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Discovering Kotlas: A Sister-City Retrospective

By Jean Ann Pollard and Gregor Smith

"Might makes right" is an old slogan. And for a generation, the citizens of the United States and the Soviet Union had lived with the threat of mutual nuclear destruction. Governments on both sides had seen security in terms of massive military preparedness.

The pairing of cities was not a new idea in Europe. After World War II, peacemakers in England and France established such pairings between their own towns and towns in Germany. In the Soviet Union, the Association for Relations Between Soviet and Foreign cities was founded, but its purpose was more to regulate than to promulgate such contacts.

But by the l980's, a growing number of ordinary people were questioning that way of thinking. Perceiving that the threat of nuclear holocaust wasn't going to solve disagreements between the two countries, they decided they had better act on their own to avert disaster. Groups of citizen diplomats sought to establish sister-city pairings between communities in the U.S. and communities in the U.S.S.R. In showing "the enemy" to be people just like themselves, they would make the idea of hurling bombs across the sea truly unthinkable.

Peter Garrett, a hydrogeologist living in Winslow, was one of these. In l982, listening to President Ronald Reagan describe the U.S.S.R. as the "Evil Empire" and counting how much of America's budget was being spent on military preparedness, he decided that he should become involved. Politicians, he felt, were polarizing the public's attitude by dividing the world into "good guys" and "bad guys." Such propaganda combined with gigantic military arsenals could only result, as it has throughout history, in armed conflict.

But what was the "Evil Empire" really like? And what could one person do? Early in the autumn of 1983, Garrett wrote to the Ground Zero Pairing Project, a nongovernmental clearinghouse that arranged for community groups in the U.S. to pair their cities with similar ones in the U.S.S.R. He asked the project to suggest pairs for Waterville and Winslow. On receiving the reply, he went to the Colby College Library to consult an atlas and the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. He concluded, however, that the suggested cities would not be appropriate matches: not only were they not near each other (like Waterville and Winslow), but also they seemed to have little in common with the two Maine towns. Yet Garrett was not discouraged. He resolved to keep looking until he found a Russian city that seemed to be a twin for Greater Waterville.

"We want one with as many similarities as possible," he said. "This city should be northern, like ours, and preferably one which has a paper mill, as Waterville does." In fact he found a city that had not only those similarities, but also an important railroad depot, a medical center, and a couple of regional colleges. It also had a similar climate. His research even suggested that Kotlas and Greater Waterville had similarly-sized populations (although he learned later that Kotlas had twice as many people as Greater Waterville.) "Surely," he thought, "it won't take an enormous stretch of imagination to picture people going about their daily lives who are more or less like us."

As it turned out, the Project had tentatively paired Kotlas with Augusta in response to an inquiry earlier that year from a group there. However since that group had not yet moved to implement the pairing, the Project reassigned Kotlas to Greater Waterville. In December, a representative of the Augusta group wrote to the Project, surrendering to Garrett the group's claim to Kotlas and requesting an alternate city.

Garrett wrote back to the Project, asking if Kotlas was available to be matched. It was, and thus it became Greater Waterville's prospective partner. He also published a letter in the Morning Sentinel, and spoke to public officials, teachers, librarians, and other people to gauge local support for having a sister city in Russia. Most of those he spoke to were enthusiastic, if not at first, after some gentle persuasion.

By the end of November, he had formed a committee of citizens from Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield, and Oakland, and called it "Our Peaceful Russian Connection." Fifteen people attended its first formal meeting in December, and by the next April, the group had grown to nearly two dozen members. The group outlined four goals: "to express, with our sister city Kotlas . . . a common desire for peace between our nations", "to establish personal contacts with citizens and families", to establish educational and cultural exchanges, and eventually to establish business exchanges. Its more immediate tasks were to make the people of the Waterville area aware of the project and have as many as possible sign a "Resolution for Peace" (which would be sent to Kotlas), to persuade the area's city and town councils to pass resolutions of support for the project, and to compile and send to Kotlas a "Community Portrait" of pictures and other materials about Greater Waterville and its people.

