Dignitaries of Bloomington-Normal and Vladimir, Russia, who forged a sister cities partnership 30 years ago are reflecting on the program and how it helped foster understanding during a tense time.
Joe Grabill of Normal helped organize that first delegation to Russia during the waning years of the Cold War between the global superpowers. He said Vladimir's deputy mayor at the time, Volodya Musatov, will take part in a forum Thursday in Normal during his first visit to the United States.
Grabill said they have maintained their friendship and that provides an example of what citizen diplomacy can do.
“We’ve kept in contact, and from the beginning I’ve felt like he is a friend,” Grabill said. “It’s not about politics, it’s about friendship or as we sometimes say ‘arms are for embracing.’”
Grabill said delegates on both sides rarely if ever talked politics. They were more interested in finding common ground and sharing resources and ideas.
He said their relationship was nestled in a “special cocoon” that was separate from political tensions and he said that enabled the two sides to establish trust.
“We were aware that there were such things as monitoring of our phone conversations by the KGB, but when we met people, we received hospitality that was unprecedented in terms of graciousness,” Grabill said.
Paul Harmon was Normal's mayor at the time and was part of the first delegation to Russia and to its sister city in Canterbury, England.
He said you can see the sister cities' legacy in the many ongoing trips and sharing of resources and ideas.
“The way to solve a lot of the world’s problems is for the world’s people to get to know each other, and there’s really no better way to do it than through a program like this,” Harmon said. “This has been a robust program and it continues to be and it brings a lot of interchange.”
The program is still going strong today, with various delegations going to and from Russia every year.
Musatov indicated Vladimir had already established a sister cities a program with Canterbury when Bloomington-Normal contacted the city in 1988, so they sought a partnership involving each of the cities.
“Meeting people (from the United States) was extremely interesting for us because we had very little opportunity to speak with foreigners,” Musatov explained. “It was a challenge for us.”
The Sister City Association is hosting a roundtable discussion at 7 p.m. Thursday at First United Methodist Church in Normal.
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