In 1988, selected forty-ninth state residents flew on an Alaska Airlines jet to the Soviet Far East on a good will mission called ‘The Friendship Flight’. It was the Reagan tear-down-the-Wall era, so there was hope the Iron Curtain would finally be lifted in the Arctic too. A year before, ocean swimmer Lynne Cox swam from Little Diomede to Big Diomede Island, which heightened awareness that there were only 2.5 miles separating Alaska from Russia. This was several decades before SNL-Tina Fey’s famous remark when impersonating Sarah Palin, “I can see Russia from my house” which further drew attention to just how close we are to the country we love to hate, underscored by Hollywood action movies with the enemy happily being Russians.
It’s been thirty years since the famed ‘Friendship Flight’ took off from Nome for Russia’s Far East; and recently a few who flew to Provideniya reminisced at the Anchorage Museum. Moderated by Flight participant and author David Ramseur, whose book Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier (2017) documents this flying adventure, the brief economic frenzy that followed, and the subsequent partial-refreezing of the Ice Curtain, became the framework for the museum talk.
Melting the Ice Curtain is a detailed read that provides an account of Alaska’s relationship with the Russian Far East. Since the eighteenth century, when Peter the Great sent Vitus Bering to explore Alaska, Russians have had presence here. In 1867, with a push from Secretary of State William Seward and Russian Minister Eduard de Stoeckl, America bought Alaska from Russia which needed to restore its coffers after the Crimean War. Up until 1948, the Natives in both countries were free to come and go across borders, sadly with the strong caveat to assimilate into their respective Colonial cultures.
During World War II, Russia became a needed ally. The Lend-Lease plan, reluctantly agreed to by Stalin in 1942, sent American aircraft through Siberia from Alaska, providing more planes for Russians to fight the Nazis. All was reasonably civil until after World War II when the threat of Communism worried our national security and the potential for nuclear war had escalated.
In 1946, the Russian government built a border guard surveillance post on Big Diomede and relocated all Siberian Natives to their mainland. In some cases Native Alaskans with relatives on Big Diomede never saw loved ones again. In 1948, J. Edgar Hoover finally sealed off Russia, metaphorically placing a Cold War Ice Curtain across the Bering Strait. And Hoover didn’t care if Alaska Natives were compromised either.
In the eighties, under Gorbachev’s de-centralization, Russia’s Far East began to have political and commercial autonomy. In 1987, scientists from NOAA were sent by the State Department to Provideniya, which sparked a potential new era of détente in the Arctic.
On June 8, 1988, after much political maneuvering, Governor Cowper received permission from the Soviet Embassy for the Friendship Flight. Major objectives were reconnecting Alaska Natives with Siberian relatives and developing reciprocal trade arrangements: fishing, construction, tourism, Native crafts, throughout the Pacific Arctic, including scheduled air service.
Artist Jon Van Zyle, who went on the Flight, designed a souvenir brochure. To Alaska Natives who were chosen, memories of once forcibly severing ties with relatives still lingered, while there was renewed hope of perhaps seeing some relations again. ‘Sovietmania’ flourished as Russian delegations began coming to Alaska; some Russian goods surfaced commercially. Magadan, a former Stalin Gulag, drew attention because of its mining interests, replacing Provideniya as the go-to place. Natives once again gained permission to travel across the Bering Strait. In 1990, Alaska Airlines was flying three round trips weekly to Magadan, also selling tour packages that included riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. The University of Alaska was not only seeing Russian students matriculate on their campuses, it was establishing business training centers in the Russian Far East.
In 1991, the Gorbachev era came to an abrupt close when he was defeated by Boris Yeltsin. The Russian Far East went into financial decline as the trading ruble failed to entice international markets/speculators. The Russian economy was hit with high inflation and shortages of commodities, while a new breed of Russian industrialists scooped up the majority of profits. As eagerly as all was set up, investors like Carr-Gottstein and Alaska Airlines pulled out. Lynden’s Dennis Mitchell was gambling at the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk casino. He left winnings with his foreign employees as Russian banks had run out of US dollars. In 2000, as Putin replaced Yeltsin, recentralization greatly reduced joint ventures with foreign investors and civic organizations.
In 2016, Ramseur joined an expedition to observe ‘isolated Russian Native villages’. Covering 330 miles of coastline in eighteen foot skiffs, the party was eventually detained in Lavrentiya; the excuse was (as always) insufficient permitting. Finally cleared to leave, the party realized relations between Alaska and the Russian Far East had greatly deteriorated; returning in the future would probably be dangerous.
Melting the Ice Curtain isat its best when Ramseur writes about the pivot point when the Russian government clammed up again. However, in places the book reads like a college reunion commemorative, with alums exchanging memories, and in-jokes that only they would appreciate or understand. Example of Ramseur musings: In 2000, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, an author-expert in all things Russian, toured Northern Alaska. Ramseur adds unnecessary details about Talbott and his ’68-’69 Oxford year when he was Bill Clinton’s roommate. The Sleuth rambles too: My husband David was Talbott’s London summer’68 flat mate. I was living/working in an East London community center with scant bathing facilities. Before I could shampoo in the Bundy/Talbott bathtub, I would wash Strobe’s socks.
Back to the Ice Curtain: the eighties and nineties were an important part of post-war Alaska history. The oil and construction booms had finally deflated which plunged the state into a recession. Nationally, the US was emotionally/financially recovering from Vietnam. Baby-boomers were tired of Cold War fiction, having been incessantly told that hiding under a school desk would keep them safe from nuclear fallout. Engaging in trade with the Russian Far East, which resides at our doorstep, in need of Western commercial intervention, made perfect sense then, and still does.
There are amusing stories in Melting the Ice Curtain—de-icing a plane with vodka comes to mind. And the story of Doug Drum, owner of Indian Valley Meats is one of the most vividly expressive Ramseur tales. Drum decided to explore a joint venture in processing Russian reindeer; Russians liked his lean sausages. He visited Parenskii state farm and was shocked at animal by-product waste. Carcasses hung out windows, possibly for clothing or insulation. If not processed timely, which routinely happened, rotting reindeer were plowed under. He flew eighteen tons of sausage making equipment to Chaibukha and built a processing plant. As Soviet banking collapsed, processers began bypassing Drum, selling directly to Koreans. Drum’s venture folded, leaving behind a two million dollar loss. Back in Alaska, he cautioned entrepreneurs about the financial risks in the Russian Far East. Presently, US relations with Russia are at a low point. Melting the Ice Curtain should be read with the hope that Arctic Pacific Rim diplomacy will happen again.
Mini Sleuth:Melting the Ice Curtain by David Ramseur is available through Amazon or the Anchorage Museum shop; the Friendship Flight jet resides at the Alaska Aviation Museum.
Jean Bundy is a writer/painter living in Anchorage