The Seattle-Tashkent Connection

An account of a successful Sister City pairing

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 44
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Rosh Doan is a physician deeply involved in the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City project.

Some may ask, whatever do Seattle and Tashkent have in common? What does a 135-year-old city share with a city that has 2003 years of recorded history? What is the link between a green, wet North Pacific seaport and an arid, landlocked Central Asian metropolis on ancient caravan routes? How is a Western city of the American superpower related to an Eastern city of the Soviet superpower? The answer is, we are Sister Cities.

How did this unlikely pairing take place? In August 1971, the mayors of Tashkent, Irkutsk, and Sochi visited Seattle as part of a promotional tour by Alaska Airlines. It seems that the Tashkenters and the Seattleites hit it off. A Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Committee was formed. The result was that in 1972, the mayors exchanged letters of invitation to establish the first Soviet- American Sister City affiliation. On January 22, 1973, the Seattle City Council passed Resolution 23992, adopting Tashkent as a Sister City of Seattle. Within the year, official delegations had been exchanged. In 1974, in honor of the visit of the Tashkent mayor and his delegation, Seattle inaugurated Tashkent Park, a half-acre on Boylston St. E., between E. Republican and E. Mercer Avenues. Since that time, numerous official and semi-official groups have been enthusiastically received by the mayors’ office in both Seattle and Tashkent.

The early years of the relationship were spent visiting each other, getting acquainted. We Americans, at least, started from a fairly low baseline of knowledge. We Seattleites at first thought we had a Russian Sister City. Our first learning was that Tashkent is in fact an Uzbek city. "Uzbek?" we asked. "What’s that?" The Uzbeks are the third-largest ethnic group in the Soviet Union, trailing only the Russians and Ukrainians. They are a Muslim people who speak a Turkic language, Uzbek. Tashkent is the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic,which borders Afghanistan in Soviet Central Asia. It is a rapidly growing city of over two million, the Soviet Union’s fourth largest city. It may reach four million by the year 2000. "Wow! Uzbek and Muslim. In Communist Russia, you say?" "No, in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." "Oh…" And so it went.

Slowly, Seattleites began to appreciate the richness of Uzbek culture. We gained some insight into the complexities of contemporary Soviet life within which that culture is expressed. Early, we were delighted by Uzbek national dancing. In 1980, the famous Bakhor Dance Ensemble visited Seattle and performed. Seattle’s own Tanavar Dance Ensemble, which presents dances of Uzbekistan, has benefited from tutelage by Uzbek national artists. In 1985, the director of Tanavar, Laurel Gray, traveled to Tashkent, where she received further instruction.

By the early 1980s, the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Committee held festivals honoring official visitors from Tashkent. On February 4, 1982, Mayor Royer proclaimed Tashkent Day to celebrate our sister city relationship. That relationship seemed ready for more. How did the Sister Cities fit into the larger context of contention between the superpowers?

We began to share common problems. In the fall of 1982, a consortium of community peace groups presented a nine-day city-wide educational event, called "Target: Seattle," on the prevention of nuclear war. One activity of that event was the drafting of a letter to the people of Tashkent. The letter was an expression of concern about nuclear war, and a call for our nations to work together to prevent it. This bilingual Russian-English letter was published in petition form and made available for signing at all "Target: Seattle" events. Community groups and churches also canvassed neighborhoods for signatures. 42,000 signatures were collected on 2,000 copies of the letter. The mayor of Seattle and the City Council signed the first copy, which was sent to the mayor of Tashkent. We informed the official Soviet Peace Committee of the letter. Following "Target: Seattle," we expressed our desire to the Tashkent mayor to send a delegation to our Sister City to deliver the letters in person. The Soviet response was overwhelmingly favorable. A delegation of 32 of us paid our own ways to the Soviet Union in March of 1983. We were warmly received in Moscow, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Leningrad. In Tashkent, the mayor extended the very best of Soviet Uzbek hospitality to our group. We came with a simple message of peace, and they responded with great cordiality.

The Tashkent response was immediate. Within a month of our group’s return to Seattle, nearly 120,000 Tashkenters had signed a letter of peace to the people of Seattle. The letter concluded, "While admitting that we do have differences, we nevertheless think we are united in pursuing the great cause: the lofty goal of mankind’s salvation." The superpower signature race was accelerating.

The educational impact on Seattle in the aftermath of that trip was significant, as we returned to report back to our own constituencies and accepted invitations to share our experiences. A moving slide presentation of that trip, prepared by the late Marlow Boyer of our delegation, was shown to thousands in the Seattle area. Marlow edited an expanded portrait of Seattle and Tashkent, "City to City," before his untimely death. That production is cherished in the two cities. It was reformatted in 16mm sound film and has been distributed internationally.

The cadence of Seattle-Tashkent relations was temporarily set back later that year with the tragedy of the Korean Airline shootdown. The scheduled visit of the Seattle mayor to Tashkent that month to celebrate Tashkent’s 2000th anniversary was cancelled.

In retrospect, 1983 seems like a turning point in local Soviet-American activities. That fall, "Target: Seattle" continued with the theme "Soviet Realities." For nine days, all aspects of Soviet life and its relationship to us were discussed. The Sister City relationship was both a stimulus and the recipient of energies from "Target: Seattle." Within the next couple of years, a number of new organizations appeared in the Seattle area with a focus on Soviet-American relations. A network of synergetic efforts enriched all our projects. As groups would go to Tashkent from Seattle, we would carry each others’ messages.

