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In two northern outposts, 'ice curtain' thaws

After decades of cold-war animosity, Alaskan Eskimos and Russians lay cultural bridges across Bering Strait.

As little as 50 miles separate Alaska's Inupiat and Yupik Eskimo communities from the isolated Russian region of Chukotka.

But for decades, these two remote pockets of northern life might as well have been oceans apart, so solid was the cold war's "ice curtain" thrown across the narrow Bering Strait. Even the Soviet collapse did little, in the short term, to rebuild cultural bridges shattered by an era of weapons-grade wariness.

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Now, a dozen years after the cold war ended, residents on both sides of the Bering Strait are becoming reacquainted with their ice-bound neighbors – and rejoicing at their proximity.

Fueled by a mutual desire for modernization and economic progress, the cultures are becoming increasingly intertwined:

• Russian officials are inviting applications from US airlines to provide scheduled service to Chukotka from Nome, a regional Alaskan hub of 3,600 people.

• An Anchorage, Alaska, company that organizes tours to Chukotka is using National Park Service funds to train and employ Chukotka natives to guide visitors through their villages.

• Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos are pooling traditional knowledge with Chukotka natives to map the denning sites of polar bears – the original diplomats, who roam across the frozen border.

• With federal money, an Alaska reindeer-meat processor is teaching Chukotkans to open and operate a similar business on their side of the strait.

A shared history, lost in the ice

Such ties may seem only natural for people living in such proximity. And in fact, exchanges between the regions' natives have a long history.

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The Bering Strait was once a bastion of multiculturalism. Travel across it was common – for people as well as wandering polar bears – and families spread themselves on either side of the water. Only 2.5 miles separate Alaska's Little Diomede Island from Russia's Big Diomede Island. And one Eskimo dialect, Siberian Yup'ik, thrives in both Alaska and Chukotka, a linguistic legacy of the regions' common past.

Yet the logical link-ups were lost in a political ice age that endured even after the cold war's official end. While the fall of the Soviet Union spurred a race toward a market economy, Chukotka – the closest area, geographically, to the US – appeared trapped in its own anachronistic freeze.

Alaskans striving for business, cultural, or scientific links with Chukotka neighbors ran into bureaucratic roadblocks, or worse. Bering Strait scientists sometimes were arrested or had equipment confiscated when they set foot in Russia. Officials demanded steep fees when charities donated food, clothing, and medicine – yet many of the items remained locked away when they arrived in Chukotka.

Chief among the obstacles, say some Alaskans, was former Chukotka Governor Alexander Nazarov, who treated the region as his personal fiefdom, according to Sue Steinacher, a Fairbanks, Alaska-based researcher studying Alaska-Chukotka relations. "He wanted to do his own thing and he didn't want any do-gooders looking over his shoulder," she says.

All is not yet smooth in Bering Strait relations. A pair of British adventurers trying to drive an amphibious vehicle – their Snowbird 6 – across the frozen strait cut their journey short last week after Russian border authorities threatened to arrest them. They were striving to be the first people to drive from the United States to Russia across the Bering Strait – but made it only half way through their 56-mile trip.

A Moscow billionaire comes to town

Now, after an era of post-Soviet collapse during which about half of Chukotka's roughly 140,000 residents fled, a new kind of leader has taken root.

Elected governor of Chukotka in December of 1999, Roman Abramovich is a young billionaire from Moscow. He has adopted the often-overlooked region, setting up a humanitarian organization and pouring much of his personal fortune into improving life in Chukotka.

"He has said he wants to make Chukotka the next Alaska," Ms. Steinacher says. "I think he's got the wisdom and the money."

Now Chukotka stores are stocked; the heating system has been renovated for the first time in 15 years; and new homes, hotels, and sports facilities have been built, according to Governor Abramovich's press secretary.

Pipes, parks, and prosperity

Tandy Wallack, owner of an Anchorage company that organizes tours to Native villages in Chukotka, still compares Provideniya – Chukotka's biggest city – to a "bombed-out Bosnia."

But on her most recent trip there, Ms. Wallack saw progress. "I see new pipes," she says, "and the old pipes are lying in the streets." That means repairs are underway, she says.

The Abramovich administration is also more open to the idea of an international park straddling the Bering Strait – an arrangement that would provide coordinated management to existing national parks and preserves on the Alaska side and to future Chukotka preserves.

Though the presidents of both the United States and Soviet Union endorsed the park idea in 1991, plans languished.

Even without a jointly maintained park system, environmental ties have expanded. The National Park Service now spends about $500,000 a year on roughly a dozen Bering Strait scientific and cultural exchanges. Projects include fungi research and educational exchanges to compare ivory-carving and skin-sewing techniques on either side of the strait, says Peter Richter, the Park Service's chief of Bering Strait projects.

George Ahmaogak, mayor of Alaska's oil-rich, mostly Inupiat Eskimo North Slope Borough, suggests Chukotka could become prosperous in the way that Alaska has.

"They could be a major force here to provide nonrenewable resources," said Mr. Ahmaogak during a break in an Anchorage whaling meeting, where Abramovich received a standing ovation.


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