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TORONTO – This February, Torontonians were reminded of the friendly ties which once linked their city to a city in the Soviet Union. Alexandre Ovcharov, a retired major general, and Lioudmilla Kouznetsova, a member of the international department of Volgograd City Council, were in town to help commemorate the 40th anniversary of a Tag Day held on February 26th, 1944, when Torontonians raised $37,000 to send to the people of Stalingrad, as Volgograd was then called.
The siege of Stalingrad is regarded as a critical turning point in World War II. Despite brutal bombardment for 200 days by armoured divisions and from the air, 40,000 civilian deaths and 750,000 military casualties, the city held out, and Hitler’s troops were forced to retreat. The Allies expressed their gratitude with desperately needed food, clothing and funds to help the people of Stalingrad rebuild their city.
In Toronto, thousands participated in clothing drives, rallies and tag days, the last of which was recalled at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Toronto Cenotaph on Monday, February 27th, 1984, forty years later. At a reception hosted by the Mayor and members of City Council that afternoon; Mr. Ovcharov and Mrs. Kouznetsova were greeted affectionately by a group of women and men who had worked in the fundraising events of 1944. The two visitors spent a busy five days meeting the media, sightseeing, shopping and talking with members of the Toronto/Volgograd Committee, who arranged their visit.
The Toronto/Volgograd Committee was formed following Toronto’s disarmament referendum in November 1982, as a means by which city people could have a positive impact on global tensions.
Re-establishing the forgotten contact with Volgograd quickly became the Committee’s goal. In deciding to forge ties with a Soviet rather than an Eastern bloc city, the group hoped to tackle a major source of fear.
This link also made sense because of Toronto’s historical connection with Volgograd, and because Volgograd is a symbol to the Russians of heroism and survival.
Finally, the connection with Volgograd provided a reminder that we must not let such devastation happen again.
After testing the idea on a larger number of Toronto people, the group established itself with a Steering Committee and a membership of 200. Its statement of purpose emphasizes the need to break down the barriers of stereotyped thinking by creating ‘a people-to-people relationship touching on the issues that we as city dwellers have in common, including the risk of nuclear war.’
The Committee is slowly developing a. broad base of Toronto support, and, following the delegation from Volgograd, it is in the process of arranging a small return visit to explore possibilities for future exchanges between the two cities.
This particular example of ‘citizen diplomacy’ is not the only one in Canada. The Canada-USSR Association has arranged twin-city relations between Winnipeg and Lvov, and between Vancouver and Odessa. In addition, the World Federalists have helped the city of Brantford to twin with the town of Osijek in Yugoslavia, a contact now ten years old.
Since last year, following the disarmament referenda held in a number of cities across Canada, a peace group in Arnprior, Ontario, has persuaded its city council, which did not hold a referendum, to. vote unanimously in favour of establishing a three-way link with a Soviet and an American town.