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‘Helping our friends’: Bloomington-Normal sister cities group will keep its partnership with Vladimir, Russia

Karen Dennis with Russian students
Karen Dennis
Illinois State University professor Karen Dennis, center, stands with two students of Vladimir State University who also served as interpreters when she taught there in early 2020.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has caused some U.S. communities to reassess relationships with their sister cities in Russia.

Chicago and Charlotte plan to sever ties with their counterparts in Russia, but leaders of the Bloomington-Normal sister cities program with Vladimir, Russia say they have no such intentions.

Orlyn Edge has made six trips to Vladimir since the partnership was formed in 1988 near the end of the Cold War. He helped bring humanitarian aid to the city east of Moscow.

Edge said the sister cities partnership is meant to foster understanding among cultures. “What’s going on with governments is not supposed to affect what we do as a sister city program and it’s not,” Edge said.

Karen Dennis has made more than a dozen trips to Vladimir, first to provide nursing, and later as an educator. Dennis said Bloomington-Normal does not want to follow Chicago’s or Charlotte’s lead in suspending sister city ties with Russia.

“I was a bit saddened at that for the fact that I believe — as does Sister Cities International — that now more than ever these relationships are truly so important,” Dennis said.

Karen Dennis and son
Karen Dennis
Karen Dennis and her son Collin pose for a photo overlooking the Vladimir, Russia countryside.

Dennis, who taught in Russia in 2020 as a Fulbright scholar at Illinois State University, said she considers the Russian people she's come to know as her family. She recently asked one of them how they were doing as sanctions begin to choke the Russian economy.

“Their day-to-say life, she said, has not changed yet, but what really touched me though is it meant so much to her that I reached out, to know there are people here that care,” Dennis said.

Edge said it's hard to predict whether sanctions against Russia will lead to unrest among the Russian people, but he said Vladimir’s sister cities can at least try to create a sense of normalcy for their Russian friends.

“Psychologically, the fact that we are working together still, and we are planning the rest of the year (helps). Now that’s easier for us, but I’m hoping that helps our sister cities’ friends,” Edge said.

Edge said the sister cities group plans to meet virtually with their colleagues in Vladimir in April, and they hope to make a return visit to Russia next year.

Edge said the Vladimir’s sister cities’ delegation had planned a visit to Bloomington-Normal for a musical theater program through the Open World Leadership Center, but that will likely need to be rescheduled as Russians struggle to get visas to travel out of the country.

Dennis also has helped lead a study abroad program at ISU where she teaches exercise science and has helped coordinate a foreign exchange between students at ISU and Vladimir State University.

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