Relationships need to be built

Professor of the University of Oxford Karen Hewitt was at the origins of the twinning relationship between Perm and Oxford. Today she talks about how it all began and what prospects she sees in the relations of the cities.

Dear Karen, if you recall how the relationship between Oxford and Perm began, why did it happen that Perm became Oxford’s twin city? How has the relationship changed over the years?

I wanted to meet Russians who were not from Moscow or Leningrad back in 1985. By chance I met Yury Nikolaievich Pinyagin who teaches at Perm State University when he was in Oxford attending a British Council course for Soviet teachers of English.

The situation in Russia has changed enormously over 30 years, and that has, of course, affected our Oxford relationship with Perm. At first we had difficulties in negotiating Soviet and Russian bureaucracy. Then, in the 1990s, there was no money in Perm, so much of what we did in Oxford was concerned with raising money for homeless children, the disabled, the sick and elderly. But all the time we were aware of great activity in Perm from energetic people with initiative. For example, Natalia Pereverseva from the Hospice movement in Perm and specialists from Sobell House (the Oxford Hospice) worked together in both Oxford and Perm in order to develop Hospice resources in Perm. So this was not a period of stagnation, but it was a period of difficulty.

From the beginning of the twenty-first century, Russia slowly became more prosperous and stable, which meant that for many years our work progressed quite smoothly. Perm City explained in about 2004 that they no longer needed our fund-raising efforts because they had enough money themselves. This was certainly true: for example the homeless children disappeared from the streets, and many new buildings were being constructed and not just those for rich people.

From about 2014, the international atmosphere became more hostile, particularly on the British side. This has never affected the relationship between Oxford and Perm – city officials on both sides have met regularly as well as all the visitors and volunteers on both sides – but we have been aware that the British Home Office is less than welcoming to some serious Russian visitors, and, at the same time, the laws on ‘foreign agents in Russian NGOs’ have led to some worries in Perm.

Can you single out any events or projects over these 25 years that were especially significant for the development of the twinning?

In the mid 1990’s there was a British fund called ‘Democracy in Action, specifically to bring British professionals and activists to Russia to discuss ‘democracy’ with Russian professionals and activists. In June 1995 and June 1996 Oxford received substantial grants from this fund. A group of us – including local politicians, a director of an NGO, the deputy editor of the Oxford Times, possibly a businessman and myself, spent a week in Perm on each occasion, holding seminars with our counterparts and visiting places with problems in Perm and various parts of Perm Region. These visits certainly brought our twinning to the attention of the Governor and people at different levels of government, the media and early NGO’s.

The visits were unquestionably useful, but I spent much time wondering how useful. Personally, I met many new people in Perm as well as those whom I had known since 1989, but I began to have doubts about British ‘democracy’. I did not think that all our British speakers were being very democratic! Some of them were giving lots of advice while knowing very little of your culture.

Agreements were signed between Perm City and Oxford City, and then, the following year, between Perm Region and Oxfordshire. Igumnov was the Governor and he had already been to Oxford where he made a very good impression on the university people here.

The other big development is less clearly marked and I am not sure whether many people would agree with me. From about 2002-2013 we developed particularly in the cultural sphere, and we continued work with the university exchanges. But at some point Andrew Adams came onto the committee and challenged us to develop bigger projects or projects which were not typical of our small twinning Oxford-Perm Association. He first went to Perm along with a delegation of Oxford City Councillors who were (and are) very active as local politicians; they were used to thinking in much bigger financial terms. This is, for me, the other big change.

I was very sympathetic to his ideas but his plans required serious commitment and lots of money and time. On the whole, the committee did not feel that this was work they were able to do as volunteers, and mostly elderly volunteers. (I had sympathy with them, too.) So Andrew started developing projects on his own, but encouraged the Perm Association to think of them as projects in which they had some kind of interest. That is how the Journalism exchanges and seminars began from our end. Of course Andrew was very lucky to encounter Vadim Skovorodin, the Editor of Business Class Perm. Too often in the past, either the Oxford or the Perm side lost interest in journalistic co-operation. Andrew also got the diabetic-foot-ulcers screening programme started, and an exchange of teachers at the Pedagogical University and Oxford University Department of Education. I think these bigger and more challenging projects depend on long-term commitment. I also think they are very important stage in our development.

Perhaps I should add that our Agreement signed between Oxford University and Perm State University in 1990 has led to many large projects which have continued for 30 years. They began before the city twinning but in practice they have been incorporated into our wide concept of twinning. I have been responsible for many but not all of them, and therefore I know the degree of commitment necessary for these large projects.

What is the main meaning (sense) of twinning for you? Why do we need it at all?

When I came to Perm in 1989 it was obvious to me that there was something very wrong in all these intelligent people not being able to travel and see other cultures – not as fantasies but in reality. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and people had no money, it also seemed obvious that we who were twinning with them in Oxford should help in whatever ways we could.

Later, the reason for twinning was perhaps that both sides should know more about the other side; for many of us, that has been more and more urgent since 2014 when true information about Russia in the western mainstream media has more-or-less ceased to exist, and when there are still significant controls on what can be written in Russia.

However, we must not forget the more common reasons for twinning – an exchange of sympathetic people, of cultural and educational visits and of talks and little local projects in schools and elsewhere. These have always flourished.