But how could they contact Kotlas, that city 500 miles northeast of Moscow, where the Vychegda flows into the great Northern Dvina, which in turn flows north to the cold White Sea on the Arctic Circle? How could they let the people there know of their wishes for peace and partnership? And what would be the response?

In December of 1983, Garrett traveled to New York on business. While there he paid visits to the Soviet United Nations delegation and to two private organizations fostering Soviet-American ties. At each place, he was given some general words of encouragement and a few leads to pursue, but no particular help in establishing a sister-city relationship with Kotlas.

In reality, there was little support in either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. for pairing cities with populations of less than 100,000. And Kotlas? It seemed to be asking for an invitation to Mars — that the city was off-limits for some reason that couldn't be stated. Certainly Kotlas was not on the Intourist list of sites to be visited. But why? Was it because of a lack of tourist facilities in Kotlas? Or because of some military installation or arms manufacturer? Did it have something to do with the city's historical reputation as a major gateway to the Gulag Archipelago? Nobody would say.

Thus, the members of Our Peaceful Russian Connection decided to go it alone, to proceed unofficially, rather than through "the proper channels." Doing so became a matter of pride.

On September 1, 2003, Soviet fighter jets shot down a South Korean passenger plane, Korean Airlines flight 007, that had strayed into Soviet airspace. The shootdown provoked widespread outrage.

Two and a half months later, on November 20, ABC premiered The Day After. The three-hour, made-for-television drama imagined a massive nuclear attack on the United States and its effects on the residents of one Kansas town.

Locally however, OPRC was regarded with considerable suspicion. U.S.-Soviet relations had reached a new low. 1983 was the year that a Soviet warplane had shot down a Korean airliner, and the year that the U.S. State Department had declared most of Maine off-limits to Soviet diplomats and journalists. It was also the year of the television show The Day After, which deeply affected everyone with its portrayal of holocaust horrors.

Perhaps because of all that and because of a growing sense that someone must do something for peace, no matter how insignificant such a deed might be, the idea of having a sister city caught on. At a time when the peace movement seemed to be saying "No!" to what governments were doing, a sister-city pairing was something positive and creative that ordinary people could do — something they could say "Yes!" to.

With a generous grant from the Waterville Rotary Club, the committee was able to produce a newsletter and flyers to publicize its cause. (The grant also enabled Garrett to attend a Philadelphia conference of sister-city organizers, and eventually, for the committee to mail the Community Portrait.) The committee set about to convince the councils of the three towns and the one city composing the Greater Waterville community that the idea of sister-city pairing with Kotlas was sound.

But the project faced considerable opposition. Some veterans and others in the community were critical. One person suggested that the American Communist Party was behind the idea; others called Garrett "a Red."

The letter, written by Peter Garrett and signed by Mayor Ann Hill, was the first attempt by a Waterville mayor to communicate with a Kotlas mayor. The letter read, in part:

I want you to know [that] my hope and prayer is for peace with the citizens of Kotlas. I know we have much in common: love of our families and our country and hope for the future. I am concerned about the growing tension between our two countries and what it portends for all who inhabit the earth. . . . I hope this small, initial exchange will help to reduce tensions and prove to be a first step in helping the world to be a more peaceful place."

Lisa Wormwood, a Waterville resident and December 1983 Colby graduate, carried this letter to Moscow when she traveled to the Soviet Union in January 1984. While there, she tried unsuccessfully to get permission to take the letter the rest of the way to Kotlas, making her the first person from Greater Waterville to attempt to visit our sister city. The letter was sent by telegraph in February and by mail in March.

Although in December of l983 Waterville's mayor had signed a letter to the Mayor of Kotlas proposing the pairing, the argument still raged through the winter and spring of l984. In January, the Fairfield council quickly approved the project, but when it came before the Waterville council later that month, the debate was contentious. The proposal likely would have been defeated, but the strength of the arguments its supporters and the Mayor's support for it persuaded the council to postpone a vote until passions could cool.

