At the 20th Kalamazoo Russian Festival Nov. 7, many attendees will enjoy the Russian food, music and wares but not have any idea how such a festival came to be or that it celebrates a friendship forged 25 years ago between two cities a world away from each other.
How it began
In the early 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, military and political tensions between the Soviet Union and the Western world disintegrated, and people across the United States sought to bridge the ideological gap that had divided the world since 1945. It was then that a few people in Kalamazoo boldly stepped forward to cross a newly constructed bridge of international relationships between the United States and Russia.
In November 1991, Janet Ferguson, director of the Council of International Programs (CIP) office affiliated with Western Michigan University’s School of Social Work, became one of the first Kalamazoo “ambassadors” to Russia, traveling to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to attend a conference that would help inform Russian municipal officials about practices within U.S. city governments.
Ferguson and other citizen ambassadors were taken, as a matter of protocol, to the nearby municipality of Pushkin. Having been the summer residence of Russia’s czars, Pushkin was rich with luxurious palaces that dated to the 1700s.
Because Pushkin approximated Kalamazoo in population and commercial enterprise, including paper production, Ferguson invited Pushkin officials to a CIP exchange program to learn about city government in a democracy, specifically here in Kalamazoo.
Notes on the back of a photograph of Ferguson posing between Pushkin City Council Chair Yuri Nikiforov and Pushkin city official Pavel Mikhailov quote Nikiforov as saying, “A lot of Americans come here and promise good things. We never hear from them again!!!” Ferguson’s reply, written on the back of the same photo, reads: “You will hear from us!”
And they did. Within two months, Mikhailov came to Kalamazoo for 10 days. An article in the Kalamazoo Gazette on Feb. 5, 1991, said Mikhailov, speaking through an interpreter, expressed his desire “to establish a long-term contact on issues of mutual interest between the two cities.” In the article, then-Kalamazoo Mayor Edward Annen said the city would send a delegation to the Soviet Union later that year.
On Feb.16, 1991, in the wake of Mikhailov’s departure, then-Kalamazoo City Manager James Holgersson and his assistant, Doreen Baker (later Doreen Skardarasy), penned a thank-you letter to Ferguson. “We’ve been reveling that this dream of international governmental collaboration could have actually taken place here in Kalamazoo!” they wrote.
That dream, which the letter prophetically said “some of us will cherish for a lifetime,” evolved into the Kalamazoo—Pushkin Partnership (KPP), a sister-city-type agreement signed by city officials in Pushkin on Nov. 27, 1992, and by Holgersson and then-Kalamazoo Mayor Beverly A. Moore on Jan. 4, 1993. This document cited “our common interests to develop positive relations between the peoples and governments of Russia and the United States of America.”
Mike Stoline, who has hosted many KPP gatherings of Kalamazooans and Russians, recalls, “There was excitement at the very highest level. We were thinking, ‘My, God, we can actually do something to help with this connection with Russians.’”
Six weeks later, Holgersson, Baker and a contingent of nearly a dozen Kalamazooans traveled to Pushkin. Citizen ambassadors from the beginning or early years — most of whom are still active — include James Butterfield, Luda Eliseeva (a translator who was born in Russia), Marlin Gerber, Nancy Helmic, Jackie Howlett, Garrylee McCormick, Ron Mosher, Betty Lee Ongley, Helen Palleschi, Judy Rypma, Jerolyn Selkirk, Marie and Mike Stoline, and Jackie Wylie.
But more than just forging international friendship, these citizen ambassadors also saw an opportunity to offer humanitarian aid to those in Pushkin who were caught in an economic malaise as the Russian government collapsed. “We received word that people in Pushkin didn’t have enough food, clothing and medical supplies,” Palleschi says.
In response, Kalamazooans, through Physicians for Social Responsibility and KPP, assembled 12.5 tons of medical items valued at $287,000 and shipped them in a land/sea container to NA Semashko Hospital #38 in Pushkin. Donations came from local pharmaceutical manufacturers andmedical suppliers and shipping was facilitated by local packaging and freight companies.
