuesday evenings at member houses throughout the year. The non-denominational Christian organization -- started in the late 1960s by Alex and Jan Ober of Westminster -- seeks to expose high school students to Christian beliefs without preaching to them, said Joe Belinko, Young Life director.
For information on the club, call 848-6722 or 876-6424.