Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WMUK 102.1-FM is operating at reduced power due to an issue at our transmitter site. HD service is also unavailable at this time
Second Friday of the month (third Friday in five-week months) at 6:45 am, 8:45 am and 5:44 pm. Why's That? explores the things in Southwest Michigan – people, places, names – that spark your curiosity. We want to know what makes you wonder when you're out and about.

Why's That: Why is there a case of Russian memorabilia at the Kalamazoo train station?

A Russian doll sits on a glass shelf in a glass display case with two smaller dolls behind it
Jessi Phillips
Nesting dolls, along with Soviet currency, a police cap, and other Russian mementos sit in a case in the corner of Metro Transit.

Listener Hannah Hudson first noticed the glass display case at the Kalamazoo Transit Center in March, while she and her husband were waiting for a train.

“We tried to figure it out,” said Hudson. “But our best guess was it was something Russian.”

In fact, it’s about a dozen Russian things, including a samovar for serving tea, nesting dolls, Soviet currency, and a police officer’s cap. One of the hats has fallen over, and a few of the dolls have rolled to the back of the case. There’s nothing in the case explaining why it’s in the train station. So Hudson started her own research. She took the question to a Michigan history Facebook group.

“People took a guess,” said Hudson. “And one of them was, 'oh, maybe it's the sister city.'”

Hudson was right. Kalamazoo has two sister cities—Numazu, Japan, and Pushkin, Russia. Hudson wondered how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected Kalamazoo’s sister city partnership.

The relationship began in 1991 when a Western Michigan University professor attended a conference in Russia. She met officials from Pushkin. Then one came here to visit, and soon after, Kalamazoo launched a formal partnership with the city, which is a suburb of St. Petersburg, famous as the home of 18th-century ruler Catherine the Great’s summer palace.

Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, representatives of Kalamazoo journeyed to Pushkin almost every year. In the early days, when the Soviet Union had just collapsed, they brought medical supplies. Nursing instructor Helen Palleschi helped organize several of those shipments.

“We also had a children's home, an orphanage that we would bring things to,” said Palleschi. “So we'd pack our suitcases full of baseballs and all kinds of kids' stuff.”

Jerolyn Selkirk visited 15 times over the years. She said a group of Kalamazooans were even part of a parade celebrating Pushkin’s 300th anniversary in 2010.

“They walked, but I rode in the carriage,” she said.

Young woman crouches down to examine Russian items in a display case, while older woman describes them
Jessi Phillips
Hannah Hudson, left, asks Jerolyn Selkirk to tell her more about a few of the items.

Pushkin also sent representatives to Kalamazoo. Many came as part of the Kalamazoo Russian Festival, which ran for 21 years, from 1996 to 2016.

But what is the state of Kalamazoo’s sister city partnership after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Last year, Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on U.S. cities to rethink their sister city ties with Russia.

And since the invasion, some American cities have cancelled or suspended their Russian partnerships – roughly 10 out of 50, according to Sister Cities International. Bill Boerum is with the group, which helps to facilitate the partnerships. He said the personal relationships and cultural exchange should go beyond politics and even wars.

“In the more than 60 years that we've been around, we've gone through a variety of regimes, and governments, and changes of governments all over the world,” said Boerum. “And these relationships are still going on. So why close down the channel of dialogue between people?”

Retired WMU English professor Judith Rypma visited Russia more than 30 times, and she's set several of her novels there. She also helped organize Kalamazoo’s Russian festival. Rypma grew up during the Cold War, and said she thinks cutting cultural ties with Russia amounts to moving backward.

“Sometimes people don’t try to separate the government from the people,” she said. “Because certainly I think nobody in the world really wants to be associated with whoever's in power at all times.”

The members of the Kalamazoo-Russia partnership said they don’t talk to their counterparts in Pushkin about the war, and that discussing the invasion could put their friends in danger.

Garylee McCormick was another early member of the Kalamazoo-Pushkin partnership. “It's absolutely taboo to talk about the war or anything like that, because they could disappear,” he said.  

“We don't know what they're being told,” said Selkirk.  "They only know what they're being told.”

Participation in the Kalamazoo Russian Cultural Association has declined. Most of the founding members are now retirement age.

But Kalamazoo has no plans to end its sister city ties with Pushkin. The group plans to mark the partnership by placing a peace pole in Crane Park in September, and said that Pushkin plans to do the same.

And it seems the display case of Russian memorabilia will remain at Metro Transit. McCormick organized the display case, and all the items are mementos of his five visits to Pushkin. Our question-asker Hudson offered to help update the display.

“I'd like to volunteer my services,” she said. "If I could help make some more context stuff to go to it, something that tells that story.”