In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan told Americans that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire,” and many believed him. Over the next few years, however, thanks to conversations with Suzanne Massie, a scholar/writer from Blue Hill, Maine, he was introduced to the many Russians she knew as gentle, intelligent, and generous. He changed his tune: “Trust but Verify” became his maxim.

At about the same time, a groundswell of goodwill came to see Russians as “people just like us.” For instance, a group in Waterville, calling itself “Our Peaceful Russian Connection” chose Kotlas in northwestern Russia as its Sister City. Portland chose Archangel in the same region. Many other cities followed, and President Reagan set up a Sister City office in the White House.

Also in the early 1980s, Samantha Smith, a 10-year-old schoolgirl from Manchester, wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov, secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, expressing her fears about nuclear war. He replied at length, inviting her for what became an exciting, friendly visit to Moscow, Leningrad and a children’s camp on the shore of the Black Sea.

It didn’t stop there. Reagan’s interactions with President Gorbachev led to hugely improved relations between our countries. Americans and Russians began to think of this as the new normal. Many home-stay visits were made to Kotlas, Archangel and other Russian cities, together with return visits by new Russian friends. Part of Waterville’s exchange included a visit to Kotlas led by then-Mayor Paul LePage, who, as Maine governor, was generous with hospitality during a return visit with Russian guests. Student exchanges and pen pals, and sharing in medicine, education, space exploration and other fields rounded out our international friendship.

Another aspect of the new normal included independence from Russia by Ukraine and many other Soviet provinces. This separation of parts of the Soviet family of nations was accomplished peacefully. However, there were difficulties, because Joseph Stalin in an earlier era had moved many Russians into those regions, where their national identity became somewhat confused.

Putin’s war on Ukraine represents a re-emergence of empire. But war needs to be confined to history books. Instead we must consider how to use our combined resources to solve the real problems of our world.


For instance, we all share Earth’s atmosphere. Though locally warm or cold, clean or polluted, it circulates around the globe for everyone to enjoy or destroy. Examples of the changing climate are marks of destruction caused by our addiction to those wonder-fuels, coal, oil and natural gas. They give us an energy high, though those heat-trapping CO2 emissions are a downer.

In addition, we share Earth’s oceans, their enormous volume absorbing up to 90% of the sun’s trapped heat. The oceans are also becoming acidic, which is bad news for seashell creatures, corals and many others. And sea levels are rising.

The part we lay claim to is the land. That is where we establish our families, where we smile, cry, love, argue, work and rest. We have so much in common that we, the world’s people, should encourage and insist that our leaders understand our concern for the future of mankind and this beautiful planet.

We need them to avoid fighting, instead coming together to find solutions to the major problems of not only humans, but all of life on Earth. Nuclear weapons could wipe us out at the press of buttons. The changing climate could become unbearable in so many ways within our lifetimes. The over-abundant human population is depleting the planet’s resources.

We need all the wisdom of every one of us, including leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden, Xi Jinping and Antonio Guterres. Can our nations be truly united in finding solutions to these immense tasks?

Our earlier efforts with sister cities shows that it’s possible.

Peter Garrett is a resident of Winslow.

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