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Donetsk, a city in a separatist region of Ukraine, is one of Pittsburgh's 'sister cities'

Ukraine Tensions
Vadim Ghirda
People waiting for a Kyiv bound train walk to a platform in Kramatorsk, the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine on Thursday, hitting cities and bases with airstrikes or shelling, as civilians piled into trains and cars to flee. Ukraine's government said Russian tanks and troops rolled across the border in a “full-scale war” that could rewrite the geopolitical order and whose fallout already reverberated around the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent soldiers into the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic this week after formally recognizing the region. Its capital, the city of Donetsk, is one of Pittsburgh’s “sister cities,” which are international partnerships between places that, much like actual sisters, share characteristics.

Donetsk and Pittsburgh have an industrial past. Sister Cities Pittsburgh Executive Director Kathy Risko said starting in the 1980s, there were a number of exchanges between the two cities.

“There were people from Donetsk who came to Pittsburgh in a program that was sponsored by the Sierra Club, which I find really interesting,” Risko said. “We've had journalists here who created a five-part Ukrainian language documentary entitled 'Pittsburgh The City of Hope.'”

According to an official document signed by former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and former Donetsk Mayor Voldoymyr Vasylyevych Rybak, members of youth hockey teams from both regions participated in a tournament in 1995. There was also a three-year exchange program through UPMC Magee-Women’s Hospital’s international division.

Sister city relationships are all a little different, Risko said, but all have an economic exchange at the foundation.

“We look for all different ways to work with our sister cities and look for what those commonalities are, and what we want to work on together.”

ukranian room.jfif
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Marika Zaliszczuk adorns the Ukrainian Nationality Room with a traditional spider web wreath in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh has had a large and active Ukrainian-American community since immigrants came to this region in the late 19th century. The Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus opened the Ukrainian Nationality Room in 1990. Currently, however, Donetsk is not what Risko called an “active” sister city. That doesn’t mean the relationship won’t be renewed, though.

“My board would need to sit down and think about what those outcomes would be, who’s the right person to talk to?” Risko said. “This is true for all of our sister cities that aren’t active.”

Saarbruecken, Germany became Pittsburgh’s first sister city in 1956. Among the cities with the most active relationships with Pittsburgh are Glasgow, Scotland (the newest as of 2020); Wuhan, China; and Sofia, Bulgaria, Risko said. The onset of COVID-19 changed much of the cities' recent programming, but in the past, Pittsburgh and Sofia have discussed air quality issues and steps to reduce pollution. Pittsburgh also shared how it revitalized its riverfronts with its Vietnamese sister of Da Nang.

Ukraine Tensions US Diaspora
Jessie Wardarski
The Rev. John Haluszczak points to the words "Lord, the Great and Almighty, protect our beloved Ukraine," painted in Ukrainian in St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Pittsburgh. Haluszczak's church recently held a "Souper Bowl" fundraiser, selling homemade soups and pirogies, to help feed the needy in Ukraine.

“This year is the 40th anniversary of our sister relationship with Wuhan, China, which has been a very robust relationship,” Risko said. “At the beginning of COVID, we sent PPE to Wuhan. Wuhan has sent us information about how they’ve addressed COVID.”

The process of becoming a sister city can take many routes. Sometimes a policy director or city manager will reach out to Pittsburgh. Other times, the conversation starts at an international conference, such as the UN Climate Change Conference.

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