In 1987, four years before the fall of the Soviet Union, a diplomatic delegation from Armenia traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts from Yerevan, Armenia’'s capital. Among them was Eduard Avakian, Mayor of Yerevan, who in addition to the documents needed to formalize a sister city agreement between the two cities, brought with him a life-size filigreed silver dove.
This month, you can find this dove sitting behind a glass display case as you enter the Cambridge Public Library. But it wasn’t until this past year that the dove reemerged after being missing for several decades since it was brought over from Yerevan.
“We couldn’t figure out where the dove went,” said Nancy Kalajian, board member of the Cambridge Yerevan Sister City Association. “It was in the photos, and even for the 35th anniversary we thought ‘Where is that dove?’”
Last September, CYSCA reached out to archivist Alyssa Pacy at CPL, hoping that the library archives could house some of their historic material and put on an exhibit for the public. Over the following months, the organization combed through artifacts, determining what would best suit the space in the library and cataloging their items. During the archival search process, Pacy found a box that she thought might be connected to CYSCA.
“She opened up the box and myself and the President of CYSCA, Roxanne her name is, had tears in our eyes because what was in the box? The dove,” Kalajian remembers.
Cambridge and Yerevan became sister cities because of a group of Cambridge citizens hoping to build a civilian bridge between the United States and the USSR to ease inflammatory rhetoric during the Cold War. The cities’ relationship has now lasted 35 years.
The Cambridge City Council established the Peace Commission in 1983 by city ordinance, aiming to foster “conflict resolution and peace education in schools.” Yerevan became Cambridge’s sister city as a part of carrying out that mission.
Philip P. Ketchian, a retired physicist and long-time board member of CYSCA, lists two reasons for why Cambridge was a valuable connection for Yerevan: “The answer is very brief: Harvard and MIT.”
“Yerevan was a major academic center of the Soviet Union,” says Ketchian, who studied in Soviet Armenia and then in the United States. “MIT, during the Second World War, was the center for the development of radar, and so was Harvard. After the war, the engineers and scientists of MIT published a book on high voltage devices… That book was basically the Bible of any electrical engineer all over the world. The translation into Russian was on the desk of just about every engineer or scientist in the Soviet Union.”
Hoping to deepen their intellectual and cultural ties to the world across the Iron Curtain, former Mayor and then City Councilor Frank H. Duehay ’55 and 11 Cambridge residents journeyed to Moscow in late May of 1986. They then went to Yerevan, whose government expressed a desire to formalize the connection between Yerevan and Cambridge.
A letter on display at the exhibit demonstrates Washington politicians’ approval of the connection.
“During the 1985 Geneva summit meetings, both President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev called for increases in the number of sister city endeavors between our two countries,” Tip O’Neill, then Speaker of the House and Cambridge native, wrote in the letter dated May 2, 1986. “I have had the honor and privilege of representing the City of Cambridge in the Congress for many years and am very pleased that the city of my birth will be one of the first in the United States to fulfill this mandate.”
The successful mission of the Cambridge citizen-diplomats kicked off decades of cultural exchange and aid programs between the two cities, even after the fall of the Soviet regime. These programs have included exchanges involving teachers and doctors. CYSCA has also fundraised extensively for Armenian schools and raised $19,250 for the Women’s Resource Center and schools in need as of March 2020.
In 1988, David H. Bor, an infectious disease specialist at Cambridge Health Alliance and professor at Harvard Medical School, traveled as part of a diplomatic trip to Yerevan. More than 30 years later, Bor vividly remembers one particular conversation with a healthcare professional.
“A man said to me I was the first American he had seen since the 1940s,” Bor recounts. “He was in the Russian army that crossed the Elbe in Germany at the end of the war. He said he was frostbitten, he was cold, he was malnourished, he was lying on the ground and an American soldier came by and picked him up and brought him into his tent. And he said it was the first time he had ever seen a black man in his life.
“This man sat him down and gave him a glass of Southern Comfort. He said that he felt a fire going into his esophagus, into his chest and it felt so wonderful. He had a great debt of gratitude toward America for the humanity that these American soldiers showed this Armenian man, and he wanted to repay that debt of gratitude now, 40 years later.”
Bor remembers how warmly he was received as an envoy. “We opened the door and we went into another room, and there was a big table filled with food, and brandy,” Bor says. “He had prepared a banquet for me to repay his debt of gratitude to America. I was treated in that way everywhere I went. It was quite amazing.”
Although interest in maintaining the sister city connection has waned in the post-Soviet era, CYSCA is seeking to reignite excitement for their work. Ketchian stressed their group’s commitment to facilitating exchange programs for Armenian professionals.
Ketichian hopes that the library exhibit will help people learn about the rich history of the relationship between Cambridge and Yerevan. For Kalajian, although the Cold War has faded into memory, the rediscovery of the dove has been a way of remembering the beginning of this friendship.
“We want to make sure people know that — Cambridge and Yerevan — there are so many things that they have in common,” she says. “Go on a trip to Armenia, explore friendships, and learn from each other in a positive way.”