Supporters dismayed by suspension of Russia sister city program

Published: Mar. 4, 2022 at 6:38 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - After three decades of building cultural bridges with Russia, Burlington and other Vermont communities are putting those relationships on hold.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger Thursday announced his decision to suspend the relationship with their sister city, Yaroslavl, Russia, following Gov. Phil Scott’s executive order earlier in the day. But some of those involved with the programs say they are dismayed by the decision.

“I think that Russians and Ukrainians have always made a very good distinction between people and government. For Ukrainians, I know this is not an issue of the Russian people, this is an issue with Putin,” said Barbara Felitti.

The Huntington woman moved to central Russia in 1993 to work on an environmental project for the Institute for Sustainable Communities that was launched by former Gov. Madeleine Kunin. Between 2005 and 2008, she lived in Kyiv, exploring former Soviet territories. In both countries, Felittt fostered strong friendships that she maintains to this day. She says she’s sad Vermont is suspending ties with Russia but understands the symbolic message officials are sending. “It is a sign of just how desperate the situation is,” she said.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: Does this at all feel like more of a punishment for the people of Russia?

Barbara Felitti: The intended consequence is to get the attention of the Russian people.

But Oliver Carling, president of the Burlington Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program, argues that while Vermont should stand with Ukraine, severing ties with Russian citizens is counterproductive. “It’s really based on people-to-people relationships,” he said.

The twin cities movement was born out of the ashes of World War II, building bridges between countries in conflict. Then Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders signed off on the partnership with Yaroslavl in 1988, visiting the city that same year.

A decade after Kunin executed Vermont’s sister-state relationship with the Republic of Karelia, Russian judges took a trip to the Chittenden County Superior court. An experience that Carling says has evolved into crucial cultural connections. “I have friends in Yaroslavl. I know that they are horrified by this year. We want to keep this line of communication open to our friends to say we understand how hard it is to protest, how hard it is to struggle against this government,” he said.

Senator Sanders agrees that Mayor Weinberger’s suspension is short-sighted. He told WCAX in a statement, “our enemy is not the Russian people. We must instead make it easier, not harder, for the Russian people who have bravely opposed Putin, to engage with friends and allies in the United States.

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Burlington suspends relationship with Russian sister city

Scott calls for Vermonters to stand with Ukraine

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