ITHACA, N.Y.—Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, plenty of rallies have popped up around Ithaca calling for peace in the region and condemning the conduct of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
One such event took place just Thursday night: Area Congregations Together held a somber gathering that attracted dozens to the Commons, lighting candles and toting pro-peace signs and Ukraine’s vivid blue and yellow flag.
Ithaca’s support for the Ukrainian plight seems clear now, but little has been told about Ithaca’s deeper connection with Ukraine, in the days when the country was emerging after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That relationship appears to have peaked in the 1990s under then-Mayor Alan Cohen, who started and maintained a relationship with Komsomolsk, Ukraine, that extended over several years during his administration from 1996–2002 and included seven in-person trips. Cohen’s trips to the city, a lakeside municipality which had a population of about 55,000 at the time and is now known as Horishni Plavni, would last about two weeks at a time and were packed with activity.
Cohen now works as the Deputy County Administrator in Broward County, Florida, and looks back on his work with the local Ukrainian government in Komsomolsk fondly. He said the relationship was started by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Ukraine Foundation, helped by Walter Poland, who was then the vice president of global initatives for Tompkins Cortland Community College, and became an “exchange program designed to foster democratic, cultural and business development in the former Soviet republic,” according to articles written at the time and provided by Zoë Van Nostrand from The History Center in Tompkins County.
Cohen said some of the 17 other United States cities that had signed up for the sister program with Ukrainian cities didn’t participate very much, taking the more usual, casual approach to the sister city relationship, where the connection is more nominal than tangible.
“This has been one of our more dynamic partnerships,” said Community Partnership Project Director Vera Andrushkiw, quoted in an Ithaca Journal article in 2001. “Alan Cohen has been very instrumental in facilitating and doing strategic planning and visioning in Komsomolsk.”
Indeed, Cohen and other local officials jumped in full-force, taking the opportunity to lecture around the country (especially in cities that were in the program but paired with absentee American cities), help develop a strategic plan for Komsomolsk, and even help establish the first Ukrainian Conference of Mayors.
“I facilitated a strategic plan process over the course of three weeks, and Komsomolsk became the first city in Ukraine to have a city strategic plan,” Cohen said. “We convened public input meetings around the community. Some we hosted in known locations, we walked around a couple of days, held impromptu gatherings. People thought we were nuts, the mayor thought we were nuts, but he was so pleasantly surprised by how engaged his citizens were. I think it helped change his perspective of the role of the citizenry.”
Ithaca Journal articles from the time confirm Cohen’s stories. He was joined on at least some of the trips, which did not use taxpayer money, by Tompkins County Area Development President Michael Stamm and other city employees, and two deputy mayors from Komsomolsk visited Ithaca at least once.
There is, of course, some imperial discomfort with the thought of a cadre of Americans going abroad to facilitate development in an unfamiliar foreign country that was, just years prior, part of the United States’ decades-old sworn enemy. To combat that, Cohen said he would often consult with his translators to make sure he wasn’t overstepping his bounds.
“We recognized at the outset that not all good ideas are transferrable due to politics, culture, economics, whatever it might be,” Cohen said. “We tried to be as sensitive to differences as possible. I was fortunate that the interpreters I was working with throughout the years were Ukrainian […] They helped me to maintain that awareness.”
Though the trips were not taxpayer-funded, they didn’t avoid all criticism. An editorial in the Ithaca Journal from May 2001, during Cohen’s sixth trip, bitingly states “Cohen’s trips revolve around fostering democratic, cultural and business development in the former Soviet republic. Understandably, some city residents think Cohen should be fostering those same assets a little more in Ithaca and a little less eight time zones away. […] Today, Cohen says Komsomolsk as easy as Cascadilla.”
Regardless, Cohen says he has actually kept up with one of the interpreters in Ukraine. They now live in the western part of the country, and thus had been safe from any military activity due to Russia’s invasion, at least to the time when Cohen last spoke to them.
Eventually, when grant funding ran out, Ithaca’s sister relationship with Komsomolsk faded late in Cohen’s administration—he personally funded his last trip there, he said. The U.S.-Ukraine Foundation does still exist, though its activity seems to have waned prior to the renewed attention due to the war. But at least for a few years, Cohen deeply enjoyed the opportunity to do work he believed was helping a city that had a chance to rise from the rubble of the USSR.
As the Journal’s Lauren Bishop wrote in 2000, “Like Ithaca, it’s a small city surrounded by rural towns on a body of water. Beyond that, the Ukrainian city of Komsomolsk is miles away from Ithaca, both geographically and politically.”