Sister Cities of Rochester responds to war in Ukraine

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In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when the U.S. has imposed heavy sanctions against Russia, American businesses—McDonald’s, Starbucks, Apple, Netflix, Airbnb, and others—have closed operations in Russia, and arts and sports groups have banned individual Russians, what should American cities do with their Sister Cities in Russia?  

Sever ties to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people, or maintain ties to keep lines of communication open with the Russian people?

It’s a question facing 66 American cities—including Rochester—that have paired themselves through Sister Cities International with like-sized cities in Russia.

Founded in 1956, Sister Cities is a nonprofit organization that promotes people-to-people diplomacy by fostering partnerships between cities, counties, and states in more than 140 countries.  

Rochester has official Sister City relations with 12 international cities, including Velikiy Novgorod (also known just as Novgorod) in Russia. The local Sister City program is run by volunteers, although there is some financial support from the mayor’s office, and the mayor serves as honorary chair of the group’s board of trustees.

Novgorod, one of Russia’s oldest cities, is about 350 miles northwest of Moscow, has a population of about 225,000, and like Rochester, is bisected by a river, the Volkhov. Over several decades, the Rochester-Novgorod relationship has involved visits by city leaders, exchanges of teachers, social workers, lawyers, and judges, and other cultural and economic connections.  

St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Novgorod

Moreover, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was interest in establishing for-profit businesses in Russia, the mayor of Novgorod suggested starting a photo business. This led to the launch in the mid-1990s of Genesee-Volkhov Connection Inc., a for-profit company that ran Eastman Kodak Co. Photo Express stores in Russia. The stores—the first one of which opened in Novgorod—sold Kodak-branded products and offered Kodak-approved photo finishing. 

The town of Irondequoit, where many residents have family ties to Ukraine, has established a partnership with Poltava, a city in central Ukraine. Though not an official sister city relationship, residents are working through this partnership now to send supplies and other support to Poltava. (More on this below.)

Some American communities with Sister Cities in Russia have chosen, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to sever ties with their Russian counterparts. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, for example, has suspended sister city ties with Moscow “until the end of hostilities against Ukraine and the Putin regime is held accountable for its crimes.” Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has announced he will “immediately dissolve and terminate Maryland’s partnership with the Leningrad Region.” Norfolk, Va.’s City Council has called for suspension of its relationship with Kaliningrad, Russia “until peace and sovereignty are restored in Ukraine.”

But on March 7, Rochester took the opposite course when the board of trustees of International Sister Cities of Rochester, NY, Inc. voted to maintain and continue our decades-long relationship with Novgorod.

There was no discussion among trustees about breaking ties with Novgorod, according to board President Carolee A. Conklin. “Sister Cities is about people to people, not government to government,” she says. “During some of the toughest days of the Cold War, these communications lines were kept open, and they should remain open now.”

That move echoes a statement released by the city of Rochester and International Sister Cities of Rochester. It deplores Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but reaffirms that our relationship with Novgorod “is a connection of friendship and peace with the citizens of our sister city … (and) is not between national governments but transcends international politics.” 

The statement concludes: “We urgently hope for the safety of our friends in Velikiy Novgorod, Russia, and Poltava, Ukraine, the speedy cessation of violence in Ukraine, and resumption of the peaceful and friendly relationships that benefit our respective communities.”

This statement aligns with one issued by the national office of Sister Cities International in Washington, D.C. urging members not to sever their relationships with Russian cities.   

“Our policy remains to encourage our members … to keep their sister city relationship active, especially now when the political issues and actions of the day threaten to disrupt the positive, constructive relationships that have been made over many years,” said Leroy Allala, president and CEO.

Tim Quigley, president of the national Sister Cities Foundation and a retired naval officer, applauds Rochester’s decision to maintain ties with Novgorod. 

“It’s easy (to keep such ties) when times are easy between countries,” he says, “but the most important time is when things are not easy. We encourage our members to keep their sister cities active, especially when political issues disrupt the positive, personal relationships that have been made.”

He termed Chicago Mayor Lightfoot’s suspension of ties with Moscow, “dreadful.”

“We have a lot of well-intended people,” he says, “who think (suspending ties) is a good signal to send. No, it isn’t. Suspending sister city relationships closes a channel of communication to which meaningful dialogue may be held.”

Alexander Nevsky Embankment, Novgorod

But keeping communication channels open with Russian citizens of Novgorod right now is difficult. Russia itself has blocked Facebook and restricted Twitter, and the Russian parliament recently passed a law imposing fines or jail terms for anyone spreading what the government deems “false information” about the Ukrainian situation. 

The Beacon’s attempts to contact through email city officials in Novgorod have to date been unsuccessful. 

But Paul Caccamise, who heads the Rochester-Novgorod Sister Cities Committee (called “Linkages”) recently did receive posts from some Novgorod citizens who are active in the Rochester-Novgorod program. For fear of losing their jobs or running into legal trouble, none wanted to be identified in these excerpts that Caccamise shared with the Rochester Beacon.

Hello to all our friends in Rochester, please say them that I’m not supporter of this terrible war..) All I feel is deep pain, grief and fear. I only hope it could stop soon.

I did not choose this president (I voted against him). I am really ashamed of what he is doing. It’s terrible. I feel powerless, angry, empty…

I’m really exhausted emotionally to talk with war supporters and victims of propaganda.

It is the deepest sadness for all of us. War is not the best way to solve global political problems. But that is what we have today. I will be going to do everything to save any contact with our friends in Rochester.

Image from online city guide of Velikiy Novgorod 

Even before the current crisis in Ukraine, Novgorod residents were not always free to speak their minds. Conklin’s last visit to Novgorod was in 2015, the year after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine. When asked if she had discussed that development with her Novgorod hosts then, she says, “Oh, no. We were very circumspect.”

“By and large,” she explains, “Sister Cities has stayed out of political discussion, particularly since Putin came to power. Americans don’t want to pull their Russian counterparts into any discussion that will get them into trouble.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the conflict, many of the 22 American cities that have partnered with cities in Ukraine are now using those channels to help residents of their sister cities.  According to Quigley, many are sending medical and protective equipment, as well as money.  

The Irondequoit-Poltava sister cities group has invited Rochesterians to help by donating items such as “sleeping bags, socks and underwear, medical gloves, toothbrushes and sanitary products like diapers for babies and adults, wipes and menstrual products.” Donations are being collected by the nonprofit group InterVol. For more information, including drop off locations, visit InterVol’s website.

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected].

3 thoughts on “Sister Cities of Rochester responds to war in Ukraine

  1. This is an excellent piece with a very positive message. People to people and culture to culture exchange efforts were a positive factor in the cold war, and they continue to be so to this day.

  2. If someone in my family hurts someone else, the fact she is a family member should not absolve me from doing the right thing. I strongly believe Rochester should not give any support to its sister city. Once again, Mr. Lovenheim delivers a thoughtful, well researched, compassionate analysis of a controversial issue. With writers like Lovenheim, it is no wonder that The Rochester Beacon enjoys a stellar reputation that belies its size compared to larger mainstream media.

  3. Thank you for holding up the positive and peaceful person-to-person interactions that mark our community’s response. War is terrible for everyone involved: Ukrainian people, Russian people, all of us, really. Families are divided by national boundaries, as we have heard of Ukrainian and Russian family members trying to talk to each other. That includes two men in our large family who are married to Russian women, who are trying to negotiate relationships with their families still in Russia. Human to human contact must remain primary and our Sister Cities relationship reflects that sentiment in both the Ukraine and Russia.

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