Among the first shipments were cast-off hospital beds that had been removed from Bronson Methodist Hospital during an expansion project. But, as Palleschi and others discovered on a later trip to Pushkin, the beds were never used. “We didn’t realize the electrical wiring would have to be 220 volts,” she says. “And the doorways in Russian hospitals weren’t wide enough for the beds to go through. What a shock to see the beds stacked in an old auditorium!”
Thus were the growing pains of two contrasting cultures coming together and meeting on that bridge of international relationships. Yet, desire to participate overcame initial difficulties.
Concerned that the first container might fall into the hands of profiteers, several Kalamazooans decided to be present when it arrived in Pushkin. “Three or four days before its arrival, someone called to let us know it was close. Then we got our airline tickets,” Mike Stoline says. “When we got to Pushkin, we were working together with young military guys to unload it, and we were all eyeing each other somewhat suspiciously. Then, in mid-morning, we took a break, and the vodka came out. After that, we were all smiling and clapping each other on the back and saying, ‘We’re buddies now.’”
The containers, which Kalamazooans continued to ship through 1996, included boxes of personal items, dry goods and nonperishable foods packed by individual families. “It became a real people-to-people campaign, with a lot of personal involvement,” Selkirk says.
McCormick says letters written by families and inserted in the boxes were simple: “Hi. My name is John. My wife’s name is Mary. We have a son named Junior, a pet dog named Spot and a cat named Kitty.”
On each package were the words “Just for you from Kalamazoo.”
The partnership today
Throughout the past two decades, citizens from Kalamazoo and Pushkin have continued to visit each other’s cities, with some of the early KPP members making several trips to Pushkin as well as hosting their Pushkin visitors here for both short-term and extended stays.
When Pushkin celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2010, 25 Kalamazooans traveled there to make presentations in the Pushkin city hall on behalf of the city of Kalamazoo and to join the festivities, with many walking in the anniversary parade.
In January 2011, the Kalamazoo-Pushkin Partnership changed its name to the Kalamazoo Russian Cultural Association (KRCA). The new appellation reflects the organization’s original goal of establishing personal international relationships and shared knowledge but also signals a new, broader purpose of being a resource for people from all parts of Russia, not just Pushkin.
“It is run by Americans who are passionate about Russian people,” says KRCA member Svetlana Stone, who was born in Latvia when that nation was still part of the Soviet Union and came to the United States in 2002 and the Kalamazoo area in 2007.
The KRCA’s two long-standing events are an annual festival, now in its 20th year, and monthly potlucks at the Central branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library that feature Russian foods and presentations about Russian culture.
The festivals and potlucks offer opportunities for Americans to learn more about Russia and for Russians living in Southwest Michigan to meet other Russians in a comfortable social setting. Alexander Zendzov, who came from Russia with his wife, Yelena, in 1999, says, “Being here at the first is the hardest. People don’t know anyone. But they come to the festival or the potluck and meet new people with a common background who might become friends.”
Louise and Jerry Potratz, who coordinate the potlucks, note that attendees are people from Russia, Americans who have married or adopted Russians, and anyone who wants to learn about Russia. The public is always welcome, and curious first-timers need not bring food.
But the KRCA members’ passion to understand Russian culture also extends beyond the local community into the arena of ongoing international exchanges. “We’re talking about how to create more regular contact with people from Pushkin, with us going there and they coming here,” Mike Stoline says.
McCormick hopes to see artists in Kalamazoo and Pushkin visit each other’s countries to collaborate on art projects. With three Pushkin artists coming to this year’s Kalamazoo Russian Festival, the KRCA is taking a step in that direction.
Through these social interactions and programs, the KRCA plans to uphold a key concept in its mission statement: “The relationships among the peoples of the world are the single most important factor in promoting peace, understanding and respect.”