PORTLAND, Maine — There’s a stretch during the springtime thaw in Arkhangelsk, Russia, in which the ice on the Northern Dvina River is too thin to drive across and too thick to boat through.
The river islands and their inhabitants are effectively cut off from supplies during those times.
Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic has been the city’s lead guide for a contingent of visiting government officials from Portland’s Russian sister city since the group’s arrival Friday. He said it’s refreshing to see Portland’s issues — such as the city’s efforts to meet the needs of Casco Bay islanders — through the fresh lenses of the Russians.
The stranding of Northern Dvina islands during the springtime, he said, “puts our challenges into perspective.”
“I learn a lot about Portland through their eyes,” Suslovic said Wednesday, noting that the diplomats this year have commented on how sparse public transportation is in Maine’s largest city. “I see Portland and Greater Portland in a new light.”
Now, thanks to a revival of the two cities’ high school exchanges this year, the trade of perspectives promises to get even fresher. Federal grant programs that helped keep the annual exchange of teens between the Portland area and Arkhangelsk robust during the 1990s dried up at the end of the decade — and the group of 14 Russian high school students and educators who came to Maine in November represented the first student exchange between the sister cities since 1999.
A team of nine local high school students is raising funds to visit Arkhangelsk next April.
Natalia Baksheeva, deputy head of the Arkhangelsk Culture and Youth Policy Department, said Wednesday the restart of the high school exchanges is “extremely important.”
“The world is becoming global and open,” she told the Bangor Daily News through an interpreter during a morning break between meetings with Portland city officials. “What can be better than friendship? If we can establish friendships among young people, they will be the ones creating policy in the future.”
Forging personal connections between Americans and Russians, said Suslovic, was the goal of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration when it advocated for sister city partnerships originally. Although active exchanges between Arkhangelsk and Portland did not get under way until 1988, after Soviet Head of State Mikhail Gorbachev began the process to ultimately dissolve the Communist Soviet Union, the sister city history is much older.
“The story is that somebody in the Eisenhower administration sat down and paired up cities in an attempt to thaw the Cold War,” said Neale Duffett, who serves as co-chairman of Portland’s Archangel Committee, the local panel associated with the sister city relationship. The presumed motivation for joining Maine’s largest city with Arkhangelsk was that many of the Allied supply ships that made the Arctic voyage to the Russian city’s port during World War II were built in the Portland area, Duffett said.
But for decades, he said, the sister city partnership existed “only on paper, and I don’t even think [Arkhangelsk] knew about it.”
Now the lack of knowledge about the sister city relationship exists on this side of the ocean, suggested Duffett, who is looking to drum up interest in the program as student exchanges begin anew. Visits between regional and municipal officials and professionals have continued through the federal Open World Program over the past decade.
“They’re just like us,” he said of the Arkhangelsk residents. “They have the same problems we do, they have the same needs, the same interests. This citizen diplomacy accomplishes much more than the politicians do.”