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The Tin God Behind the Ice Curtain: Observing the State in Russia’s Far East

The Tin God Behind the Ice Curtain: Observing the State in Russia’s Far East

Major A.H. Polosen was not smiling. The stern Border Guard officer – a member of the notorious Russian Federal Security Bureau  (FSB) – boarded our bus in the remote Russian Bering Sea village of Lavrentiya demanding our “documents.” That’s when our 16-hour detention, hearing and sentencing began.

Eleven time zones and nearly 4,000 miles east of Moscow, Lavrentiya is barely 100 miles as the seagull flies from Alaska. For two weeks starting in late June of this year, I joined a handful of other adventure travelers for a hands-on look at the Russian indigenous villages across the International Dateline from my home state.

We racked up nearly 350 miles bouncing through the frigid sea named after Vitus Bering in 18-foot aluminum boats, surrounded by spouting grey whales and once thriving villages forced to be consolidated or abandoned during the Cold War.

My purpose was documenting the changes since I last visited in 1988 with Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper. Then, Alaskans and Soviet Far East residents were giddy to melt the post-Cold War “Ice Curtain.” Capitalizing on Gorbachev’s glasnost reforms which extended greater autonomy to these far-flung regions, we launched more than two decades of chaotic but productive civic, educational and commercial exchanges across the Bering Strait.

Nearly 30 years ago, most of these Soviet communities were thriving with collective enterprises such as dairies, leather tanneries, fox farms and healthy subsidies from Moscow. Today, thousands have left the region for better opportunities in western Russia, leaving behind a tundra littered with rusting military equipment and bleached whale bones. The New York Times recently reported the Far East’s population dropped from more than 8 million in 1991 to about 2 million.

Many remote Native villages are making a slow transition by returning to their traditional subsistence roots as marine mammal hunters while their children walk dusty village streets surfing the Internet on their cell phones.

Instead of international political intrigue – the Trump-Putin bromance, Olympic doping, Russian intervention in Ukraine – they’re focused on whether climate change will affect this year’s walrus harvest or when the last supply ship will call before the sea freezes up until next May. Still, virtually every person I encountered praised President Putin – whom one dubbed “the strong and beautiful” – for restoring pride and order to their battered country.

Another politician who remains popular is oligarch Roman Abramovich, elected the Chukotka region’s governor in 2000. He poured millions into new schools and clinics and ensured workers got paid on time. Today, many villages boast bright blue, metal-sided “Abramovich houses” with hot water and flush toilets. Like Putin, his photo occupies a hallowed place in many homes.

Our trip began in the regional port hub of Provideniya, about 230 miles due west of Nome. In 1988, Alaska Airlines landed the “Friendship Flight” here, a jet filled with Alaska Natives hoping to reunite with relatives long separated when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. closed the Strait in 1948. That initiative led the two national governments to allow their Native peoples “visa-free” travel across the Strait, which hundreds have used to try to preserve their shared cultures and languages.

More than half of Provideniya’s 5,000 residents left after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving boarded-up apartment buildings, stray dogs and dwindling jobs. One economic bright spot is an attempt to attract well-heeled tourists to visit spectacular Bering Strait scenery preserved in five federal parks known collectively as Beringia. Last year, just 800 visitors made the trek, but the Russians hope to attract more cruise ships.

In the more remote northern Bering Sea villages, Chukchi and Eskimo Natives are returning to pre-Soviet traditions. In Lorino, a village of about 1,500 some 75 miles from the northeastern tip of Asia, the best hunters formed a cooperative to share boats and equipment to help feed the community. Last year, they harvested 56 grey whales and 300 walrus to supply about 40 percent of the community’s nutrition needs. The rest comes by trading with inland reindeer herders and from summer supply ships.

The village’s youth compete in walrus-skin boat races and the challenging Nadezhda (Hope) dog sled race and learn walrus-ivory carving and Native dancing from their elders.

Despite Abramovich’s efforts, lack of adequate housing remains the leading problem in every village. Posted in the city hall in Uelen, Russia’s northeastern-most village, was a list of 88 local residents seeking apartment upgrades. The person who finally inched to the top signed up in 1979. Mayor Valentine Kareva, a Chukchi, said the village’s population has been stabilized by a high birthrate, encouraged by national incentives to have multiple children and take in orphans to stem Russia’s declining population.

We landed on the gravel beach at Asia’s closest point to Alaska, once the site of the thriving Native village of Naukan. At the height of the Cold War beginning in the late 1940s, the Soviets ordered many northern Native villages abandoned, and consolidated indigenous peoples of different languages and cultures into regional hubs.

Today Naukan is an eerie ghost town, only three erect whale ribs and the rocky foundations of the homes of 300 banished residents cling to the grassy hillside. From a monument at the site to 16th century Russian explorer Semyon Dezhnev, we could easily see a hill in the Alaska mainland village of Wales just 54 miles away.

Many remote Native villages are making a slow transition by returning to their traditional subsistence roots as marine mammal hunters while their children walk dusty village streets surfing the Internet on their cell phones.

Lorino boasts one of the few land connections in the region, a 23-mile, teeth-jarring gravel road connected to the regional hub of Lavrentiya. Upon our arrival there, we discovered we had left behind our permit allowing us to visit the special “border zone” next to Alaska. Even with a faxed copy sent a few minutes later, Border Guards opted to exert their authority.

Nine of us were detained, charged with violating federal law and marched before a black-robed judge who fined us each 500 rubles, about $8. We were finally released into the bright Arctic daylight at 4 a.m.

In Putin’s Russia, such petty harassment of westerners is commonplace. Several Alaska colleagues who traveled to the Russian Far East dozens of times to help with economic development and cultural exchanges are now banned from the country. Sadly, much of the earlier excitement of the melting “Ice Curtain” era seems dissipated, burdened by paperwork and fading memories of relationships across the Strait.

Still, many Russians retain a special kinship for their former fur colony, which the U.S. purchased 150 years ago next year. One Provideniya resident rushed up to find out where the obvious foreigners were from. When he heard “Alaska,” he pointed across at the eastern horizon with a thumbs-up and wide grin.

(A former journalist, David Ramseur is writing a book on Alaska-Russian relations for the University of Alaska Press, scheduled for publication in Fall 2017. He worked to melt the Alaska-Russian “Ice Curtain” as a top aide to Alaska Governors Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles and U.S. Senator Mark Begich. Currently a visiting scholar in public policy at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Ramseur was a volunteer media advisor to Nizhny Novgorod Governor Boris Nemtsov in 1993.)

About the Author

David Ramseur

Visiting Scholar in Public Policy, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage; Former Chief of Staff, US Senator Mark Begich
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more