Duluth group aims to retain relations with Russian 'sister city,' despite war

Some other U.S. cities have suspended their Russian "sister city" affiliations in support of Ukraine.

A Russian replica ship, Pilgrim, is seen on the Duluth harbor
A Russian replica ship, Pilgrim, arrived in Duluth on Aug. 31, 2019, after beginning its journey in the community's sister city of Petrozavodsk, Russia.
Tyler Schank / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The city's Sister Cities International organization notified Mayor Emily Larson and city councilors this week that they do not plan to sever ties with Petrozavodsk, Duluth’s Russian sister city, amid outcries protesting the recent Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Several other U.S. cities, including Chicago, Dallas and Des Moines, have suspended Russian sister city affiliations in recent weeks.

But all members of the Duluth organization’s board of directors issued a statement Monday explaining why they remain unwavering advocates for maintaining Petrozavodsk’s status as a sister city.

The joint statement said: “Duluth Sister Cities International unequivocally condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We stand in solidarity with citizens of Ukraine as they experience unimaginable suffering and bravely risk their lives to defend their sovereignty.

“At the same time, we offer steadfast support to our friends in Duluth’s sister city of Petrozavodsk, Russia, as well as the many Russian citizens who call Duluth home. Acts of war by rulers and regimes are not the acts of ordinary citizens. Sister Cities are formed to promote peace by building person-to-person relationships, purposely outside the purview of state and federal governments. Therefore, we intend to maintain Duluth’s sister city relationship with Petrozavodsk.”


In recent weeks, Duluth’s mayor and council have been peppered with suggestions that the city best shed its long-standing relationship with Petrozavodsk. Ryan Mears, a Duluth architect, wrote city councilors: “Duluth should suspend the Russian sister city status indefinitely.” He proposed city officials instead look to adopt Kyiv, Ukraine, as a new sister city.

Kremena Stoyanova, president of Duluth Sister Cities International, suggested it would be wrong to assume the citizens of Russia by and large condone their nation’s incursion into Ukraine or that continued relations with Duluth would provide any support for the war there.

“We don’t believe that the citizens of Russia or the relationships we have formed with the city of Petrozavodsk that they are supportive of the war. We don’t believe the point is to continue with this separation consciousness. Instead, we believe in connection and the power of goodness and human potential,” she said.

Green Bear sculpture
The Green Bear sculpture is located in Gichi-Ode' Akiing, which is above Interstate 35. It is a gift from the Duluth's Russian sister city of Petrozavodsk.

Although in-person international exchanges have been curtailed due to diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Russia, Stoyanova said the relationship with Petrozavodsk remains an active one, with local students continuing to meet and exchange materials online, as they work on a joint project about living on a large lake. She noted that Petrozavodsk is located on the second-largest freshwater body in Europe, Lake Onega.

Tom Morgan, a Duluth Sister Cities International board member, has been involved in the project and said young participants from the Fond du Lac Reservation had hoped the lake project would culminate in international student visits between the communities — an unlikely prospect now. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic the project will continue to fruition, using online resources.

Morgan helped forge the sister city relationship with Petrozavodsk in the mid-1980s and maintains a number of close personal friendships with residents of the city, but said he understands calls for U.S. cities to cut all Russian ties, given the tremendous human tragedy yet occurring in Ukraine.

Still, Morgan questioned the value of cutting ties with Petrozavodsk, at a time when he said many of its own residents likely are embarrassed, angered and suffering personal hurt because of the war.

“Right now, they need support more than ever. And by turning my back on them, I don’t know how that advances the Ukrainian cause at all,” he said.


When city administration was asked to comment on Duluth’s ongoing relationship with its Russian sister city, Public Information Officer Kate Van Daele responded: “The city of Duluth appreciates the transparency of the Duluth Sister Cities Chapter around the relationship with Petrozavodsk, Russia. The city does not make decisions for the organization. The city does provide tourism tax funding to Duluth Sister Cities International and funding for the year 2022 has already been approved by City Council.”

“As previously stated, the city of Duluth stands in solidarity with Ukraine,” Van Daele added.

At large Duluth City Councilor Terese Tomanek, formerly served on the local Sister City board, and earlier this year successfully advocated for a $5,000 increase in proposed tourism tax funding for the organization, providing a 2022 allocation that totaled $25,000.

She noted that former President Dwight Eisenhower helped launch the sister city program back in the 1950s to promote person-to-person relationships as an alternative to conflict.

“I believe we all understand that this is not a war of the individual people of Russia against the citizens of Ukraine. This is a war being waged by a deranged government official against another country, and that shouldn’t interrupt the person-to-person relationships we’ve built by traveling to each other's countries and sharing a meal together and talking and learning about each other’s culture and government. It’s important that we maintain those lines of communication,” Tomanek said.

In addition to Petrozavodsk, Duluth has four other sister cities: Ohara Isumi-City, Japan; Vaxjo, Sweden; Thunder Bay, Canada; and Rania, Iraqi Kurdistan.

This story originally contained a misspelling of Kremena Stoyanova's name. It was updated at 2:45 p.m. March 30 with the proper spelling. The News Tribune regrets the error.

After initially declining to light the Aerial Lift Bridge blue and gold, the city will now do so.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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