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Renewing an old friendship: Russian woman served as translator for Grand Forks delegation to first 'Sister City'

Ludmila Puzynina, 66, could be a diplomat. On her first day in Grand Forks, the retired teacher from the Russian city of Ishim smiled warmly at Elaine Ramstad, 53, one of several Grand Forks residents who visited Ishim 20 years ago as part of the...

Ishim, Russia

Ludmila Puzynina, 66, could be a diplomat.

On her first day in Grand Forks, the retired teacher from the Russian city of Ishim smiled warmly at Elaine Ramstad, 53, one of several Grand Forks residents who visited Ishim 20 years ago as part of the Grand Forks-Ishim sister city program.

Much time has passed and much has happened in the world, Puzynina said, "but I look at you now and I still see in your face the young woman who came to my city 20 years ago."

Ramstad beamed.

"Please keep seeing me that way," she said.


Puzynina, who was translator for the eight-member Grand Forks delegation, is in Grand Forks to reconnect and recall that heady time, a defining moment for the Russian hosts. "I still remember the feelings we had," she said. "We were very excited and inspired."

Her daughter, Natasha Kupriyanova, 33, visited Grand Forks on a student exchange when she was 14. Two years later, she participated in another exchange in Maryland but spent the Christmas holidays in Grand Forks with Ramstad.

The initial contact with the American delegation to Ishim "was like a starting point in my life," Kupriyanova said. When the student exchanges became possible, "I couldn't help myself. I said, 'I can't stay in Ishim because there is a world out there.'"

With her are her son, Jenya, 10, and daughter Vasilisa, 8. Her husband, Dmitry Kupriyanov, a police officer, will join them before the family travels through the western United States.

"California is very popular in Russia because we see it on TV and in movies," she said. "And in Russia we live very far from the ocean. It will be exciting to be close to the ocean."

Her children are shy and speak little English, but she wants them to know the world.

"I don't want them to be ordinary people living ordinary lives," she said. "They have already gained so much from being exposed to another culture."

Historic time


The visitors have met with other members of the delegation that visited Ishim, laughing over photo albums and recalling visits to dachas, schools and saunas.

It was a historic time, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of openness and reform were leading to profound changes, including the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union.

"It was when the wall between the West and Russia was coming down, and we didn't know what would happen," Puzynina said. "The future was so uncertain."

And the old concerns hadn't disappeared.

As an English teacher, she had sought pen pals in the United States and other English-speaking countries for herself and her students, to improve their language ability and learn about other cultures. "People did not travel then," she said.

At one point, however, she was called in and "interviewed" by authorities. Why was she getting letters from these countries? What were these magazines they were sending?

"When I got the letters, I knew they had been examined," she said. "Who did it? Was it done in Ishim, in Moscow? I don't know."

Friendship lasts


When the Americans arrived in Ishim, in southwestern Siberia not far from the Kazakhstan border, Puzynina and other Russians gathered to welcome them, wondering what sort of people they would be.

"When I saw them for the first time, I liked them all," she said. "They looked very free, friendly and open."

Ramstad said that she and the other Americans also had to overcome preconceptions.

"I think we thought at first that the Russians were much more serious than they really are," she said.

Kupriyanova nodded. "I think Americans still see Russians as gloomy, serious, not smiling," she said. "But when you are with us and when we get close, we easily make friends -- and it is friendship that lasts."

Ramstad said she warmed to her hosts when "we saw the people had gardens like ours, and they loved their gardens. They showed wonderful hospitality, and they had wonderful parties. We'd all be sitting close together around the table, sharing food and talking."

When the Americans prepared to leave, Puzynina handed Ramstad a key to their house in Ishim, indicating it would always be open to her.

She has kept they key on a wall peg, and she showed it to her visitors on Tuesday. Puzynina thought for a moment, then blinked.


"Oh, we changed that door!" she said, and the women laughed.

'Best of America'

Kupriyanova and her husband and children live in Sergut, a city far to the north of Ishim, in a region of Siberia where -- as in western North Dakota -- a booming oil industry has boosted salaries and living conditions.

"When I say I am from Sergut, people think I must be a billionaire," she said.

She was a child when the Americans came. "It changed Ishim in the best way," she said. "It opened doors for people. It helped with the transition to a market economy and introduced entrepreneurship."

She is in the United States for a year, with a fellowship to study nonprofits and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. She talked about that on Monday with Mayor Mike Brown, who explained efforts Grand Forks has made to improve networking among such agencies here. He offered to help make contacts.

"You have the most friendly people here in Grand Forks," her mother told the mayor, who eagerly agreed.

"I think Grand Forks represents the best of America," Kupriyanova said later. "People value friendship, and we are happy that people here remember us."


Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to chaga@gfherald.com .

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