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Duluth hosts bid farewell to Russian guests

Interpreter Tatiana Kornstad (from left) of Solon Springs explains the food at a potluck farewell dinner on Friday night for Russian delegates Kristina Sorokina, Nataliya Loymoyeva and Yulia Kirindyasova at the home of Cherie Sawinski in Duluth. (Clint Austin / / 2
Russian delegates Kristina Sorokina (from left) and Nataliya Loymoyeva laugh with Irina Haller of Duluth during Friday’s farewell dinner.2 / 2

The Petrozavodsk Sister Cities program with Duluth has been going on since 1987 — starting before the end of the Cold War and throughout various periods of warming and cooling relations between the countries involved. Throughout the years, the cities have exchanged doctors, teachers, students of all kinds and, this week, social workers exploring ways to prevent family violence.

At a farewell dinner on Friday for the five young leaders from the capital of the Russian Republic of Karelia, there was one concept the departing party latched onto during a busy week: volunteerism.

Until the 1980s, the Russians didn’t have a word for it. Now, “voluntyorka” suffices nicely, said Lisa Fitzpatrick, a local interpreter.

“The whole system you have here in the United States, what people do as volunteers and what they can get done,” said 24-year-old Kristina Sorokina through an interpreter, “we don’t have that. It’s something we can bring back to Russia.”

Irina Haller was among the many guests at the east Duluth dinner party to say “spaseeba” or “thank you” to the guests from Russia. Haller first came to Duluth from Petrozavodsk in an exchange of med students. She met a man, fell in love, got married and made the hard decision to “uproot” herself to Duluth.

She’s been here 19 years now and works as a senior research scientist for the Essentia Institute of Rural Health.

“It’s important to have different people and expose them to each other,” Haller said. “To really understand each other and break down barriers. There’s propaganda going both ways.”

Haller recalled being “horrified” before her first visit to Duluth because she had heard all of the “ugly American” talk all her life. Now a longtime U.S. resident, she’s living proof that the immersive exchanges — with their homestays and weeklong seminars outlining cultural responses to common issues — are worth the effort.

Haller explained one of her favorite exchanges: the time UMD medical students went to Karelia during a difficult period of health care for the Russian people during the late 1990s. The U.S. students provided humanitarian aid and brought medical devices and supplies.

“It was inspiring,” said Haller, who remains adjunct faculty at UMD.