In general, joint projects are implemented in education, culture etc.  Is that how it should be according to the logic of twinning? Or do we have the right to expect joint projects in economics or urban development and the like?

I have answered this question in my earlier comments. I think these bigger projects are very important and should be part of twinning. But they involve long-term commitment, time and money. For example, we found a retired businessman who has worked for years with Perm businesses, who speaks good Russian, and – though he lives about 50 kilometres from Oxford, in another town – was keen to work with us in Oxford. But now he has some other plans and much less time. So I am not sure how useful he can be. I am going to contact him again.

Most people who are involved in twinning are good-hearted volunteers with many other interests. They are not enthusiastic about large professional  projects, not because they are against them, but because they know little about these areas of activity and because they do not want ‘Perm’ to take over their lives!

In what do you see the further prospects for Perm-Oxford relationship?

Apart from all the usual activities, I think we must be involved with Perm from a political aspect. I mean that Oxford should continue to work with Perm as with any other city on a basis of normal and friendly relations, despite the views of our respective governments. Oxford City Council supports our view entirely. Oxford’s twin cities – in order – have been Leiden (because of urgent help given in the last months of the war), Bonn (to establish friendly relations with Germany immediately after the war); Leon (because so many people were outraged at what the USA was doing in Nicaragua during the 1980s), Perm (because we wanted to celebrate the end of the Cold War and to help those who were victims of all the terrible upheavals), Wroclaw and Padua (to demonstrate that Oxford is against Brexit), and Ramallah (as a protest against the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel while not being ‘anti-Israel). Only Grenoble was not a ‘political’ twinning. However, the whole point of twinning is to remove the international political tensions, and concentrate on individual cities. Fine – but, as I have indicated, since 2014 we must certainly not forget political issues. I think it is our duty to provide both sides with as much real information as possible.

Such aspirations do depend on committed individuals.

In what do you see the prospects for twinning relations in general?

I think it is natural that some twinning links will flourish and then fade away as the early enthusiasts grow older and die off – and that will happen in any two countries. Some twinnings will develop with more and more people involved, but this requires making networks and understanding that no single person or group can do all the work.

Cultural links are always important, but with greater global travel, cultural organisations will not want to focus exclusively on one city. For younger people twinning will seem irrelevant; they want to explore freely, not to go where the grown-ups direct them. So I see twinning as an engagement with another city when one is already grown-up, mature.

Consulates and cultural attaches in foreign embassies prefer anodyne, pleasing, comfortable twinning relations without difficult questions being asked. Diplomats have to be smooth. But sometimes twinning organisations will not be smooth, but questioning, innovative, challenging. Personally, I hope that is the way that many ‘twins’ will develop. I am not sure that my hopes are very credible.

What do you think about Perm? What changes in our city do you like?

I like Perm. My first introduction to your city was in April 1989, when dirty snow lay on the ground, everything was a mess, and concrete flats had bad-smelling entrances and dubious water-supplies. The air smelt bad. And the situation was worse in 1991 and 1992 and 1993… Nevertheless I continued to like your city!

So I often asked myself why I liked it. I liked the people who seemed to be remarkably open and articulate. Nobody ever said Нельзя to me in Perm. Sometimes they looked worried and embarrassed, sometimes surprised, but basically I felt very free.

Later I got to know people of many different opinions and outlooks. Perm taught me how varied and thoughtful people can be in a different country. You cannot stereotype, just as I knew you cannot stereotype the British.

I like Perm, partly because it is not a Great City. I like the forests and fantastic rivers and countryside close to Perm. It is much larger than Oxford, but like Oxford, it has a strange sprawling shape so that nature is never very far away. (That is personal. I don’t really like London except as a visitor.)

When Russia stopped being a society in which people were more-or-less economically similar, and became a society of the few very rich and the majority very poor, I hated the expensive tall fancy blocks which suddenly appeared, most notably the one which dominates the view when you walk eastward out of the Theatre Park. The first significant new shops were also for the Very Rich. That was an uncomfortable time for everybody. The mafia, the desperate teachers who started working in kiosks, the confused anger. But this was true of Russia as a whole. I always thought that Perm managed to keep (comparatively) steady through this difficult time, though I hated the point when Gorky Park, a park for the people, suddenly became a private fee-paying park.

I have returned to Perm every year until 2020, sometimes three times a year, and I continue to feel that this is my second home. It is a much more prosperous home than it was, although I am not quite sure that it is as friendly and open as it was in 1989. It is very difficult to compare because then I was a solitary visitor, and now most Permians have met foreigners and know much more about ‘the west’. Perm State University is also very important to me as I continue to teach there and most of my friends work or have worked at PSU.

Not all, though!

What plans does Oxford have for new projects with Perm?

Well, Covid-19 has ruined many of our plans. We want to organise some festival-like online activities for November.

Next year we want to go back to our university exchanges, our cultural and civic exchanges, our journalism seminars – certainly all those. We are also thinking of more professional debates, above all on the environment and climate change. Neither Britain nor Russia is being as active as they could be in confronting these catastrophic changes, but I know that many individuals in both countries and both cities have ideas. It would be good to bring them together. And if we could get businessmen involved, that would be a new and intriguing development. For that I am sure we will need the involvement of Vadim Skovorodin, the Editor of Business Class Perm.