WATERVILLE — As economic sanctions and condemnation of Russia mount for its invasion of neighboring Ukraine, Waterville and Portland have reaffirmed their relationships with sister cities in that country.

Officials from Waterville and Kotlas, Russia, plan to participate in a call this week to discuss and reaffirm a relationship that began in the late 1980s, according to Waterville Mayor Jay Coelho.

“We’re not going to all of a sudden stop being their sister city,” Coelho said.

A commemorative tablet in Waterville at the base of a birch tree reads, in part, “This tree is a symbol of the friendship between Kotlas, Russia, and Waterville. Sister cities since 1990. Rededicated June 2004 on the occasion of a visit by the mayor of Kotlas.” The tree and monument are near the Two Cent Bridge, in the background. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

He said the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government should be condemned, not the people of Russia.

“I don’t feel like we’re going to blame the people in that city over what their government is doing,” Coelho said. “That’s not how you build peace.”

There have been a few residents who have inquired about the relationship with Kotlas, Coelho said. One person asked for the removal of a plaque near the Two Cent Bridge that commemorates the connection.

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The plaque will not be removed, Coelho said.

In Portland, the City Council passed a resolution last week condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and proclaiming solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

Councilor Pious Ali asked if the resolution would affect Portland’s sister city relationship with Archangel, Russia.

The city’s lawyer, Jen Thompson, said the relationship was formed in the 1980s via a treaty along with other communities in Greater Portland that the resolution would not alter it.

No other communities in Maine appear to have a sister city in Russia. The relationship generally involves cultural exchanges and visits by delegations from one city traveling to the other.

In June 2015, a group from Kotlas visited Waterville and stayed with then-Gov. Paul R. LePage at the Blaine House in Augusta. LePage’s connection to Kotlas dates back to his time as mayor of Waterville from 2004 to 2011.

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A delegation from Waterville last traveled to Kotlas in 2017 for that city’s 100th anniversary.

Winslow resident Peter Garrett, who did the initial research and outreach to jump-start Waterville’s relationship with Kotlas, said the connection is about people, not the actions of each country’s government. He said the city’s “peaceful Russian connection” should stay intact.

“We’re just people,” Garrett said.

The idea was inspired by Garrett’s hometown of Norwich, England, and its relationship with Rouen, France, and all the value it generated for residents in both cities. During the Cold War, Garrett was looking for a way to connect person-to-person with the people of Soviet Russia.

“Why aren’t there things that we can find in common?” Garrett said he had asked himself.

Fairfield, Oakland and Winslow are included in Waterville’s sister city arrangement with Kotlas.

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In the early 1980s, Garrett begin searching for a comparable city to Waterville in history and location.

Eventually, he found Kotlas, an older city in Russia that sits at the confluence of two large rivers and has a similar history and industrial footprint to the Waterville-Winslow area.

After initially being rejected by Kotlas’ mayor at the behest of Moscow, Garrett and two other people traveled to Kotlas in April 1989 to solidify the connection.

This commemorative tablet, marking Waterville’s relationship with the Russian city of Kotlas, is at the base of a birch tree near the Two Cent Bridge in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Garrett said the reception included about 100 people on the train platform when the Waterville delegation arrived, displaying a welcoming tradition in northern Russia.

“The welcome that we got there was so warm,” Garrett said.

Other cities in the United States are taking varying approaches to their relationship with their Russian counterparts.

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Officials in Gainesville, Florida, are moving forward with a resolution to support that city’s relationship with Novorossiysk, Russia, but to remove any business or financial investments from Russian companies, The Gainesville Sun reported last week.

City leaders in Boulder, Colorado, recently announced a suspension of its sister city relationship with Smolensk, Russia, which includes a ban on visits between the two cities, local news station Fox 21 reported.

The action defied a request by the organization Sister Cities International that urged municipalities not to break ties with Russian cities because of the war in Ukraine.

“While suspending or ending a sister city relationship to register disapproval of a foreign government’s actions may seem, on the surface, like a positive policy protest action, it has the complete opposite effect — closing a vital and, ofttimes, last channel of communication with vulnerable or isolated populations,” Leroy R. Allala, president and CEO of Sister Cities International, wrote in a letter to participating cities.

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