It’s Elementary, Tovarishch: Richmond Youngsters in Russia

Article from 1989 in the Palladium-Item (Richmond, IN)

By Evan R. Ash

This is the second in the “Pulling Back The Iron Curtain” series of blog posts from Miami University’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies that document and offer reflection on Richmond, Indiana’s Sister City partnership with Serpukhov, Russia. As these posts will reveal, it is a partnership that plays an important role in the establishment of the Center.

 In our last post, we documented both the ways in which Richmond, Indiana’s partnership with Serpukhov, Russia was formed by a small group of citizens with a desire to foment peace and understanding between the two cultures and how, since the last visit from Russians in 2007, the city seems to have mostly forgotten its once-renowned partnership. This post, as the title alludes to, will focus on the first major trip that Richmond citizens embarked on as a result of the partnership, a 1989 tour that involved students from Richmond’s Garrison Elementary School and their parents.

The first Richmondians to visit Russia, of course, were the couple Paul and Marie Turner, who visited the USSR in the early 1980s and were the original advocates of the sister-city project, which the Neff family (Ruth, Sam, and Kathryn) expanded upon with their further trips to Russia in 1983 and 1984. The first major trip from Richmond to Serpukhov occurred in the fall of 1989, shortly after the partnership between the two cities was formally approved by both mayors in 1988. Proposed in January 1989 by Karen Montgomery, the librarian at Richmond’s former Garrison Elementary School (it closed in 2012), the trip took place at the end of the summer and included a group of third, fourth, and fifth graders (and a parent for each) to Moscow, Serpukhov, and Pushchino for a child-oriented visit that included “zoos, museums, amusement parks and schools,” with additional plans to visit the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Soviet space museum. By way of a happy accident, the trip would coincide with the 650th anniversary of Serpukhov’s founding.

Montgomery’s idea stemmed from meeting a Soviet elementary teacher during a trip in which she traveled to Russia two years earlier and established a friendship program with a school in Pushchino, about 10 miles away from Serpukhov. Said Montgomery, “Many of our students have regular pen friends and there are art and gift exchanges between the two schools.” During the trip, students would also spend a day at a Russian school and have the opportunity to meet their pen pals. Indeed, cultural exchanges were one of the main focal points of the sister city program as a whole, and one of the main topics we at the Havighurst Center hope to examine through our Pulling Back The Iron Curtain series.

The school board approved Montgomery’s plan in April 1989, and set about to raise funds for the trip. Another group that would leave around the same time as the Garrison students was a group of kayakers led by Wayne Copenhaver, a Russian enthusiast and the education director of Neighbors East and West, the primary organization for operating the sister city partnership. A unique aspect of the two trips, according to Copenhaver, was that the trips involved homestays. “It’s not usually legally possible. . .[m]ost people have to get permits to have someone stay in their home. Now it’s not as strict.”

Despite a few of the Garrison boys getting stuck in a Moscow elevator on the first night, the remainder of both trips went smoothly. According to the Pal-Item, the young students were struck by the generosity of the Russians. Shirley Trent, the mother of one of the students, said that “It’s one of the few places where they thank you over and over for coming.” Students also called Russia “older”, “simpler”, and while they think they could adapt to it, they preferred to live in America: “Mariah (a fifth-grader at Garrison) said she learned there are things in the United States that she takes for granted–like not having to wait in line to buy toilet paper, toothpaste or food.” Montgomery, the trip’s director, called the trip an “unqualified success”, and looked eagerly toward the future, as she announced that a group of Serpukhov teachers, students, and parents would be visiting Richmond in May 1989.

Beginning with the September 24, 1989 issue of the Pal-Item, the children’s writings on their experiences in Russia appeared prominently in the pages of the newspaper. The front-page story in that issue provided a survey comparison by fifth-grader Jennifer Livesay of American and Soviet schools, explaining the various differences in the educational system and some of the problems that the schools faced. Livesay noted that the largest difference between American and Soviet schools was that Russian schools “…aren’t as neat, their bathrooms didn’t have doors or toilet paper.” At the end, Jennifer simply says that the schools “differ in a lot of ways.” Sonja Bhangoo wrote of her homestay with the Balbonova family of Pushchino. Sonja stayed with the family of four, which included the father, Alexander (known as Shasha), a historian, the mother, Emma, a biophysicist, and their children, 8-year old Ksenya and 5-year old Phillip. According to Sonja, the Balbonova’s flat was “small but well-organized” and “like a library, but without much furniture.”

Mariah Miller’s column focused on the food she ate while in Russia, noting the frequency with which they ate tomatoes, but also reviewing some traditional Russian staples such as borscht and chicken Kiev. Unsurprisingly, the students were not fans of liver pâté, but they did enjoy the beet borscht. According to Mariah, most meals in Serpukhov were eaten in the hotel’s restaurant, but her favorite meal by far was the one made for her in the homestay. Amy Kirschner’s impressions of Soviet Russia were altered by the trip, according to her piece. Amy, like many other Garrison students, was surprised at the lack of single-family houses in Russia, and noted the relative absence of cars as well as “long lines” to buy goods. Brandon Owens, who had the front-page article in the following issue of the Pal-Item, firmly noted the differences between America and the USSR, ranging from lack of washers and dryers to the absence of popular American shoe brands. He found a trip to a milk factory interesting yet foul-smelling, and was glad to return home to familiar food.

The observations of Nick Green, which appeared in the September 26th issue of the Pal-Item, relayed the views that his host family had of America, that it was beautiful and interesting, and that “…the Russians are working for peace just as we are.” Other reports from students that appeared in that issue of the Pal-Item were from Rashad Nelms, who reported on the Serpukhov anniversary celebration and was impressed by the sheer breadth of the main plaza in Serpukhov. Abe Reising spoke of the universality of sports for children between the US and USSR, and provided commentary on some toys that Russian children enjoyed. Jesse Harrison spoke of his homestay with the Shakhnovick family in Pushchino with a Harvard-bound physicist and his dentist wife. According to Jesse, “Most Russian children dream of meeting and talking to an American.” They were curious about America, and also curious of what American children thought about the Russians. Jesse’s last sentence seems a fitting end to this post, and a reminder of the true and lofty goal of these cultural exchange programs: “The children hoped we could be friends and live in peace together.”

Sister Cities International’s mission is “to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation — one individual, one community at a time.”  The Serpukhov visit, as these testimonies illustrate, certainly achieved these aims.

Source note: Much of the material for this post is taken from the January 23, September 17, and September 24-26, 1989 issues of the Palladium-Item.


Evan R. Ash is a candidate for the Master of Arts in History degree at Miami University and the Havighurst Center’s current graduate assistant. He can be reached at and on Twitter at @evanthevoice.

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