More than 30 years ago, with tensions still high between the United States and the soon-to-collapse Soviet Union, regular folks here reached out to regular folks there as a way to lower the temperature, and perhaps help the Soviets build a free country.

The better we know each other, they thought, the less likely catastrophe will come out of disagreements between our governments.

Out of that time came Sister City agreements, which still bind Maine communities to counterparts in Russia. They remain a small but important force for peace – a line of communication to Russians as Putin’s Russia wages war on Ukraine, and threatens Europe.

Thankfully, local leaders see it the same way. Putin’s war will not force a rift between Mainers and their longstanding friends in Russia. Though Portland councilors condemned the invasion, it will have no effect on the treaty it signed, along with 10 neighboring communities, with the city of Archangel.

And in Waterville this week, officials including Mayor Jay Coelho plan to talk this week with counterparts in Kotlas, Russia, to reaffirm their agreement, which they signed in 1990 along with Fairfield, Oakland and Winslow.

If they can get through, it will send a message that the mutual respect and desire for peace among our communities can survive even Putin.


The relationships between communities in Maine and Russia began in the late 1980s, when the threat of nuclear war between our two countries still loomed after decades of the Cold War.

Peter Garrett, of Winslow, identified Kotlas as a comparable city to Waterville and set out trying to build a rapport. Initially rejected by Moscow, Garrett and others traveled to Russia in 1989 to solidify the partnership.

The first Mainers traveled to Archangel in November 1988, and 11 Maine communities signed their treaty with the Russian city in April of the next year.

Since then, thousands of people have traveled between Maine and the two Russian cities. A Waterville delegation last went to Kotlas in 2017 for the city’s 100th anniversary. In 2015, six Russians came to Maine, where they visited Bar Harbor, shopped at L.L. Bean, and stayed at the Blaine House as guests of then-Gov. Paul LePage, who had been involved with the program since he was mayor of Waterville.

Those interactions may look like nothing alongside a column of Russian armored vehicles. They don’t get as much attention as an autocrat’s orders.

But they are the foundation of something more between two countries than saber-rattling speeches and high-level geopolitics.


That’s why it’s frustrating to see some American communities reconsider their sister city commitments in light of Putin’s invasion. It is more than possible to criticize and punish Putin without isolating Russians with whom they’ve built close relationships over decades, and who played no role in starting the war.

As the Sister City organization itself said in response, ending such agreements closes a “vital and, ofttimes, last channel of communication with vulnerable or isolated populations.”

Instead of breaking these treaties, communities should do as Waterville is doing and reaffirm them. The relationships at stake began before Putin came into power, and they should outlast him — a sign that while Americans stand together in defiance of Putin’s aggression, it remains aligned with Russians who want peace.

After all, the entire purpose of sister cities is to link Russians and Americans together through their individual humanity, and to hope that human relationships can overcome power politics.

As LePage said in 2013 as Maine hosted a Russian delegation, our similarities can overcome our differences.

“Often all you hear about is the differences between governments, but when you step foot in Russia, you become Russian,” he said. “I hope that when you step foot in America, you feel American.”

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