WATERVILLE — Natalia Verkhovtseva stood inside the Maine Made & More Shop downtown Tuesday, a smile spreading across her face.

The 45-year-old supermarket director, who lives in Waterville’s sister city of Kotlas, Russia, said she loves being in Maine on her first visit to the United States.

The homes here are lovely, Verkhovtseva said through interpretor Sheila McCarthy.

“She likes very much the nature she sees — the flowers on the streets and in the parks and how people tend the gardens at their homes,” McCarthy said. “But the most important thing is that she loves the people.”

McCarthy, a retired Colby College Russian literature and language professor, interpreted throughout the day as six Russians from Kotlas toured the city. They visited the Two-Cent Bridge at Head of Falls, City Hall and the downtown before having lunch at Cancun restaurant and touring the Hathaway Creative Center.

They also were to meet the public at an afternoon reception at Waterville Public Library.

The Russians, all members of Kotlas’ city government — or duma — are in Waterville and touring Maine as part of a continuing sister city relationship that includes a 25-year exchange of friendship, culture and education.

Kotlas Mayor Andrei Bral’nin, 41, is the only Russian on this trip who has been to Maine before — this is his fourth trip — and he is staying with Gov. Paul LePage at the Blaine House in Augusta. When LePage was Waterville mayor, he traveled to Kotlas and has been to that city twice.

First lady Ann LePage drove Bral’nin to Head of Falls Tuesday morning where he met up with members of the Waterville-Kotlas Sister City Connection who are hosting the Russians in their homes.

Martha Coury Patterson, with whom Verkhovtseva is staying, greeted the Russians at her Waterville home Friday night when they arrived from New York City, and Gov. Paul LePage showed up to greet them also, Patterson said. The Russians have visited Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, shopped at L.L. Bean in Freeport and, on Monday, toured the state Legislature with state Rep. Thomas R.W. Longstaff, D-Waterville. They also spent about three hours with the governor, who hosted a tea at the Blaine House, gave the Russians a tour of the Blaine House and his office and talked at length about the history of Maine governors, according to Sister City member Mark Fisher. Fisher, an Oakland town councilor, is hosting Maxim Dmitriev, a car dealer in Kotlas.

Kimberly Lindlof, president and chief executive officer of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, led Tuesday’s tour of downtown and explained that the Two-Cent Bridge is the oldest wire suspension bridge in the U.S.

The delegation walked across the bridge to Winslow. McCarthy pointed south to the Hathaway Creative Center as they were in the middle of the bridge, explaining that while it has been tough getting retail businesses into the former shirt factory, the offices are booming and there is a waiting list for the living spaces on the upper floors. Developer Paul Boghossian is planning to develop the other two buildings in the Hathaway complex, McCarthy said.

Bral’nin recalled visiting the former shirt factory when it was vacant.

“I remember when I was here first, these whole buildings are clear,” he said, referring to the three buildings.

Bral’nin said this is his second visit to the Blaine House.

“It’s very proud for me to stay in this house because I know a lot of Maine people haven’t been in this house,” he said.

Peter Garrett, a founding member of the Sister City Connection and Kennebec Messalonsksee Trails, explained the trail system, which he was to introduce to the Russians later in the day.

Inside City Hall, Garrett showed them the mayoral portraits that line the lobby’s upper walls, pointing to former Mayor David Bernier.

“He signed the (sister city) agreement in 1990,” Garrett said. “Mayor Ann Hill signed the first letter that went to Kotlas.”

Bral’nin, who exhibited a sharp sense of humor throughout the tour, asked why LePage’s face appears larger than those of all the other mayors. His comment drew laughter from the group.

The Russians visited Mayor Nick Isgro’s office and spoke with his and City Manager Michael Roy’s executive assistant, Amanda Esler. Roy is on vacation this week. The delegation was to have dinner with Isgro at Joseph’s Fireside Steakhouse Tuesday evening.

“Where is the mayor?” Bral’nin asked, as the group entered Isgro’s office.

McCarthy explained that the mayor’s position is largely ceremonial. Esler said he was at his job at Skowhegan Savings Bank, where he is a bank controller.

McCarthy said that the sister city relationship was germinated many years ago when Natalia Kempers, a Russian who worked at Colby College’s Miller Library, sent a postcard to the city of Kotlas, addressing it merely to the people of that city.

The postcard landed in the Kotlas mayor’s office, and the mayor knew a stamp collector who would be interested in the pretty stamps on the postcard, so he gave it to him, McCarthy said.

“The stamp collector answered (Kempers’ note), and he was in the first group of Russians who came here in 1990,” she said.

In the city council chambers on the third floor of The Center, the Russians sat in the councilors’ seats while Bral’nin sat on a taller, wooden stool Isgro sits in while presiding over council meetings.

“You should buy a better chair for your mayor,” Bral’nin quipped to laughter.

Sister city group member Phil Gonyar said that as mayor of Kotlas, a city of about 80,000 people, Bral’nin is more like administrator of the city, responsible for schools, hospitals and other institutions.

“He has a huge staff,” Gonyar said.

The sister city group members have visited Kotlas as part of the exchange — some several times.

The Russians were very interested in large aerial photographs of the area that hung on the walls of the council chambers. They took photos and listened as Garrett explained some city history.

The group walked downtown, stopping at a display in the window of The Center, where Russian arts, crafts and other items were placed. The display included a Christmas tree adorned with colorful, handmade Russian ornaments. Bral’nin spoke animatedly in Russian with the other visitors over the presentation.

“Andre (Bral’nin) says the only thing missing from the Kotlas display is a piece of soil from Kotlas,” McCarthy said. “They’re saying that they’re going to send us a big box of such ornaments.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17


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