Century Plaza in downtown Roanoke features column-like sculptures to Roanoke's seven sister cities. The one to Pskov, Russia is third from the left, with the blue top. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

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The city of Pskov, Russia, lies southwest of St. Petersburg, about 20 miles east of Estonia. Like Roanoke, it is a river city and railway junction. It is also the headquarters of the Russian 76th Guards Airborne Division. Since 1992, it has been paired with Roanoke under the Sister Cities program established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. 

Now, with Gov. Glenn Youngkin calling for Roanoke to break with Pskov, others involved in the Sister Cities program are speaking in favor of preserving the relationship.

In a press release date Feb. 26, Youngkin “called for decisive action in support of Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion” and called on “the City of Norfolk and the City of Roanoke to end sister city partnerships with Russian cities.”

Map by Robert Lunsford.

Cardinal News emailed Youngkin’s press contact, Macaulay Porter, asking for more detail on the governor’s reasoning. Porter acknowledged the request but a response from the governor had not arrived by deadline.

After initial reports that he supported Youngkin, Roanoke mayor Sherman Lea sent a letter to Youngkin affirming the sister city relationship.

“As Mayor of the City of Roanoke, I stand united with you and President Biden in denouncing the heinous actions undertaken by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine…I do not believe that this support necessitates dissolution of our 30-year relationship with the people of Pskov, Russia. Indeed, it is times like these that such relationships are more important than ever–as person to person, we seek understanding and peace.”

“This is not the time to tell our friends in Pskov that we want to sever our ties with them,” Mary Jo Fassié, president of Roanoke Valley Sister Cities, Inc., wrote to Youngkin on Feb. 26.  “While we may not agree with the politics in Russia, nor in the countries of any of our Sister Cities for that matter, we do not get involved with politics or take a political stand on any issue.  Our people-to-people relationships are the best way for us to demonstrate to the people of Pskov and Russia at large that the citizens of the Roanoke Valley and the American people are not their enemies, nor do we consider them to be ours.”

Sister cities

At least 27 Virginia localities have “sister cities” in other countries. Here are the ones in Southwest and Southside:

Blacksburg:

  1. San Jose de Bocay, Nicaragua. 

Lynchburg:

  1. Glauchau, Germany
  2. Rueil-Malmaison, France

Roanoke Valley:

  1. Florianopolis, Brazil
  2. Kisumu, Kenya
  3. Lijiang, China
  4. Opole, Poland
  5. Pskov, Russia
  6. Saint-Lo, France
  7. Wonju, South Korea

Wise:

  1. Cesme, Turkey

Roanoke Valley Sister Cities, Inc., (RVSCI), is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit affiliated with Sister Cities International, Inc., headquartered in Washington, D.C. It is funded by member dues as well as Roanoke and Roanoke County. In addition to Pskov, the Roanoke Valley has sister cities in Brazil, China, France, Kenya, Korea and Poland.

Lynchburg has two sister cities, in France and Germany. Wise has a sister city in Turkey. Blacksburg is paired with San Jose de Bocay in Nicaragua. 

In the Roanoke Valley, an umbrella corporate board oversees relations with all seven cities. Each city also has its own committee. 

Roanoke and Pskov have been involved in “numerous humanitarian, educational and medical initiatives,” according to the RVSCI website. “Established in October of 1992 and led by Natasha Petersen and later Sasha Saari, the Roanoke side of the Sister city partnership has furnished medical supplies and equipment for hospitals, orphanages and hospice in Pskov. Under our leadership an agreement between Ferrum College and the Pskov Pedagogical Institute (now Pskov State University) was established in 1993. To date numerous Russian students have received full scholarships for a semester of study at Ferrum College, while Ferrum students have worked, studied and interned in Pskov. During the years of our partnership groups from Roanoke have visited Pskov, and the Roanoke side has been delighted to receive visitors from Pskov to the Star City.”

An aerial view of Pskov. Photo courtesy of A. Savin.

In 2019, Patricia Sagasti Suppes, then on the Ferrum faculty and chair of the Roanoke-Pskov committee, visited Russia. She reported on the visit in RVSCI’s December 2019 newsletter. 

“In October, I went to Moscow to represent RVSC in the Russia-U.S. Municipal Forum and was able to travel to our sister city of Pskov. The trip lasted six days and helped me to refresh our connections with leaders in Pskov.

“On the second day I was picked up at the train station in Pskov by Olga, one of my former students at  Ferrum College. She had spent a year in Ferrum with our exchange program. I then got a walking tour of the city with a wonderful explanation of its history, led by another former Ferrum exchange student, Katya. That afternoon I met with the director of international programs at Pskov State University, who talked to me about their newest programs and their continuing interest in working with Ferrum College. 