In February, when the matter came before Oakland councilors, they refused to vote on it at all. Their chairman scoffed that the council had not been elected to decide questions of "international philosophy." A few days later, Winslow councilors discussed the proposal and did take a vote. They gave the project a unanimous initial endorsement, but postponed a final vote, as their chairman feared that the Soviet Union might somehow "exploit" the town if the resolution were enacted.

But later that month, the Morning Sentinel endorsed the project in an editorial. Winslow's council followed in mid-March, and then Waterville's, a week later. At the end of March, OPRC organizers presented Oakland's council with petitions signed by over 200 people, obliging the council to add the question to the agenda for the annual town meeting in May, where it passed, 60 to 43.

In Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), customs officials opened both boxes and redistributed their contents, sending one box on to Kotlas and returning the other one to Waterville. (The returned box contained the school materials and samples of toilet paper and paper towels, which Soviet Customs evidently found "unacceptable.") In April 1986, a Fairfield school group touring Russia took this box to Friendship House in Moscow, which presumably sent it on to Kotlas.

In June of 1984, a "Community Portrait" containing an assortment of maps, photographs of "ordinary people doing everyday things", the endorsements of all four councils, products from local factories, portfolios from a couple of schools, and a "Resolution for Peace" (whose text was based upon the letter that Peter Garret had written six months earlier) signed by over a thousand local citizens was assembled with a lot of love, and mailed, in two boxes, to a country still viewed as a dangerous enemy — to the citizens of a mysterious, closed city no one here had ever seen. Waiting hopefully for the mails to deliver the packages, and for someone over there to pen a reply, Our Peaceful Russian Connection hosted teach-ins (to help other cities form their own connections) and balalaika performances.

"Star Wars," here, refers not the 1977 movie by George Lucas, but rather the Strategic Defense Initiative, a system of terrestrial and orbital defenses that included lasers and interceptor missiles and was intended to protect the United States against a massive Soviet nuclear attack. Proposed by President Ronald Reagan in a speech on March 23, 1983, it quickly gained the nickname "Star Wars." Facing numerous technical, financial, and political hurdles, the system was never developed.

As for the joke, President Reagan made the following remark just before his weekly radio address on August 11, 1984: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." He didn't realize that the microphone had already been turned on.

Then, in February 1985, the long-awaited response came. Angered over "Star Wars" and Reagan's joke about outlawing the Soviet Union, and possibly suspicious about the project's real intentions, V. Shmelyov, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Kotlas (a position equivalent to mayor), wrote a letter that was polite, but full of Communist Party propaganda. He thanked Waterville for the gifts, but remained silent about any sister-city relationship. Nonetheless, it was clear from his tone that he did not support such a pairing, and would do nothing to further it. To American ears, his was familiar rhetoric meaning nyet. After all the work and all the hope, the pairing between Greater Waterville and Kotlas appeared absolutely dead.

It wasn't.

The spring of 1985 was a bleak time for Our Peaceful Russian Connection. Many of the people who had been involved became discouraged, and turned to other things. Some other people suggested starting all over again, with a different city, one that wasn't officially closed and thus might be more receptive to a sister-city pairing. But OPRC's remaining members decided to continue with Kotlas precisely because it was closed. To open a closed city would be more meaningful and more valuable for peace than to begin again with a city that was already open.

Peter Garrett and Mayor Hill penned a reply to Shmelyov's letter stressing the need for ordinary citizens to advance peaceful coexistence and the potential value for both Greater Waterville and Kotlas of a sister-city pairing. Garrett subsequently sent letters to various officials in Moscow to try to revive the pairing, including a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev himself, sent in January 1986. Possibly as a result of this latter letter, A.A. Roshchupkin, Shmelyov's successor, wrote to Mayor Hill. He, too, thanked Waterville for the gifts, but did not encourage efforts to establish a pairing.

Yet even through all the blackness shined a glimmer of hope. Immediately after the arrival of Shmelyov's letter, Natalia Alekseyevna von Rankhner Kempers, a grandmother of Russian origin who had been active in the project since its earliest days, dashed off a postcard asking him to arrange for her to correspond with "an ordinary mortal" in Kotlas. Vyacheslav Chernykh, a boatyard engineer and stamp collector, considered himself such a person. He had come to see the mayor on business unrelated to the moribund exchange and had seen her postcard with its intriguing stamp on the mayor's desk.

