by Gregor Smith
Recently, two Waterville area residents spent five days in Kotlas, Russia to help celebrate the city's 95th anniversary. Since 1990, Kotlas has been sister city to Waterville and the surrounding towns, and the two visitors, Martha Patterson and Mark Fisher, are members of the executive committee of the Kotlas - Waterville Area Sister City Connection, the nonprofit organization that promotes and sustains the sister city relationship on this end.
Patterson, a Waterville resident and medical technologist at MaineGeneral Medical Center, is currently the committee's co- chairwoman. Fisher, an Oakland town councilor and professional foster parent, has hosted many high-school exchange students from the former Soviet Union, and expects to host a young man from Kotlas for the 2012-2013 school year. For both Patterson and Fisher, it was their first trip to Russia and to Kotlas.
Kotlas, a city of around 60,000 souls, is situated 500 miles northeast of Moscow at 61° North, the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska. The city lies at the confluence of two broad, navigable rivers, the Northern Dvina and the Vychegda, which are comparable to the Mississippi and the Missouri. The city has a river port, a shipyard comparable to Bath Iron Works, a rail junction, an airport, and an "electromechanical factory," which produces precision parts for aircraft and industrial equipment.
Kotlas was incorporated in 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. Every five years, the city holds a big anniversary celebration and invites the Kotlas Connection to send representatives. This year, the city held its festivities on June 12, Russia Day, which is Russia's Independence Day.
The two intrepid travelers left Waterville on Monday, June 4, arriving in Moscow the following morning. They spent that day touring the city and then took an overnight train to St. Petersburg for two more days of sightseeing before embarking on the daylong rail journey to Kotlas.
Shortly after arriving in Kotlas, they were conducted to a meeting of the Waterville Committee, the sister city organization in Kotlas. The meeting was held at public school, where a woman in folk dress greeted them in the traditional Russian manner with bread and salt and school children sang. They were then taken to a local restaurant for the first of many feasts, with toasting and speeches.
The big day itself began with a meeting with the mayor of Kotlas, where Fisher and Patterson presented him a painting of Waterville's Two Cent Bridge by Milton Christianson, a watercolor impressionist from Wellington, Me. The painting was an official gift from the City of Waterville.
They then attended a reception with representatives from Tarnov, Poland, Kotlas's other sister city. After the reception came a military band concert, an hour-long parade with an estimated 3,000 marchers, an outdoor fair with many booths, and a mayoral ball. The day ended with an amazing pyrotechnical display over the river. Some of the fireworks were shot from a boat, while others where launched from beneath the waves, breaking the surface with a whoosh and exploding overhead with a bang.
For their Kotlas stay, their hosts kept Patterson and Fisher very busy. Besides the participating in the anniversary festivities, the sojourners visited a brick factory, a lumber mill, a kindergarten, and a squeaky clean rehabilitation center. They also made excursions to nearby towns, where they toured centuries-old Russian Orthodox churches; met Grandfather Frost, the Russian analog to Santa Claus, in his "official" home; visited an island to which Stalin had been exiled before the Bolshevik Revolution; and toured a technical college, which has a pulp and paper technologies program and which hopes to establish a partnership with Kennebec Valley Community College.
Their days were very long indeed as the visit fell during the White Nights. In June, Kotlas days are nineteen hours long, punctuated by five hours of twilight. The duo was able to get only a few hours of sleep each night, but Patterson said that she was so happy to be there that the lack of sleep did not matter.
The voyagers arrived back in Waterville in the wee hours of Saturday, June 16, tired, but happy, with many memories to share and eager to return to their new Russian home.
For more information about the Kotlas Connection, please visit its website.