A letter to Sister Cities Association of Sarasota in 1993 from Michael Pender, Sr. unknowingly started the war over a relationship with Vladimir, Russia. Carl Weinrich was working to establish a YMCA there and Pender’s Sarasota Bay Rotary Club was attempting to initiate a Rotary club, too. SCAS President Hope Byrnes was very excited as well and the sisterly adoption began.
However, unbeknownst to us, Bloomington-Normal, Illinois had already created a tie between the two cities and a three-pronged war began. Sister Cities International (SCI) denied the Sarasota-Vladimir pact based on the rules that only one country’s city could establish a tie with a foreign city and Vladimir and Bloomington were already sisters.
We claimed that our first sister, Santo Domingo, was claimed by both Sarasota and Miami and recognized as “legal” by SCI, so what was wrong with the same permission to be allowed for us to pair with Vladimir?
Vladimir sat on the sidelines while the Illinois and Florida cities fought with SCI to come down on their side of the argument. SCI wouldn’t budge, but after new leadership came on board, the agreement finally was signed in 1995 due to continuing pressure from Sister Cities President Hope Byrnes and Mayors Gene Pillot and Nora Patterson.
A beautiful city, three hours from Moscow on the Klyazma River, it was the ancient capital of Russia. Laura Flesch, our Vladimir liaison worked with Yuri Federov, their chief of International Relations to bring the connection to the forefront.
Vladimir State University, Sungir Open Air Museum, the Razgulai Folk Theater were but a few programs involved in numerous exchanges. Kate Alexander and staff of the Florida Studio Theater went to engage Russian students in acting and playwriting. Carolyn Gregov, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences Sarasota Extension Director established all types of trading information with Vladimir State University related to environmental projects.
But for me, the best memories of Russia were my two visits to our sister. Mayor Alexander Rybakov welcomed our delegation with open arms and treated us to several days of sightseeing and meeting with various Vladimir representatives to enhance the relationship. He and Federov assigned a young woman to our group to guide us around and keep to the schedule. She was so wonderful that Laura and I begged Yuri to allow her to go with us to visit Moscow. I fell madly “in love” with Yelena Bychkovskih and hated that we had to part after a few days in the Russian capital. Of course, I assumed that I would never see her again, but—because of a major celebration in the entire province that Vladimir is a part; another delegation flew there the following year. This time Carolyn Gregov, Lori Pennington-Gray, Director of University of Florida Department of Tourism, and my daughter, Kym Elder, founder and principal of the Venice Island Village Montessori School joined the group.
We visited schools, business organizations, colleges, environmental sustainability projects, museums and were entertained day and night. Yelena was everywhere translating and guiding us to be as productive as possible. She was entranced by Pennington-Gray’s offer to have her come to the University of Florida to study for her M.A. in tourism.
The next year, Yelena was in Gainesville. With her parents’ permission, I “adopted” her as my “Russian daughter” and she spent the holidays with Kym’s family in Venice. I’m her “American mom” and we’ve remained close ever since.
This is a perfect example of what can happen when strangers meet strangers and make them part of the fabric of life. Couldn’t ask for a greater gift!