“The second day in Pskov included meetings with the acting mayor and other city officials. I was able to deliver gifts from us and from Roanoke Mayor Lea, and had official photos taken. Afterward, I had a meeting with administrators of the university, in which we talked about future collaborations and a possible renewal of our exchange agreement. I then spoke with a group of about 60 students who were very interested in coming to Ferrum. 

“The next morning I arrived in Moscow and then with the Sister Cities International group. We spent this rainy day indoors, meeting at the Russian Foreign Ministry and at the U.S. embassy. Both were interesting, and we were able to learn about the perspectives that each nation has on U.S. and Russian relations. We then attended presentations at a youth forum for U.S. and Russian students, in which there were speeches about the future of international cooperation, before a group dinner at the hotel.”

Sagasti Suppes subsequently left Ferrum and the Pskov Committee. She is Director of Global Education at Hartwick College in New York, according to the college’s website. A phone call and email to her had not been returned by deadline.

The sculpture to Pskov, Russia, one of Roanoke’s seven sister cities. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Michael Hancock-Parmer is assistant director of international programs at Ferrum. “According to a standing agreement with RVSCI, they agree to fund exchanges between Pskov State University and Ferrum College,” he wrote in an email. “Ferrum College has a Memorandum of Understanding with Pskov laying out guidelines for exchange between Pskov State University and Ferrum College. This MoU is still in place. There are no students currently taking part in this exchange. Covid-19 has largely stopped many exchange programs since the spring of 2020 and many are slowly coming back online.”

The Roanoke-Pskov committee chair is Roanoke resident Jessie Coffman. 

“It’s been about a 30-year partnership,” she wrote in an email. “Ties have waxed and waned. Due to COVID there has been a bit of a lull. But within the last little bit we had actually made headway and had conversations with our contacts there. We’re still hopeful that can continue;. We had an official contact about two weeks ago. It was a Zoom meeting that we (RVSCI) initiated. We had looked into the possibility of adding an exchange elsewhere. Virginia Tech offers a Russian program and so we were looking at that.” There was also discussion of a virtual art show. 

Bill Bestpitch serves on the Roanoke city council and also is treasurer of the RVSCI umbrella committee. 

“The agreements we have with sister cities are basically memoranda of understanding between the Roanoke Valley Sister Cities organization and whatever the other city is and the organization they have there. The relationship is, that when we want to make an agreement with another city somewhere else in the world, then it’s a joint effort of the Sister Cities organization and the city of Roanoke except for one situation,” he said, referring to Opole, Poland, which is paired with Roanoke County rather than Roanoke.

 “Roanoke Valley Sister Cities would not go out and try to form a relationship with another sister city somewhere in the world without getting the agreement of Roanoke city government. Neither the city nor the organization would terminate a relationship with one of our sister cities except by joint agreement to do so.”

In an email, Lea said he was planning to bring up Pskov at the city council meeting Monday. “I will ask the Council –What are their thoughts re: Sister Cities Relationship with Russia and we will prepare a resolution stating the same.”

“I’m not sure what to expect,” Bestpitch said. “I can tell you what I hope will happen. I hope over the next few days we will get a resolution drafted that does three things. That strongly condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine; that secondly, expresses our compassion and support of the people of Ukraine who are the victims of this aggression, and then thirdly, reaffirms our connection with the people and the city of Pskov, Russia.”

Bestpitch said the people in Pskov are not to blame for the invasion. 

“People are saying it sends a message,” he said, referring to the Youngkin’s proposal. “Well, it sends a message to whom? If we cut our ties with Pskov, who gets what message? It certainly doesn’t do anything to help anybody in Ukraine. And it doesn’t do anything at all to hinder anything that the Russian military wants to do or is planning to do.”

“I feel like if we were to sever those ties, it would be detrimental to both parties,” Coffman said. “That relationship would be very difficult to build back in the future.”

Caynor Smith is a council member and former mayor of Wise, which is paired with Cesme (pronounced CHEZ-may), Turkey. He visited Turkey when he was mayor and hosted a reciprocal visit by Cesme’s mayor. He gave the Turk a Stetson hat, because “in Turkey they think every American is a cowboy.”

Smith also met with Istanbul’s mayor, who asked him his impressions of the country. Smith replied that he was struck by how warm the people were . “He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘People all around the world love each other. People all around the world are like this. It’s only governments that are different.'”

Randy Walker

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was formerly a staff writer on (as it...