Roanoke is unusual in many ways.
Unlike most Virginia communities (outside some in the coal counties), it wasn’t founded until after the Civil War, so it’s young by the Old Dominion’s standards – still not yet as old as some Virginia cities were when the Late Unpleasantness broke out.
Because the city has a different origin story – a railroad boom town – it also has a different pattern of settlement. Roanoke took in waves of immigrants, notably Greeks and Lebanese, in the late 1800s and early 1900s at a time when the rest of Virginia saw little immigration. That heritage is still honored in the form of the annual festivals, the Greek one in the fall, the Lebanese one in late spring.
Perhaps because it grew up a different way, Roanoke was often at odds politically with the rest of the state. The city – along with the rest of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge – was the historic font of “mountain-valley Republicans” who challenged the political dominance of the Byrd Machine in the ’50s and ’60s. Linwood Holton, a son of Big Stone Gap who went on to become governor, chose Roanoke as his political base because he considered it the state’s most open-minded community. When Roanoke finally integrated, it was largely because the city’s business leaders demanded it, quietly working with Black leaders to integrate one lunch counter after another at a time when other Southern cities saw protests and riots. Even today, Roanoke is unusual – here’s a majority-white city on the edge of Appalachia with a Black mayor and a Black-majority council.
So when you look at the broad sweep of history, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that now Roanoke is unusual in another way: It’s one of the few cities in the country that has decided to maintain its Sister City ties with a Russian city. And it’s one of only three places I can find where that action has come in the form of a city council vote – a unanimous city council vote, at that.
In other cities (St. Petersburg, Florida; Stevens Point, Wisconsin; and Tulsa, Oklahoma), mayors have made that decision alone. (Virginia, of course, has a “weak mayor” system; those mayors are “strong mayors” who serve as the city’s chief executive). In one place (Gainesville, Florida), a city executive committee has made the decision. In another (Bloomington-Normal, Illinois), the decision to retain ties appears to have been one made by the Sister City organization, not any municipal government. But after scouring the internet, the only places other than Roanoke I can find where a council has actually voted in favor of keeping Sister City ties with a Russian city are Anacortes and Bellingham, Washington, and San Jose, California.
All this raises a curious and provocative question: What makes Roanoke’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine so different?
It’s not that the city council harbors Russian nationalists or somehow sympathizes with what Vladimir Putin is doing. At the same time the council voted to keep its ties to Pskov, Russia, it also voted to condemn what it called Putin’s “needless, illegal and inhumane invasion” and then condemned Putin personally, both “in the strongest possible terms.” All the council members wore blue-and-yellow ribbons to signify solidarity with Ukraine; some went a step further and wore blue and yellow clothes if they had them.
And yet Roanoke’s decision is very much at odds with what we’re seeing in other cities across the country, where there’s a rush to sever or suspend Sister City ties with Russian counterparts.
There seems to be no partisan divide on this. In Virginia, it was a Republican governor who first issued the call for Roanoke and Norfolk to “end” Sister City relationships with Russian cities. However, the Norfolk City Council has voted unanimously to do so – and Norfolk votes far more Democratic than Roanoke does. Likewise, around the country, we’ve seen both Republicans and Democrats join in doing the same. Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas all have Democratic mayors and all have moved to put their Sister City ties on hold. Iowa, Maryland and Vermont all have Republican governors and all have ended their “sister state” ties to Russian counterparts. At last, here is something that seems to unite our two parties.
I’m not inclined to go down the rabbit hole of parsing the difference between ending ties and rescinding ties and suspending ties or some other wording. Whatever the language, the list of cities taking some move to break off ties is so long I’ve given up trying to catalog it. Burlington, Vermont. Colorado Springs, Colorado. Des Moines, Iowa. Sarasota, Florida. Tallahassee, Florida. And there’s a much longer list of cities where city officials have put the issue on upcoming agendas and made it clear they’d like to break off ties. There are so many doing so that the president of Sister Cities International – the nonprofit that coordinates these relationships – has posted a message on the group’s website pleading for cities not to do this. (There are at least 69 cities with Sister Cities in Russia, according to the Bloomberg news service.) Whatever the current scorecard of cancellations, Roanoke is clearly in the minority on this.
Those who are moving to end ties – either permanently or temporarily – all say pretty much the same thing: We need to send a signal to Russia that it can’t be business as usual as long as the country is invading its neighbor.
The handful who are affirmatively keeping ties pretty much all say the same thing, too, just in reverse: The Sister City program isn’t about government-to-government ties, it’s about people-to-people diplomacy and now isn’t the time to make it harder for people to get to know one another. On the contrary, this is when we need those connections the most. Wouldn’t we be better off if more Russians had first-hand experience with a free society?
“Americans do not have issues with the actual Russian people, just their autocratic leadership and decision to invade Ukraine.”
– G.T. Bynum, mayor of Tulsa
“The horrific things that are going on in the Ukraine are not the result of our Sister City partnership. They’re the result of tyrannical leaders and military freaks that just feel the need to create war.”
– Mike Wiza, mayor of Stevens Point, Wisconsin
“I don’t know that severing ties with our relationship would be proving anything to the Russian government or Putin. We don’t want to punish the people that we’ve been friends with for 30 years.”
– John Lovric, president of the Anacortes, Washington, Sister Cities Association
I cannot discern any pattern among the handful of places that are keeping ties with Russian cities. Gainesville and Bloomington-Normal are college towns – read into that whatever you will. San Jose is in the heart of Silicon Valley – so presumably hip, cosmopolitan places. But Stevens Point is a paper mill and railroad town. Anacortes is a small fishing town. Tulsa is known for oil (so presumably might benefit if we cut off Russian oil imports). St. Petersburg is a retirement haven. And Roanoke is, well, Roanoke. Most of these places vote Democratic, but not all – the mayor of Tulsa is a Republican in one of the most Republican states in the country. All in all, this appears to be a pretty random selection of cities, which brings me back to the original question: What has made Roanoke so different in its reaction to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s call to end its Sister City relationship with Pskov?
