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.

Roanoke City Council agreed to pause the Sister City relationship with Pskov, Russia, at Tuesday’s city council meeting. A letter will be placed on the Pskov sculpture in Century Plaza, and the Russian flag will be removed from the Sister Cities display in downtown.

 The vote was unanimous, though there were moments of heated discussion.

“The practical matter of putting a letter on a sculpture is not enough,” council member Peter Volosin said during the council’s discussion. 

Bill Bestpitch, Roanoke Valley Sister Cities Inc. treasurer, presented a letter to the council, which states:

“Roanoke Valley Sister Cities, Inc. is committed to fostering and encouraging mutual
understanding, friendship, and peace. As the unprovoked and unwarranted invasion
of Ukraine has continued for nearly a full year, RVSCI and the City of Roanoke are
pausing all interaction and communication with our counterparts in Pskov at this time.
In support of our Ukrainian Community in the Roanoke Valley, we are removing the
Russian flag from Pearl Fu Plaza for the time being. 

“A copy of this letter will be attached to the Pskov sculpture in Century Plaza.”

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

The letter is printed on letterhead featuring the logos of Roanoke City and RVSCI and is to be signed by Mayor Sherman Lea and RVSCI president Mary Jo Fassié before being laminated and placed on the Pskov sculpture. 

Bestpitch, a former Roanoke council member, recalled the events that led to this decision. “From the beginning, Roanoke Valley Sister Cities’ connections with our sister cities on four continents has focused on building people to people relationships. One of the basic premises of Sister Cities International is that we do not take positions on political issues.” 

He then detailed the former resolution to support the people of Ukraine and condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, noting the mayor’s initial denial of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s request that Roanoke sever its sister city tie with Russia. 

Bestpitch explained that RVSCI’s position on its Pskov relationship began to shift when some members of their board of directors met with members of Roanoke’s Ukrainian community on Jan. 10. 

During that January presentation, Martha Kuchar, Tatyana Munsey and Inna Payne outlined Russia’s assault against the people of Ukraine, including Pskov’s role in the war. One slide states: “Pskov represents the opposite of [the Sister Cities International] mission. Pskov has blood on its hands.” 

Inna Payne and Tatyana Muncey outside the Roanoke City Council meeting. Photo by Lindsey Hull.
Inna Payne and Tatyana Muncey outside the Roanoke City Council meeting. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

Payne and Munsey were present at Tuesday’s meeting, having endured more than two hours of budget updates and briefings from committees and the city manager’s office before the Sister Cities agenda item was addressed.

“We asked [RVSCI] to remove the [Russian] flag,” Payne later said. “We asked a couple of times before this. But we did not give up.” 

Vice Mayor Joe Cobb entered the motion to affirm a letter from Roanoke Valley Sister Cities Inc. Council member Luke Priddy seconded the motion. A heated discussion followed Bestpitch’s presentation.

“I struggle with this. I struggle hard with this,” Lea began. “I agree we shouldn’t get caught up in political issues. [But Putin] is determined to do what he can to inflict pain and agony on people. People are dying.”

“I understand Russian citizens may not agree with what’s going on,” he continued. “I want to send a hard message. That’s why my first reaction to the media was to sever all our ties with Russia. . . . I’ll stand by what we’re doing now, but it’s tough to do that.” 

Statement from council member Peter Volosin

I appreciate all the work our Sister Cities organization does for Roanoke building strong., meaningful relationships with other cities around the world. In regards to the unprecedented Pskov situation, I wanted to make some recommendations to Roanoke’s Sister Cities organization given the unique situation. My first recommendation was about governance to make sure that Sister Cities has a standard for removing or restarting a relationship in the future. 

My second recommendation was that they do more than simply post the letter on the Pskov sculpture given the heinous nature of the war crimes that were perpetrated in Bucha by those from Pskov. That is why I recommended flying the Ukrainian flag on the sculpture or draping  the flag over the sculpture. In my opinion, there was not enough done to condemn the actions of those from Pskov. 

I affirmed the letter because I agree that the relationship between Roanoke and Pskov needed to be paused indefinitely. 

Volosin chimed in, thanking Payne and Munsey for their strength to approach RVSCI regarding the issue. “I don’t see this as political. I see this as humanitarian. We shouldn’t have ties with countries that are just going in and and killing people for no reason.” 

Volosin continued, “I get a little emotional about this because my husband is European and I know that this has also created a lot of uncertainty in Europe as to what’s going to happen next.” 

“I would like to recommend to [RVSCI] that there be some kind of process for deciding whether to sever ties or whether to restart ties,” Volosin said. “What would it look like if we ever wanted to become a sister city again? What would those requirements be?”

“What we’re really proposing at this point is that we pause,” Bestpitch replied. “The reality is we have no communication or interaction with anybody in Pskov right now, and have not been able to for about a year now.” Bestpitch then said that, should relations between Russia and Ukraine improve, then the Roanoke Valley Sister Cities group might be able to reestablish the relationship between Roanoke and Pskov.

Volosin said he felt like Roanoke should do more to denounce Russia’s actions. “We have to realize that Pskov is actually where the Butchers of Bucha are from,” referring to 10 Russian soldiers who have been accused of committing war crimes in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, where more than 400 civilians were found dead after the Russians retreated.

Betspitch was quick to disagree. “I’m not sure I can completely agree with your statement. We have a special operations force called Delta at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. If some crazy president wanted to send them off on some mission that we totally disagree with, we would not blame all the people in Fayetteville, North Carolina.”

During Volosin’s remarks, Payne and Munsey could be seen nodding their heads and whispering, “Thank you.” 

Payne has lived in the Roanoke region for 14 years. Munsey moved to the area 18 years ago today. They said they are relieved that their request to remove the Russian flag has finally been honored. 

“We are grateful to Sister Cities to support us and take the flag down,” they said following the meeting. “We really appreciate council member Volosin’s speech, and that of the mayor, vice mayor and other council members who are supporting Ukraine. They said yes as one voice.” Payne added, “What [Volosin] said about Bucha – it’s true.” 

“I’m going to tell my mom and sister in Ukraine,” Munsey said. Her family lives in Dnipro, which has been repeatedly hit by Russian missile attacks.

“Can you imagine the city flying a Nazi flag during the Second World War because they had a sister city there?” Payne said following the meeting. “The flag is a symbol. It is so painful that the flag is still there.” 

Payne and Munsey are helping to organize a peace rally to be held at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 24 to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The rally will begin at the main library in downtown Roanoke. From there, the group will travel to Pearl Fu Plaza and on to the City Market Building. Payne said, “We will light candles and observe 365 seconds of silence in memory of the people who died for freedom.”

Following the city council meeting, Lea said, “We will be watching closely. If things get worse, we will revisit the matter.” 

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