Pulling Back the Iron Curtain: Re-examining Richmond and Serpukhov

Panorama of 19th Century Serpukhov.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

By Evan Ash

This is the first in a series of blog posts from Miami University’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies that document and offer reflection on Richmond, Indiana’s Sister City partnership with Serpukhov, Russia. As these posts will reveal, it is a partnership that plays an important role in the establishment of the Center.

On July 23, 2017, a woman named Eleanor Turk wrote a column in the opinion section of Richmond’s Palladium-Item that began with the sentence “Do Palladium-Item readers remember, or know, that this summer marks the 30th anniversary of Richmond/Wayne County’s initiative to establish its first sister city?”

Ms. Turk’s question was fair, as the city and its inhabitants appear to have forgotten the existence of a program that once garnered awards from both Reader’s Digest International and the state of Indiana itself. The Richmond city website says that it is “twinned with a city in Japan,” and omits entirely information on the relationship with its most tenured sibling city, only publishing a link to Serpukhov’s website (unintelligible to those of us with rusty Cyrillic skills). Before Ms. Turk’s column in July of 2017, no substantial coverage of the Richmond-Serpukhov partnership had appeared in the Pal-Item (as it is known to Richmond denizens) since 2007, when the newspaper published an article on a group of Russian teachers that came to Richmond and visited local educational institutions. That exchange, according to Ms. Turk, was the last major visit from Serpukhov citizens.

Why this erasure of such a once-celebrated program? It does not take much knowledge to infer that Russia, and even the simple adjective “Russian”, evokes a visceral response in many Americans, especially of a certain age. I am, as my advisor has pointed out, in a unique situation as I write this article. I have never known the existence of the Soviet Union, nor any of its Eastern Bloc comrades, as they all ceased to exist roughly three to four years before I shuffled on this mortal coil.

Despite my lack of intimate contact with Russia as a Soviet state, I was socialized in all of the American conceptions and stereotypes of it — the word “Russian” alludes to a clandestine, duplicitous, hard-nosed nature, even after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Little doubt exists that the claims of meddling in the United States’ heated 2016 presidential election re-ignited Russophobic sentiments that had, for the most part, lain dormant in American political life. To be a “Russian stooge” became an insult again, in addition to the nouveau “Russian bot.” Accusations of “collusion” littered Twitter feeds and news tickers. Russia as outside agitator — it’s a chestnut pejorative with usage dating back over a century.

Readers should not treat the above paragraph as support for, or indictment against any of the actors mentioned, but rather as a precursor to my comments about the necessity of the Serpukhov partnership, as well as its remembrance.

Although the cities did not have an official relationship until June 1988, the beginning of Richmond’s ties with Russia lay far earlier, in 1983. A Richmond couple, Paul and Marie Turner, traveled to the USSR at an unspecified date and discovered that “…the Soviet people were not very different from Americans.” According to the first installment of “The Changing Lives of Richmond’s Russian Friends”, a 7-part slice-of-life series run by the Pal-Item in March 1989, “[t]he seeds of friendship planted by the Turners were cultivated by Earlham College physics professor Sam Neff, his wife Ruth [the niece of our Center’s benefactor, Walter Havighurst], and a group of friends calling themselves “The Peace-Meal Gathering.” Rather than engage in penning letters to their representatives to further the cause of peace between the US and USSR, the Neffs and the crew of the Peace-Meal Gathering opted for direct action, setting up a booth at the local YWCA Ethnic Festival in fall 1983, where residents were warm to the idea of establishing a sister city.

Later that year, Pat Barcum, another member of the Peace-Meal group, proposed a resolution to the Richmond City Council regarding the adoption of a Soviet sister city, which the council approved. The Neffs and their daughter, Kathryn (who spoke Russian), took up the next stage of the plan, traveling to the USSR with a group of teachers in hopes of finding a suitable candidate for a sister city. The USSR Friendship Society (known as VOKS in Russian), a Soviet-run cultural advocacy organization, suggested the city of Solnechnogorsk, a town of about 56,000 situated 40 miles northwest of Moscow. When the Neffs returned to Russia a year later, they learned that Solnechnogorsk was ineligible for a formal relationship and were recommended Smolensk, a large city with a population of around 341,000 and the capital of the Smolensk Oblast. This city, too, would prove an unsuccessful candidate, with supporters speculating that the city’s size and existing sister cities served as the reason for its rejection. Despite Richmond’s rejection from Smolensk, 1986 proved a fruitful year for the sister city project, as the group Neighbors East and West was founded.

Following Richmond’s second Soviet rejection, VOKS suggested that Richmond’s sister city advocates pursue a relationship with the city of Serpukhov (pop. 125,000) while maintaining informal “friendship city” relations with Smolensk. Mayor Frank Waltermann visited Serpukhov in 1987, and was successful in his proposal to establish relations between the two cities. Serpukhov mayor Ivan Khazinov visited Richmond in June 1988 to formalize ties, making Richmond the first city with under 100,000 residents to be named a Soviet sister city. Ms. Turk, the author of the column cited in the beginning of this essay and Indiana University East history professor, served as the chair of Richmond’s Sister City Committee. At the end of the Pal-Item column describing the formation of the cities’ ties, she said: “I think that any time people communicate on a willing basis . . . relationships can improve. We have an enlightened interest in keeping peace, developing economic ties. That’s why I’m in Sister City. I believe in these kinds of programs.”

And so began the storied relationship. Many of the exchanges, events, and stories of Richmond/Serpukhov ties made it into the pages of the Palladium-Item, which will be the primary source for this blog series. Although these columns were not always free of the stereotypes that surrounded writing about the USSR (many references to blue jeans and boom boxes), they provided heartfelt and revelatory insights into a country on the brink of, and then in the midst of, world-altering change.

I hope you continue to read the series as we explore in greater detail the fascinating relationship between Richmond and Serpukhov.

Note on sources: Much of the information in this article comes from the July 23, 2017 and March 5, 1989 issues of the Richmond Palladium-Item.

Evan R. Ash is a candidate for the Master of Arts in History degree at Miami University and the Havighurst Center’s current graduate assistant. He can be reached at asher@miamioh.edu and on Twitter at @evanthevoice.

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