The exchange of official delegations continued apace. In September 1984, Mayor Royer led a delegation to Tashkent. An accompanying TV crew from station KOMO produced a documentary of the Sister City relationship entitled "Cold War, Warm Hearts." The two cities were evolving a model of Soviet-American interaction.

Tashkent Mayor Shukurulla Mirsayidov brought a delegation to Seattle in September 1985. The mayors talked of citizen exchanges. Mirsayidov left an exhibit of Soviet school books, uniforms, and school satchels for the little school house at the Seattle Children’s Museum in Seattle Center. The Tashkent delegates got to know their Seattle professional counterparts in informal gatherings. Together, we explored the possibilities for new projects. A high point was a concert in the Fifth Avenue Theater attended by 3,000, featuring noted Uzbek musicians and dancers and the Seattle Peace Chorus.

In January 1986, Ploughshares, an organization of former Peace Corps Volunteers working for peace, took a delegation to the Soviet Union. We had eight school-age delegates with us. In Tashkent, Sister School relationships were established with four Tashkent schools. There in the schools, Seattle and Tashkent children folded paper cranes together as part of Ploughshares’ Million Cranes Project. A slow-scan TV demonstration was pioneered there, linking Mayor Royer at the Seattle Children’s Museum with Mayor Mirsayidov. Dr. Rizaev of Tashkent Hospital No. 1, who had visited Seattle the previous fall, proposed a physician’s exchange with Seattle. David Fenner of the University of Washington explored a student exchange with the dean of Tashkent State University.

Soviet sculptor Jakov Shapiro graciously received us at his studio for lunch. There our host emotionally informed us for the first time of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. The poignancy of his condolences touched us deeply. "We Soviets understand the depths of your grief, because we also have suffered our space program tragedies." Teacher Jay Sasnett of Seattle’s Washington Middle School was especially moved, as he had been a state finalist in the teacher-astronaut program. Another in our delegation from the East coast had known the teacher-astronaut Christie McAuliffe personally. The tragedy brought us together at a deeper level than we might otherwise have experienced. Shapiro then unveiled a model of a statue he proposed to donate to Seattle for Tashkent Park.

In recent months, the interaction has been quickening. A variety of joint projects appear about to unfold. These have been facilitated by a return visit to Seattle of Mirsayidov in July and trips to Tashkent in the fall by members of the Sister City Committee and Ploughshares. A new proposal has been made for the development of a Seattle gift to a park in Tashkent. Initially conceived as a tiled "Peace Path" through a park, the concept will be refined in further discussions. Fred Noland and Bob Alsdorf of Ploughshares report that Tashkent officials proposed that a "Seattle Cafe" be opened in the park they were shown. The idea is an exciting prospect for development. A physician exchange appears likely at this writing. An art exchange is in the early stages of discussion.

One of the most exciting new directions is the Sister School activity spearheaded by Jay Sasnett. So far, six Seattle schools have been paired with four Tashkent schools. Coupling an American elementary or middle school and high school with a Soviet school seems to be an appropriate formula, as Soviet schools usually include grades one through ten. The Tashkent mayor is enthusiastic about this project. He suggested that Tashkent has "300 schools to go" for such an effort. In March 1987, 32 students from five Seattle Sister Schools, accompanied by ten teachers, will spend a week in Tashkent visiting their Sister School counterparts. Interest among Seattle children is keen. 150 children applied for the 32 slots. The student representatives will receive 50 hours of Russian and Uzbek language instruction. The potential for more and better student exchange activity seems great. The USSR has proposed a high school exchange of 300 students, to be run by Sister Cities, International. The Seattle-Tashkent Sister City has applied and would appear to have a head start.

What has made the Seattle-Tashkent connection a success? There are many reasons. Serendipity. Seattle had the first American Sister City relationship with the Soviet Union, and hence it is the most mature. The mayors in the two cities have been consistently supportive. In Seattle, the Sister City Committee has benefited from vigorous leadership in co-chairs Rosanne Royer and Virginia Westberg. The Seattle community at large has fostered this activity. Organizations and individuals have been supportive.

Seattle has also benefited from Soviet Uzbek pride and initiative. In an attitude of mutual respect, both cities acknowledge their differences. Seattle honors the diversity Tashkent represents in Soviet culture, and Tashkent responds. We are both the richer for the experience.

Soviets as a whole value this relationship. It is their strongest American Sister City connection. Currently, there are six Soviet-American Sister City pairings, with ten more soon to be established. Seattle will be the site of a Soviet-American Sister City Conference in May 1987. It is hoped that the mayors of the paired cities will attend.

The Seattle-Tashkent Sister City relationship is one approach to long-term education and citizen diplomacy. A constituency of caring, informed citizens with multidimensional experiences of the Soviet Union can be built from this and similar American-Soviet activities. Out of this constituency may come more creative ideas and fresh initiatives that will ultimately lead to change in the macropolitics of the superpower confrontation. Seen in this way, the Seattle-Tashkent connection is getting down to the business of being human beings.