SOUTH PORTLAND — They may have differences on issues such as gay rights, but the sister city bond between Greater Portland communities and Archangel, Russia, seems stronger than ever.
The Archangel delegation arrived in Maine on Saturday to begin a weeklong stay that will include visits to historic sites, a 25th anniversary ceremony at Westbrook Middle School on Monday attended by Gov. Paul LePage, and a round-table discussion Thursday that will touch on issues pertaining to civil rights and homosexuality.
“What is most valuable here is the people. The people are very open. They show us their souls. We feel like home here, like we are with relatives,” Archangel Vice Mayor Vladimir Garmashov said through an interpreter.
The delegation of 12 adults and three high school students, accompanied by members of the Greater Portland Archangel Committee, toured several historic sites Sunday, including Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth and the Liberty Ship Memorial at Bug Light Park in South Portland.
Dmitriy A. Akishev, a building contractor and Archangel city councilor who has run marathons in the United States, said the relationship between Maine communities and his city has improved over the years, though he admits it has not always been perfect.
“It has been getting warmer. A lot of friendships have been established. I am a true believer that the relationship will only get stronger,” Askishev said through Andrei Strukov, an interpreter from Fairfield.
The Liberty Ship Memorial was a fitting place for the delegation to visit because cargo and Liberty ships were built on the South Portland waterfront during World War II. Those ships carried food, as well as medical and military supplies, across the North Atlantic to the Russian port cities of Archangel and Murmansk in northwest Russia, a heroic effort that saved lives, said Edward Suslovic, a member of the Archangel Committee.
Suslovic, who also serves on Portland’s City Council, said the construction of those ships laid the foundation for the “Treaty of Friendly Ties.”
The treaty, signed on Nov. 18, 1988, by former Westbrook Mayor Philip Spiller, linked all the cities and towns of Greater Portland with Archangel. The visit this week by the Russian delegation marks the 25th anniversary of the region’s sister city relationship.
“When I was a kid, I was told that these people were the enemy,” Suslovic said.
His perception changed after he visited Archangel in 2007.
“Although we have some striking differences, there are more similarities than there are differences,” Suslovic said.
Suslovic said one of those differences – gay rights – is likely to be discussed during the round-table discussion on civil rights in a civil society. The session has been tentatively scheduled for Thursday afternoon at the Portland police station. Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck is expected to participate.
The Archangel region was the first in Russia to ratify a law banning activities in public places that promote homosexuality. The law served as a basis for a federal law enacted by the State Duma and signed by President Vladimir Putin this year. Under the law, individuals, government officials and organizations found to be promoting homosexuality among minors face fines of as much as $17,000.
When asked about the Russian law, Garmashov downplayed the issue.
“We are here (to honor) the 25th anniversary. That’s our main goal. We want to celebrate this date. We have not discussed the homosexuality issue because it is very private for everyone,” he said.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said that he and other city officials considered ending the sister city relationship with Archangel earlier this year but decided that Portlanders would have more influence on the gay rights issue by maintaining the connection.
Delegation members say they have been impressed with the people they’ve met and with Portland Head Light, the Cape Elizabeth lighthouse that overlooks the passage to Portland Harbor..
“The Head Light is the symbol of life for the people and for the country,” said Irina Veselkova, an economic development specialist with the city of Archangel.
Suslovic compared the sister city relationship to a marriage that has lasted 25 years.
“Like any old couple, we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. We aren’t the same, but we have a relationship that we value,” Suslovic said.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: