I have heard it said, “Helping a Russian is like trying to help a drowning man who won’t give you his hand.” At times, my experience has proven that a truism, but it is such a pleasure to see the good that is done when people of different cultures respectfully get together. The result is a realization of how much we have in common, not in difference. Harmony and mutual appreciation happen—and we learn so much. Active Sister Cities do this.
I have the pleasure of being on the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City Committee (LASPSCC) and presently its president. I love St. Petersburg, its history, its architecture, its art and culture, its people, and its role in today’s Russia. When I lived in Russia, I had a business office in Petersburg and still keep in touch with my many friends there.
My first and still favorite involvement is with the “babushkas” in St. Petersburg. We support a nonprofit group there headed by a very devoted couple who directly help these deserving old ladies with no ability to get out and shop from their elevator-less old Soviet buildings. It has been a memorable experience to meet some of these delightful ladies. One I met, at age 95 then, commanded artillery firing at the Nazi’s infamous 900 day bombardment of their city. Each week a helper shops for them, fixes meals that last for a few days, and tends to other needs. I met one dear lady who had written a poem she proudly read to me.
But “sisters” don’t always get along. We have brought over to L.A. Petersburg teachers, lawyers, city officials, and others who want to learn more about how a city like Los Angeles works and governs an active democratic citizenship. Recently we brought over four community leaders for a visit. One was a professor from a university and he was happy to meet others in education, to stay in a three-star hotel and meet city officials. The other three had other ideas. First of all they insisted on five-star hotels (and paid the difference) and took off almost immediately to Las Vegas (and paid for it all.) They were from the St. Petersburg city government. They refused to meet with the Mayor of Los Angeles, telling us later that St. Petersburg was a “state” and they expected to meet with the Governor of California, not a lowly city mayor. L.A. wasn’t “big enough” for them although I expressed that greater Los Angeles, in economic measurements, was the thirteenth largest “country” in the world. They were almost the worst representatives of St. Petersburg they could have sent—arrogant, self-serving, and ignorant. We did not take them as representative because we have seen so many good visitors, but we will be careful in the future.
Other help has been supplied to orphanages and we financed the building of an athletic field and bleachers for one home for orphan teens. But we are careful who we deliver to. One orphanage wanted sport-shoes. I arranged for 500 pairs of free seconds from a top American brand. When I asked for sizes, I was told they should all be adult sizes. I cancelled the order. I knew they would never see the kid’s feet and would be sold on the street.
There was an advanced medical support program for kidney disease managed by the University of Southern California Medical School. We have helped a home for veterans of the stage. One project is helping the efforts of a dedicated scholar to collect, preserve, and digitize the works of the great poet Anna Akhmatova. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of LASPSCC , a children’s art exhibit was sponsored in 2010. From several districts of the Los Angeles Unified School District a total of 219 paintings were carried to St. Petersburg for display in the historic St. Petersburg State Art and Industry Academy. Our volunteers helped sponsor and manage the exhibit with the Russians, as part of the White Nights Master Class celebration in this the artistic and cultural center of Russia. An exhibition of young St. Petersburg artists is scheduled for display in Los Angeles in 2011.
The U.S. sister city program originated in 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed a people-to-people, citizen diplomacy initiative. Los Angeles has 25 official sister cities about the globe, all part of Sister Cities International (SCI.) We are a totally volunteer nonprofit group without any oversight or interference from government
The Sister Cities is a wonderful and fun way to get together, gain knowledge and respect for each other. It is up to the individuals in the local communities. It’s all about individual initiative and mutual care.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.