On Common Ground
As the Cold War was ending, Philip Gonyar, a social studies teacher who had just retired after 33-years at Waterville High School in Maine, found himself on a train headed for Kotlas, Russia. The town of roughly 60,000 located 500 miles northeast of Moscow was once home to the dreaded labor camps that existed into the 1950s. But, as an active participant in the sister city program between Kotlas, Russia, and Waterville, Maine, Gonyar was more interested in the city’s present and future.
“We picked Kotlas because of its similarities to Waterville,” Gonyar says. “Both have large paper mills, are on rivers, and have a railroad center.”
The program was born of Gonyar’s correspondence with an English teacher in the Kotlas area, whom he finally met during his first visit there in 1991, reached only after a flight to Moscow followed by a 22-hour train ride. “We felt that if you could make person-to-person contact, tensions could be eased,” Gonyar says.
He has since visited six times, most recently in 2009, and students from Waterville High School also routinely visit Kotlas.
“I think our kids are surprised by the more disciplined and structured school systems,” says Gonyar, shown here on a sidetrip to St. Petersburg. “When the teacher enters the room, the students stand—and they don’t ask questions, they wait to be asked. There isn’t the same freedom of exchange we have.”
The Kotlas kids, according to Gonyar, are more surprised by American highways and supermarkets.
And yet, the similarities between the two towns might ultimately outweigh the differences.
“In terms of how the students feel, how they react, there aren’t a lot of differences,” Gonyar says. “People are people.”