The Russian flag that currently flies in downtown Roanoke will be taken down, Mayor Sherman Lea said Friday. Roanoke is reconsidering its longstanding sister city relationship with Pskov, Russia, in light of the continuing war in Ukraine. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

If Roanoke and Pskov, Russia, had day-to-day Facebook profiles, their relationship statuses might say “It’s Complicated,” moving quickly toward “Divorced.”  

After initially bucking Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s call for Virginia cities to cut ties with their Russian counterparts following the invasion of Ukraine, the Roanoke City Council will take up a resolution to discontinue the sister city relationship at its Feb. 21 meeting, Mayor Sherman Lea said Friday. 

The city, which has sculptures to all seven of its sister cities in a park downtown, also will take down the Russian flag that it flies nearby, he said.

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

“We are supportive of Ukraine and it is contradictory that we remain involved in a sister city relationship with Pskov, who is now actively supporting the action against Ukraine,” he said. “This is something we take very seriously.”

The action is supported by Roanoke Valley Sister Cities, which also had fought to maintain the sister city program in the early days of the war. In January, the nonprofit announced in its online newsletter that it had “paused” its relationship with Pskov because of the ongoing conflict, and the group’s president reiterated that in an email on Feb. 3. 

“We are not communicating at this time with anyone in Pskov,” Mary Jo Fassié said.

While the organization’s board hadn’t yet voted on a decision to cut ties at the time, it discussed the matter on Feb. 7 and agreed to initiate discussion with the city council and city administration, according to Bill Bestpitch, the group’s treasurer and a former member of the city council.

Members of the sister cities organization also met with representatives of the local Ukrainian community in January, Bestpitch said.

The decision to discuss cutting ties with Pskov marks a stark reversal of the city’s position just a year ago.

When Youngkin called for Norfolk and Roanoke to terminate their Russian sister city relationships two days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Roanoke pushed back.

Both Fassié and Lea wrote to the governor, saying that Roanoke denounced Russia’s acts and supported Ukraine, but that the city would maintain its relationship with Pskov. Personal relationships such as those forged by sister city partnerships allow citizens to seek understanding and peace, they argued.

“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,” Fassié wrote.

On March 7, the Roanoke City Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, expressing compassion and support of Ukraine and reaffirming the city’s connection with the people of Pskov.

As of its 2019 membership directory, Sister Cities International counted 58 U.S. localities with sister city ties to Russia, a spokesman said. An updated membership list will be published this spring, he said.

In a statement posted online, the organization’s president and CEO, Leroy Allala, urged U.S. cities to hold strong in their relationships with their Russian counterparts.

“Leaders in our communities – instinctively and understandably – want to say something, to do something, and to act towards a collective disapproval of this assault on humankind; endeavoring to make a positive difference at this critical juncture in our global discourse,” Allala’s statement says.

“Yet, suspending or ending a sister city relationship with a Russian city partner should not be one such action. As citizen diplomats, we must be alert to counsel and remind our elected officials as well as our local municipal leaders of the critical role that Sister Cities International and each local sister city relationship offers, especially in times of conflict.”

Even so, Roanoke isn’t alone in reconsidering its ties to Russia; close to home, both Norfolk and Durham, North Carolina, have also faced this sister city conundrum in the months following the invasion. 

Norfolk chose to suspend its relationship with Kaliningrad soon after Youngkin made his request, though that decision was not initially supported by the president of the Norfolk Sister Cities Association.

Sister Cities of Durham initially resolved to continue its relationship with Kostroma. “The path to world peace through citizen diplomacy is not an easy one,” the organization said in a statement. “If it were, the Sister Cities movement, born in the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, might not be necessary. But it is. Despite what is sadly a horrific time, we remain committed, heart and soul, to maintaining progress along that path.”

But things changed. 

In June, The New York Times reported, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for U.S. mayors to end their relationships with Russian sister cities. In response, Sister Cities of Durham revised its position but opted to suspend, not terminate, its relationship with Kostroma. “Suspension will more readily allow the City Council to resume the relationship when it determines that appropriate circumstances exist and, thus, allow citizen-to-citizen diplomacy to resume as early as possible,” it wrote.

Roanoke’s relationship with Pskov, which dates to 1992, had been an active one. According to Roanoke Valley Sister Cities, Roanoke had provided medical supplies and equipment for hospitals and orphanages in the Russian city, and an agreement was struck in 1993 that created an exchange program between Ferrum College and the Pskov Pedagogical Institute, now Pskov State University.

Not long before the invasion of Ukraine, the two cities had engaged in a Zoom conversation about creating another exchange program, and launching a virtual art show, committee chair Jessie Coffman said last March.

The statement posted in January by Roanoke Valley Sister Cities left open the possibility of future collaboration:

“The concept of people-to-people diplomacy remains the core of Sister City’s mission, and we hope to continue bringing people together to see fewer conflicts, rather than more. … It is the wish of the Pskov committee that the communication with Pskov State University will resume at a later date.”

Roanoker Don Petersen was part of a contingent from Roanoke Valley Sister Cities that visited Pskov several times over the years. In a recent interview, Petersen said that they took “boatloads of donations of old equipment, bandages and other stuff that they desperately needed.”

The people of Pskov were excited about the Roanokers’ visit, he remembered. “It was a big deal for them. They treated us well.” 

Lindsey Hull is a 2023 graduate of Hollins University, where she studied English, creative writing, and...