The card's sender was the daughter of refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution. Her parents had fled in 1920 from Archangel, the seaport at the mouth of the Dvina, 335 miles downriver from Kotlas. She had been born in Yugoslavia, and had lived there until the end of World War II, when she fled as the Red Army advanced. She had come to the United States in l945, after marrying an American soldier. "I am an American citizen by choice," she wrote, "but I grew up loving Russia, the old Russia, not the Communism. It's a broken heart, you know. So many people, Russian people, are buried all over the world."

In response to her touching postcard, Chernykh sent a letter, which she received at the end of June. The two new friends continued to exchange letters and stamps.

For the next two years, the correspondence between Kempers and Chernykh was all that sustained the putative sister-city pairing. But other things were beginning to happen as well. Roshchupkin's letter had stated that the Community Portrait had been given to the Kotlas branch of the Young Pioneers, a Soviet youth organization similar to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Yelena Chirkova, a young assistant leader of the Pioneers, saw the objects sent from America and became intrigued. She began to collect paintings, crocheted doilies, carvings, and other items made by children in Kotlas. She carefully wrapped these items and, in December of 1986, sent them in two boxes on their long journey to the mysterious city in the United States that seemed to want contact.

In April l987, they arrived. Our Peaceful Russian Connection was overjoyed. The artworks and other beautiful objects were put on display in libraries. School children ooh-ed and aah-ed over the handicrafts of other children. Area children, mostly Winslow Girl Scouts, prepared handicrafts of their own (including a pine-cone wreath, Christmas ornaments, and a paper-maché globe) for a return package, sent in 1988. Among the adults, hostility was evaporating into curiosity.

By July of l988, OPRC had received a letter from Zina Yegorova, an English teacher at School #3 in Kotlas. She suggested that children here and children there become pen pals. In addition, articles about Waterville were published in Dvinskaya Pravda, the newspaper in Kotlas. (These were later translated and published in the Morning Sentinel.) And by the end of that year, Garrett and Kempers were even making plans to go to Kotlas.

In April 1989, Mary Coombs, a teacher at Winslow Junior High School, would lead a group of parents, teachers, and students from Winslow High School that would be spending ten days in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Peter Garrett, his daughter Jessica, and Natalia Kempers would join the trip, hoping that the Soviet government would permit them to visit Kotlas for a few days. To get that permission, they needed an official invitation from Kotlas. In February 1989, at the behest of engineer Chernykh and others, Mayor Roshchupkin had sent such an invitation. It arrived in mid-March, barely in time for the trio to have Kotlas included on their visas.

The invitation from the Kotlas mayor read:

I want to extend my invitation from the bottom of my heart to [Peter Garrett, Jessica Garrett, and Natalia Kempers] to visit our city. We will be glad to render to . . . [them] a . . . hearty welcome and introduce them to the City of Kotlas and its memorable places, and to spend some time . . . with the people of Kotlas. . . .

I hope that this first visit of Watervillians to us will serve toward a further deepening . . . [of a] friendly connection between our two cities, and will become a concrete investment in strengthening the relations between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. on the level of people's diplomacy, contacts not only of politicians, but also between ordinary people.

Even with official sanction for their visit, they still had to figure out how actually to get to Kotlas, 500 miles from Moscow and slightly further from Leningrad. But a serendipitous solution to this problem soon presented itself. Alexander Markov, a Moscow resident, wrote to Garrett in March offering to help. His parents, who lived in Kotlas, had recently sent him a box of potatoes wrapped in sheets of newspaper, and on one of the sheets was an article about the Americans who wanted to go to Kotlas. He obtained the train tickets to take Garrett and his companions from Moscow to Kotlas. And thus, around 3:00 p.m. on a dull and overcast April 20, after five-and-a-half years, after a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, Peter Garrett, Jessica Garrett, and Natalia Kempers became (as far as we know) the first Americans ever to set foot in Kotlas.

