Helping to Thaw the Cold War: CYSCA’s 25-Year History

On May 11, at the annual meeting of the Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association (CYSCA), former mayor and longtime city councilor Frank Duehay recounted the origins of the association, which was founded 25 years ago.

Frank Duehay addresses CYSCA annual meeting. (Photo credit: Elsa Ronningstam)

Duehay described the roots of the project in the Cold War. When President Ronald Reagan came into office, the Cambridge City Council reacted to his bellicosity towards the Soviet Union by initiating a search for a sister city somewhere in the Soviet Union as a vehicle for citizen-to-citizen contact and discussion. In 1982, the Cambridge City Council created the Cambridge Commission on Nuclear Disarmament and Peace Education, thereafter known as the Peace Commission, with a small budget and staff, which was given the mandate to (among many others) find such a city. A committee formed by the Peace Commission researched several cities and settled on Yerevan, since there was an Armenian American community in Cambridge and adjoining towns, and individuals were already travelling back and forth to Yerevan. At the time it was unclear how the reception in Cambridge would be; Cambridge citizens were introduced to the culture in the Soviet Union and, once Yerevan was chosen, children were encouraged to write letters and make art to share with students in Armenia. Letters of support were obtained from a wide range of city organizations, officials, and institutions, and were then taken to Armenia in a thick-bound book by the first delegation. Duehay noted, “This whole initiative really came from a large number of activists—really kind of a grassroots movement.”

Supporting the idea was Eisenhower’s initiative in 1956 to promote many sister cities between the U.S. and foreign cities. In the early 1980’s, only a handful of U.S.-Soviet sister cities existed; by the mid-1980’s, Cambridge had become one of the first of a newly approved round of partnerships.

Duehay recalled, “I got involved because I had just been mayor and the current mayor [Walter Sullivan] thought I would be a good one to lead the first delegation. Although the delegation was really originally a grassroots group, the council had to vote on it and approve it, and designate an elected official to lead it.” He added, with some amusement, “The delegation had to accept me.” An 11-person delegation was formed with Peace Commission Director Jeb Brugmann and other commission members playing major organizing roles. “We wrote the committee which had to approve this venture in Moscow and got no answer,” he said. “Finally, a prominent journalist and MP from Yerevan who was here doing research met with us and said, ‘You have just got to go. I’ll help you any way I know of.'”

The group made the trip in late May 1986. “Here we are in Moscow,” Duehay said. “We were told we were going in to the office of the head person who establishes sister city relationships. The first thing we presented was the bound volume of support letters. The first one was from Member of the U.S. House of Representative Tip O’Neill, the second from Senator Ted Kennedy. I think that made an impression: showing that we were in the business of trying to improve relationships—in our own tiny way to thaw the ice between both countries. There was, of course, a great deal of suspicion, not only there but in our country too. They listened to us, liked what we said, but when we left the next day we were on the way to Yerevan, and I realized we knew nothing, didn’t know what we would be doing.”

Duehay then recounted an amusing incident. “I realized I might have to say something formal. When the plane came in there was a crowd of hundreds of people and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get on my toes for this one.’ But everyone got out of the plane and it turned out the crowd was there for a bunch of rock stars who were on our plane!”

“But soon we encountered the people who were there to meet us, including the vice mayor, who was grinning ear to ear. They were delighted to greet us and had an incredible itinerary planned with meetings and visits to cultural or social sites throughout Yerevan. It was a wonderful introduction to those (most of us) in the delegation who were not of Armenian background. We were stunned at what we saw and who we met. It was incredible, almost a life-changing experience for all of us.”

Duehay said he particularly remembered visiting Yerevan State University. “There was a huge crowd of people there to meet us in the auditorium. It was my job to explain why we were there—why our city council and our community seemed to want to reach out to Yerevan. I did it to the best of my ability. They seemed quite interested. Then all of a sudden I thought I would do something. There was only one way out of the auditorium: When I got finished speaking, I stood by the door and shook every hand of every person as they left the room. Some knew English, so we had a chance to chat, and one young man said to me, ‘Are you going to be president?’ A lot of college and graduate students didn’t know much about this country. It was really striking how we ran into friendliness and hospitality everywhere.”

Summing up, he said, “The accomplishments of the sister city committee are really quite extraordinary, and I know it’s not easy for non-profits to do these things. It’s an enormous amount of time that people have put into it. And it doesn’t end: the wonderful Community Connections programs that are going on, helping schools, what you’ve spent money on. This is what the sister city thing is all about. Who knows who is affected by these university administrators who visited last fall? This is the people-to-people thing at its very best. I am very proud to have had an early part in this. We just hope it goes on forever.”

With this evening event, held at the Cooper-Lee-Nichols House of the Cambridge Historical Society, the group took a first step towards planning celebrations to observe its 25th anniversary in 2012. CYSCA President Cheryl Shushan observed, “Not only has the Cambridge-Yerevan connection lasted 25 years, it’s been very active through the years. Such a special relationship deserves celebrations acknowledging this unique sisterhood.” The talk was preceded by a brief business meeting during which Board members were elected and the year’s programs were reviewed, including Community Connections, the Armenia School Aid program, and involvement in both the Yerevan and Cambridge Science Festivals. Plans for the fall include a project on studying energy issues that would link schools in Cambridge and Yerevan, and a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Armenian independence on Sept. 25 at 6 p.m. at Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church of Greater Boston, in Cambridge. It will be organized together with a number of Armenian organizations in the area.

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