Here’s one likely answer: Roanoke takes the Sister City program very seriously.
It’s not just the sheer number of Sister Cities Roanoke has (Blacksburg has one, Wise has one, Lynchburg has two, but the Roanoke Valley Sister Cities group has seven, six affiliated with the city, one with Roanoke County) – it’s the level of involvement that city officials have with the group.
The Sister Cities program – founded at the behest of President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, the height of the Cold War – isn’t a government thing. It’s a nonprofit. Local governments sometimes sign official memoranda of understanding with their overseas counterparts, but ultimately these are private relationships. It’s not as if Roanoke has diplomatic relationships with these cities. The degree to which local officials across the country are involved in Sister City exchanges is probably all over the board. In Roanoke, though, that degree of involvement is very high, and has been for a long time.
Two members of the Roanoke City Council – Bill Bestpitch and Joe Cobb – are formally involved with the Sister City organization, not as a result of their seats on the council, but simply as a product of their overall civic involvement. Bestpitch is the group’s treasurer; Cobb leads the committee in charge of Roanoke’s relationship with Lijiang, China. Bestpitch tells me that four of the council’s seven members contribute to the group. He’s been to St. Lo, France, one of Roanoke’s Sister Cities. Cobb has been to Lijiang. Stephanie Moon-Reynolds has been to Wonju, South Korea. None of this is unique to the current council, either. It’s been that way since the very beginning. The Sister City movement in Roanoke began with a proposal from then-Mayor Wick Anderson in 1962. One of the founding board members was David Lisk, who went on to serve 10 years on the Roanoke City Council. It’s simply been routine through the years for council members to be involved with the city’s sister cities, often visiting their counterparts and certainly hosting foreign delegations. The Roanoke City Council often contributes up to $12,000 a year to the Sister Cities organization, part of its regular contributions to various cultural groups. In some years, this might account for one-third to one-half of the group’s revenue, according to its public IRS filings. Perhaps more significantly, Roanoke has devoted a downtown park to the Sister Cities program – there are sculptures in Century Plaza to each of the cities. Nearby is a fountain with flags to each of the nations whose Sister Cities are represented – so, yes, Roanoke flies a Russian flag. Anacortes has done so, too, but recently decided to haul that one down. Roanoke has entertained no such request.
Roanoke’s emotional investment in the Sister City program goes beyond simply the city council. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an editorial saying that city “did the right thing” by suspending ties with Vladimir, Russia. By contrast, The Roanoke Times published an editorial praising Roanoke’s decision to keep its ties to Pskov: “[Mayor Sherman] Lea’s assertion that the Sister Cities program gives American cities a chance to lead by example echoes the words of a particularly well-regarded 20th century Republican: Dwight Eisenhower. … ‘Today, we have this problem that I have stated, that of creating understanding between peoples,’ Eisenhower said.” (I see where former Mayor David Bowers has now entered the race for city council, saying Roanoke should have broken off ties with Pskov. I’ll be curious how that flies in light of Roanoke tradition.)
I have to wonder if what unites the cities that are keeping their Sister City ties to Russia is that they’re the ones with the most active and most public-facing programs. I talked with Mike Wiza, the mayor of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. He described a robust Sister City relationship with Rostov Veliky that – unlike many Russian Sister City connections – predates the end of the Cold War. (It started in 1983, the same year that President Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire,” so not the easiest time to be making friends.) City officials and teachers have visited with each other. The local high school has an exchange program with its counterpart in Russia. And, like Roanoke, Stevens Point celebrates its Sister City program in the form of a city park. Roanoke has sculptures; Stevens Point includes a bell forged in Moscow – the Friendship Bell, it’s called – and chess boards. “It’s never been a political program,” Wiza told me, “but sometimes politics get in the way.”
The whole point of Sister Cities is to create a non-political dialogue with people in other countries, so this whole flare-up over Russian ties runs counter to the whole spirit of the program. Politics, though, runs through so much of our lives today. In Sarasota, there are already calls for that city to also break off its Sister City ties to a city in China on the grounds that China’s human rights record isn’t exactly unblemished, to put things mildly. The word “evil” got used.
By that standard, there are lots of Sister City ties that should be terminated. Roanoke also has a Sister City in China. Should that go? For much of the time that Wonju has been a Roanoke Sister City, South Korea was under a military dictatorship. Should Roanoke have kept that relationship?
Bestpitch thinks this controversy may be good for the Sister City program. “I hope it will raise some awareness,” he told me. He said the group had already received at least one email from a Roanoker who specifically volunteered to be part of the Pskov committee, which has been inactive for several years. The Sister Cities group has raised $1,000 to send to its Sister City of Opole, Poland, to help with Ukrainian refugees there. (In Wisconsin, Stevens Point also has a Polish Sister City and the mayor says they’ve done the same.)
At the same time, there are critics like the one from Richmond – not Roanoke – who emailed Bestpitch to object to Roanoke’s decision. Bestpitch said he engaged in an email exchange in which he asked what practical effect dropping ties with Pskov would have. Would it influence Putin? Would it halt the invasion? “It’s knee-jerk,” Bestpitch said of breaking ties. “It’s symbolic. I’m looking for facts.” The Richmond critic, Bestpitch said, emailed back to say, “We live in a time when appearances are more important than facts.”
Maybe that’s part of our problem.