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Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities strengthens bonds with Vladimir, Russia, despite no exchange trips

 Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities trip to Vladimir, Russia
Margaret Ann Hayden, right, and other members of the Vladimir-Canterbury Sister Cities delegation toured Vladimir, Russia, during their last visit in 2018.

The head of the Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities program with Vladimir, Russia, and Canterbury, England, said it's unclear if exchange trips will ever resume.

President Margaret Ann Hayden said Russia's war in Ukraine has made it nearly impossible to travel between Russia and the United States.

“A lot is lost in international relations because we have so much in common, but all these differences show up and get in our way,” Hayden said in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.

Exchange trips were initially suspended due to the pandemic starting in 2020, and then the war kept the suspension intact indefinitely.

The U.S. embassy in Russia is not issuing visas, and the U.S. has suspended its Open World program that sponsors Russian citizens to come to the U.S., Hayden said.

Vladimir's sister cities delegation last visited Bloomington-Normal in 2019. A Twin City contingent traveled to Russia the previous year.

Vladimir, Russia sister cities committee at Normal council chambers
The sister cities delegation from Vladimir, Russia posed with Bloomington-Normal's sister cities committee at Normal council chambers during their last U.S. visit in 2019.

Hayden said even then it was difficult to find students from Vladimir to come to Bloomington-Normal as part of an exchange program. She said a student who was selected previously did not come because their parents were concerned for their safety, based on media reports about shootings in the U.S.

“The one that did come had a great time and great experience,” said Hayden, adding student exchanges with Canterbury have stopped because the "school systems are different" between the U.S. and England.

Hayden said Sister Cities volunteers have held several educational programs on Zoom with Vladimir and Canterbury over the last year, covering topics such as architecture and culture.

Hayden said they don't talk about the war.

“We do not know for sure what our colleagues know about the war. We are not sure what they are told,” said Hayden, referring to state media in Russia that has largely framed the Russian invasion as a defense strategy against the Ukrainians and NATO.

Hayden said she's also concerned the Russians might be punished if they do speak about the war, adding in some ways, the bond with their Russian friends has grown stronger as both sides wait out the war.

“I just believe they are in a situation that they can’t control,” Hayden said. “There’s good human beings and there’s bad human beings in every country. We have to look on their good side and try to work for the betterment of the world.”

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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