BY ETHAN WEINSTEIN AND PETER D’AURIA/VTDIGGER
For years, Yuliya Ballou’s grandparents kept a broken alarm clock in their home in Belarus. Amid the mangled metal, the hands were frozen at 4 o’clock — the exact time, her grandparents told her, that Nazi bombs struck their house on the morning of June 22, 1941.
On Feb. 24 in her South Royalton home, when her phone lit up with news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she thought of that clock, and the incomprehensible violence that stopped time.
Ballou, born to a Ukrainian father and Russian mother, grew up in the Soviet Union and is a dual citizen of the United States and Russia. But that night, as Russia launched an unprompted invasion of its neighbor, she considered ripping up her Russian passport.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I expect or imagine this to happen,” Ballou said. “My home country is tarnished forever as an aggressor.”
Over the next few weeks, as the Western world has watched the carnage in Ukraine in horror, many have felt a similar impulse: to cut the ties that connect them to Russia.
But as Western governments, companies and cultural institutions have worked to isolate the country, some Vermonters are caught in the middle, trying to preserve their personal relationships as their countries’ political ones fray.
“Now more than ever, close personal one-to-one relationships between American citizens and Russian citizens are really important,” said Mark Oettinger, a Burlington attorney who chairs the Vermont Karelia Sister State Committee, an organization that manages the state’s partnership with the Russian republic of Karelia. “It’s not going to affect Russian policy in Ukraine by trying to get us not to talk to our friends.”
‘LOVE THE PEOPLE. LOATHE THE STATE.’
In the roughly four weeks since Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, American and European leaders have levied punishing sanctions against Russian banks and officials.
Western companies have pulled out of the country, Russian movies have been dropped from film festivals, and international organizations have barred Russians from competing in events ranging from soccer tournaments to cat competitions.
“They’re trying to cancel Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy,” quipped Paul Richardson, the editor of Russian Life, a Montpelier-based publication that runs articles on Russian culture and history. “As far as I know, they’re really not very close to Putin. They don’t travel in the same circles.”
For Russian Life, that decoupling has hit close to home. On March 7, the magazine announced that it was halting its print edition indefinitely — despite having steadfastly opposed the war.
“We Condemn the Kremlin Aggression,” a banner at the top of its website reads. “Love the People. Loathe the State.”
But after PayPal and other financial companies pulled out of Russia, Richardson had no means of paying the magazine’s writers. And as Putin has cracked down on independent media — including a law that threatens journalists with up to 15 years in prison — he worried that continuing to put out the magazine could put its writers in danger.
“Plus, it’s really not a good time to be writing about the great Russian language or culture,” Richardson said.
On March 3, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed an executive order to express “Solidarity With the Ukrainian People.”
That order barred the state from making any purchases of Russian products, which led to Russian vodka being pulled from state liquor stores, according to Scott spokesperson Jason Maulucci. It wasn’t clear if any other products would be affected.
‘VALUES THAT UNITE ALL NATIONS’
Vermont’s longstanding political ties with Russia are also fraying.
In 1990, then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin signed a “Sister State Relationship” with officials from the Soviet republic of Karelia. As the Iron Curtain opened, Vermonters spearheaded initiatives — partly bankrolled by the U.S. Agency for International Development — to advise their Russian counterparts on jury trials, property law, juvenile justice and other legal topics.
Vermonters — including Oettinger, the Burlington attorney — led an initiative to establish what they believed to be the country’s first legal clinic at a university in the city of Petrozavodsk.
The sister-state program has been largely inactive since the mid-2010s, when Russian President Vladimir Putin cracked down on nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations in the country.
But on March 3, Scott’s executive order officially put an end to it.
“The governor felt that it still being on the books, with no active citizen-to-citizen engagement, only provided a level of legitimacy to the Putin-installed leadership of Karelia,” Maulucci said.
But supporters of the relationship argue that its suspension has had zero impact on Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“If anything, I think it works the other way, because it makes the relationship between Russia and the United States more strained,” Oettinger said.
A similar situation has played out in Burlington. In the 1980s, then-Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders sought a sister city partnership in the then-Soviet Union. The program organized regular events, including theater performances, art exchanges and hockey games.
This January, Vladimir Volkov, the mayor of Yaroslavl, wrote to Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger to express his appreciation of an event last year. A Zoom meeting between Burlington and Yaroslavl students, Volkov said, was a particular success.
“We have received many positive reviews from Yaroslavl participants,” Volkov wrote. “I hope that such projects will continue and Yaroslavl and American schools will return to direct cooperation based on universal human values that unite all nations.”
Two months later, Burlington officials put the cities’ partnership on ice.
The relationship, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said, “should not legitimize Putin’s anti-democratic actions in Yaroslavl, enable the spread of Putin propaganda, or facilitate in any way Putin’s dark and dangerous agenda.”
Privately, Jordan Redell, Weinberger’s chief of staff, expressed worry about the “state propaganda question,” citing a New York Times article that suggested that, in its early days, the relationship was seen by Soviet officials as a potential vehicle for propaganda.
“While the purpose of the relationship has evolved from the U.S. side, it’s not clear if it has been the same from the Russian end,” Redell said in an email to the Burlington Yaroslavl Sister Cities Program, the nonprofit that oversees the relationship.
On a previous visit, Yaroslavl officials had presented the mayor’s office with gifts of USB drives, offerings that were met with suspicion.
“We obviously never used them, but always thought it was weird given Russian-backed hacking events,” Redell wrote.
‘IT FEELS LIKE I’M AN ORPHAN’
But the decision to end the relationship drew criticism from the Sister Cities Program, which issued a statement saying the decision was not “conducive to helping Ukrainians or ending the war.”
Sen. Sanders also condemned the decision.
“It makes no sense to me to punish the people of Yaroslavl for the acts of a corrupt Russian dictator,” the senator said in an emailed statement. “This is especially true at a time when Putin is arresting anti-war demonstrators and crushing any Russian media that opposes his policies.”
Ballou, the dual citizen in South Royalton, agrees.
“Burlington and Yaroslavl should have found ways to allow people to communicate,” she said. “Not all people in Russia support Putin.”
For years, Ballou has sought to strengthen the ties between the country of her birth and her adopted home.
A Russian teacher, Ballou led class trips to the country while teaching at Springfield High School. Now, in School Administrative Unit 70, a cross-border district that links Norwich, Vermont, and Hanover, New Hampshire, she runs the Slavic Club — once called the Russian Club, but renamed to reflect the multinational nature of the Russian language.
Recently, the club has been raising money to support Ukrainian undergraduates at nearby Dartmouth College, as well as other organizations supporting Ukraine.
But as she works to promote understanding in Vermont, some of Ballou’s relationships with loved ones abroad have grown strained. In the absence of independent media, many of Ballou’s Russian friends and family members have absorbed the Kremlin’s rhetoric about the war. Other Russians are worried that their contacts with Americans could put them at risk.
Worst of all, as the West and Russia drift further apart, Ballou found that she could no longer talk to her parents about the war: Her mother is “too nervous,” Ballou said, and her father has bought into pro-Putin propaganda.
“It feels like I’m an orphan,” she said.