Gabba Gabba Hoosier, Rocket to Richmond: Soviet Citizens in Indiana

Two Richmond Pal-Item headlines from 1989.

By Evan Ash

This is the third 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 the last post, I documented a 1989 tour that involved students from Richmond’s Garrison Elementary School and their parents, one of the most notable cultural exchange trips embarked upon by Richmond citizens in the formative years of the sister city partnership with Serpukhov, Russia. This post aims to provide a survey of the trips taken by Serpukhov denizens to Richmond between June 1988, when Serpukhov’s mayor, Ivan Khazinov, and several other Soviet delegates traveled to Richmond to formalize the sister city ties, and 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Khazinov’s delegation traveled to Richmond in June 1988 to formalize sister city ties. It consisted of Mayor Khazinov, a labor leader named Vladimir Tarasov, and a teachers’ union leader named Galina Fedoseeva. The delegation had a mostly uneventful trip to Richmond, but were pleased with the hospitality and impressed by the widespread implementation of computers and the construction of Richmond’s Garrison Elementary School. One of the more interesting anecdotes from the story was a request by the delegation to look around a local gun store, with Khazinov remarking upon what he perceived as a strange abundance of handguns, wondering why people “were allowed to own [handguns.]” A January 1989 Pal-Item column critical of the amount money spent by the city on perceived frivolous expenses places the cost of hosting the Serpukhov delegates at $2,365 (about $4,750 today), referring specifically to “$12.75 trout dinners. . .[and] more than $175 worth of wine and champagne” for a reception of around 60 people held at the town’s Radisson Hotel.

The next hint of Serpukovian travel to Richmond came in mid-April 1989, when the Pal-Item ran a short story in its local/regional section seeking farm hosts for Soviet agricultural workers who would be traveling to the country in December of that year, noting that Mayor Khazinov promised to host a delegation of Richmond agriculturalists in early 1990. Another joint proposal came in July, when Serpukhov officials wrote Mayor Frank Waltermann, proposing to open souvenir shops in both cities, carrying domestic goods from each country. The editorial board of the Pal-Item came out in favor of the proposal as a way of providing “a starting point for developing economic ties.”

The first definitive cultural rather than diplomatic or economic visit by Russians to Richmond occurred in early October 1989, with a 16-piece folk ensemble traveling to Richmond and performing a show of dance, song and instrumental music at several venues throughout the Richmond area: Earlham College, the Richmond Civic Theatre, and an auditorium at a local hospital. The troupe stayed with multiple families, but one that received repeated coverage were Simon and Helen Guyinsky, Russian Jewish expats who moved to Richmond after living in Chicago for a brief time, working as engineers. The folk ensemble had nine performances over their six-day tenure in Richmond, also performing in Indianapolis at a private school and Butler University. The immersion aspect of their trip involved touring Indianapolis, where they visited the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the former Hoosier Dome, and shopping at a local department store before being treated by a local company to a performance of Rigoletto. After leaving Richmond, the troupe flew to Washington, D.C. for a tour organized by Democratic House representative Phil Sharp, who represented north-central Indiana.

The agriculture-focused visit proposed several months earlier materialized as promised and despite what appeared to be overall struggles with providing interpreters, the group of four men and one woman were able to tour several farms in the greater Richmond area and celebrate the Christmas season with local citizens. Humorously, Jerry and Cathy Graves Turner, beef farmers who hosted the visitors, reported their astonishment that some words, including “vodka” were the same in both English and Russian.

As events heated up in the USSR itself, fewer and fewer Serpukhov citizens made trips over to the United States. Those that did come were either government officials or workers intent on developing trade relationships with the United States. In May 1990, lieutenant governor Frank O’Bannon met in Richmond with three high-ranking agricultural figures from the USSR to discuss sales of Soviet goods in America, and Indiana investments in Soviet businesses. The group later traveled to New York City with several other Indiana lawmakers that dealt in agricultural issues for further discussions. Both the hospitality Richmond displayed towards Soviet citizens and their willingness to promote exchange between cultures paid off for the Sister City program, as they were one of four cities out of over 800 participants to be honored with Sister City International’s top award for their work in 1989.

Sadly, with the impending collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, travel between the two countries became increasingly difficult and Richmond subsequently searched for another sister city, eventually settling on Daito-cho, Japan (now Unnan), but they maintained that the award-winning partnership with Serpukhov would not end. Serpukhov’s vice mayor, Nikolai Proshrov, and a Serpukhov telephone chairman attended a Sister City International conference in Chicago in July of 1991, and toured electronics businesses in Richmond after the fact. The last visit that Serpukhov denizens took as Soviet citizens was in September of 1991, when three delegates came to the United States to attend the Sister Cities International national conference in Cincinnati. Ominously, one of the delegates told a joke that with the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians had more democracy than ever before, but less of the everyday goods they needed.  It was a statement that would prove prophetic, as Serpukhov citizens would discover in the 1990s.

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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