Jessica Garrett liked to say that in fact she was the first American in Kotlas, since at the time, her father was still a British subject, and Natalia Kempers had always been a Russian at heart.

The joyfulness of their reception contrasted with the dreariness of the weather and the season (late winter). They were treated like visiting royalty, and were soon swept up in a whirlwind of meetings, greetings, and tours. They visited a school, where Garrett played a tune on a fiddle and was given a balalaika; a kindergarten, where the children put on a play for them; and the House of Pioneers, where they were given a feast. They also toured the main library, the city's newspaper, the city hall, and a paper mill in a nearby town. At the city hall, they were introduced to the newly appointed mayor, Viktor Zverev. A popular, reform-minded Communist, he assumed his post only a few weeks earlier. He greeted the trio warmly, and this boded well for the future of the sister-city exchange.

Everywhere they went, they were welcomed with warmth, enthusiasm, and also curiosity, as most of the people they met had never met Americans before. But after only two short days, it was time for them to leave Kotlas and fly to Leningrad to rejoin the school group they had left in Moscow. A small, but enthusiastic crowd had gathered to say do svidanya. After many hugs, and a few tears, the trio boarded the plane. Their newfound friends continued to wave until the plane was in the air.

The little party of Americans, flying from Kotlas, rejoined the student group in St. Petersburg. They were accompanied by Zina Yegorova and Inna Tushina, another English teacher in Kotlas. This meeting became very emotional as Yegorova greeted each student individually, recognizing them from the pictures they had sent to their pen pals. For each student she had gifts and a personal message. There was not a dry eye in the room.

After their return from Kotlas, the pace of the exchange picked up considerably. In July 1989, Waterville Mayor Judy Kany wrote to Kotlas Mayor Zverev to invite him to bring a delegation to Waterville. He wrote back in November, accepting the invitation of behalf of himself and three others: Zina Yegorova, the teacher and pen pal organizer; Vyacheslav Chernykh, the shipyard engineer and letter writer; and Nikolai Sheptyakov, a journalist for the local newspaper. Kany received this letter in mid-December and wrote back nine days later. She proposed that the four come in May or June and announced the formation of a "welcoming committee" to prepare for their arrival.

Thus, as one of her last acts as mayor — her term expired a few days later — Judy Kany appointed a "Kotlas Committee" of eleven people. They included Peter Garrett, Natalia Kempers, and Philip Gonyar, a high-school history teacher whom she selected as its chairman. The committee first met on January 9, 1990, and continued to meet every few weeks afterwards. By mid-February, it had prepared a tentative itinerary, but due to problems with paperwork and the delegation's difficulties obtaining airline tickets, the Committee couldn't be sure exactly when the foursome would be coming. Yet late in the evening of June 15, after several postponements, the first Kotlassians to visit Greater Waterville arrived.

Here is an excerpt from the sister city agreement:

So let it be known that twin city ties are hereby officially established, with the following goals in mind:

  1. To express a common desire for peace between our nations.
  2. To establish personal contacts by citizens and families through all manner of com­muni­cation and visits.
  3. To establish edu­cational exchanges through our schools, youth groups, and libraries, and cul­tural exchanges through our musi­cal, theatri­cal, sporting and other groups.
  4. To encourage trade and indus­trial exchanges whenever possible.

This text of the four goals was taken (with only minor changes) from OPRC's informal statement of purpose from November 1983, bringing local sister-city organizers full circle.

For six hectic days, they toured Waterville and its environs. On Saturday, they visited the Farmer's Market, planted a birch tree near the Two-Cent Bridge to commemorate their visit, watched a Little League baseball game, and ate a baked-bean supper at a Benton church. On Sunday, they attended a Baptist church service, a Quaker picnic, and a lobster dinner. On Monday, they toured Colby College and downtown Waterville, stopping in Shop'n Save and other stores. On Tuesday, they traveled to Augusta, where they toured the veteran's cemetery and the State House and laid flowers at the statue of Samantha Smith. On Wednesday they toured the Cascade and Scott Paper mills, and the two mayors signed a proclamation formalizing the sister-city ties. On Thursday, they toured the Mid-Maine Medical Center and Kennebec Valley Technical College, where they declined an invitation to learn how to climb utility poles. Finally on Friday, exhausted and overwhelmed, they were driven to New York to catch their flight back across the ocean.

Before leaving, they had offered to host a similar delegation from Waterville the next year. By August, the Committee was making plans to send a nine-member official delegation to Kotlas the following June, with Mayor David Bernier as its head. Besides the mayor, that delegation included a hydrogeologist, a computer consultant, an amateur historian, two high-school history teachers, an author and artist, a college student, and an erstwhile librarian.

The days were long, not only because of a hectic schedule with few chances to rest, but also because of the length of the daylight. Due to the high, northern latitude and time of year, the days were twenty hours long, interrupted only by four hours of twilight. The whole time that they were in Kotlas, night did not come.

During four long days, they visited a paper mill, a shipyard, a school, museums, churches, health spas, a children's library, and a workshop for the blind. Throughout their stay, their hosts treated them lavishly: from the private train car that had brought them from Moscow, to the private ferry run to an upriver town famed for its ancient churches, to the four feasts a day.

The delegates concluded their visit with a formal meeting with city leaders at the mayor's office, where they presented their hosts with a U.S. flag and a Maine flag (that had flown over our national and state capitols, respectively) and a proclamation of friendship signed by the town councilors of Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield, and Oakland. Two hours later, they were back on the train, this time heading west.

The proclamation, beautifully lettered in English and in Russian, read, in part:

We bring you these greetings from all the people of Greater Water­ville, . . . We are glad to be involved in this Sister City relationship[,] because through it we can express the unity of mankind. Even as our two great nations were once essentially ignorant of each other, so now we can recognize the common thread of humanity which binds us.

We have many things to share: our love of children and of family; our need for food and shelter and companion­ship; our need for meaningful work; and our yearning that one day the people of the world will evolve beyond war and into an era of peace, so that justice and kindness will mark all our dealings . . . .

We are as long lost cousins to each other. We have found you and are glad.

After their return, the delegates assembled a slide show using slightly over one hundred of the pictures they had taken in Russia. They presented their show at the end of September to a crowd of more than 75 people, and later, individual delegates presented it to many smaller audiences, including school classes and civic groups. Besides taking pictures, four of the delegates had kept journals. One of the four, Jean Ann Pollard, wove excerpts from these accounts into a one-hundred-page narrative, copies of which were sold at the September showing.

Since then the Kotlas Committee, and its successor organization, the Kotlas Connection, have engaged in numerous further exchanges and projects. Over 800 children and adults have been matched with pen pals in Kotlas and nearly 60 Waterville area residents have actually visited our sister city, including one of David Bernier's successors in the Summer of 2005. The Kotlas Committee and the Kotlas Connection have sent two cargo containers of humanitarian aid to Kotlas, have sponsored extended visits by five high school students and one teacher from Kotlas, arranged concerts of Russian music, sponsored a visit by two Kotlas painters, and, every spring since 1993, organized a day of workshops about Russia and Russian culture for middle school students from Central Maine and beyond. For a comprehensive list of activities, see the timeline.

In the end, the story of the sister city pairing is not one of governments or high officials, but of ordinary people with an extraordinary desire for international peace and understanding. It is testimony to the perseverance of Peter Garrett, Natalia Kempers, Vyacheslav Chernykh, and many others both here and in Kotlas — that with a lot of hard work, a lot of faith, and a little bit of luck, ordinary people can move mountains.

Jean Ann Pollard, wife of Peter Garrett and mother of Jessica, originally wrote this history in 1989, soon after her husband and daughter returned from Russia Gregor Smith revised and updated it for publication in three parts in the August, October, and December 1992 issues of the Kotlas Connection's newsletter. He has made minor revisions and additions since then. In the writing of this history, special thanks go to Peter Garrett, who loaned numerous documents from his personal archives and answered innumerable little questions.