Ramseur presents his book “Melting the Ice Curtain”
On June 13, 1988, an enterprising group of 82 Alaskan citizen-diplomats boarded an Alaska Airlines jet in Nome. They were Native elders, an assorted mix of business and political leaders and reporters. Their destination was Provideniya, Russia and when the plane set down on the Russian gravel strip the connection was made. Alaskans and their counterparts in the Russian Far East had been separated by big city politics since the early days of the Cold War.
Now there was hope for a reconnecting of natural relationships between the two shores.
“Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier” is David Ramseur’s new book which details this important period in Alaska History. The book came out last June, published by University of Alaska Press.
Ramseur traveled to Nome to present his book during a noon event at the Nome Rotary Club and an evening event at the Kegoayah Kozga Library, on Wednesday, November 1.
“I’m happy to be back in Nome, which I think I first visited back in 1987 for the inaugural ball of Steve Cowper,” began Ramseur, adding that his tux for the ball was not ideal for Nome’s winter.
“Today what I want to talk about is a ground breaking time in the history of Alaska and, I would argue, in the history of the United States. The melting of the Alaska-Russia Ice Curtain. For 40 years this cold war relic divided our countries and the citizens across the 55-mile Bering Strait. The melt launched three decades of often chaotic but commercial, educational, scientific, and cultural ties across the international dateline. As you’ll hear Nome played a leading role in this effort. What was achieved then can serve as a model for future US-Russia relations today, which arguably are the worst since the Cold War and maybe even the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 60s.”
“I was honored to be a participant in the Ice Curtain era.”
Ramseur showed a photo on the screen, which showed himself with Governor Cowper in Provideniya.
“Since the time of the Bering Land Bridge about 30,000 years ago Northern people have traveled freely across the icy waters between mainland Alaska and Russia,” he said.
“Big and Little Diomede are about two and a half miles apart, intersected by the International Dateline. In 1938 the US and Soviet Union recognized these historic visits between Native people and established a formal, visa-free process for their interaction. It worked pretty well for about 10 years. A couple of years later a productive US Soviet relationship continued during WW2. Nearly 8,000 American warplanes were delivered across the Bering Strait during Lend-Lease to help the Soviets fight the Nazis,” Ramseur said.
“After all this good will was the built up suspicions over the Cold War froze all these decades of good, productive relations and the Soviets banished villagers who were living on Big Diomede and made them move to the mainland and they established a border guard surveillance post aimed directly at Alaska. They even imprisoned a friendly delegation of Alaska Natives for 52 days. They’d gone over to Diomede to visit relatives. This was in 1946 and one person died during the imprisonment.”
“FBI director J. Edgar Hoover decided the national security interest of the United States outweighed those of Alaska Natives. Joseph Stalin concurred. So just ten years after the system was set up to ease travel between Natives of both the US and Russia, the two countries erected what we call and “ice curtain.” They sealed the border and they banned all contact. This was imposed in May, 1948 and it lasted for 40 years.”
“So about four decades after the Ice Curtain came into effect a drumbeat for change began in the Bering Strait. I think it was the result of three main factors. First, the memories of long separated Native people were fading. They wanted one last opportunity for reunification. As part of the research for the book I tracked down a couple of elderly Natives in their 80s, guys living here and on St Lawrence Island, who remember last remember going to Russia in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Second, a progressive new Soviet leader came to power. Mikhail Gorbachev was a very different kind of a Soviet, he encourage interaction with the west because he liked to be portrayed to the world as a reformer, a new type of Soviet leader. And third, a lot of Alaska civic and business leaders saw an opportunity for Alaska interaction across the Bering Strait after 40 years, They were interested in both civic and business opportunity.
“So what followed were a series of headline-grabbing initiatives by hundreds of Alaska and Russia citizen-diplomats, to pressure the national governments to open the Strait. One was Jim Stimpfle, a realtor. Jim had heard stories from his Native wife’s family of visits with Russia three decades ago. He wanted to help reunite them. He began a letter writing campaign to the governor’s office and to the congressional delegation. I was in Governor Cowper’s office at the time and we pretty much dismissed him as a kook. Who’d want to go to the Soviet Union at the time?”
“Another persistent Alaskan was a Juneau musician and peace advocate named Dixie Belcher. In 1986 she secured permission for 67 Alaska Native and other performers to sing and dance their way across the USSR to promote peace.”
“Former Governor Jay Hammond went along with his wife Bella.“
“Gernnadi Gerasimov, a Soviet journalist, got involved at this point. During one of several visits to Alaska, Belcher took him to Little Diomede. When he saw his homeland just two and a half miles away he was so inspired that he worked inside the Kremlin to pressure Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders to approve a lot of these initiatives.”
“Another persistent Alaskan was Dr. Ted Mala. The son of well-known actor Ray Mala, his mom was a Russian princess and distant relative of Russia’s last czar.”
“Lynne Cox, a California endurance swimmer, became the first person to swim between the Diomede Islands. Her swim was very high profile and she was honored by President Reagan, The Pope, and Gorbachev himself.”
“All this chipping away at the Ice Curtain culminated in 1988 with the first initiative to have serious business and political support, which is Alaska Airlines’ friendship flight.
On June 13, 1988, the first US jet departed Nome and set down on Provideniya’s gravel runway with 82 passengers. Mostly they were Native elders Jim Stimpfle had assembled, and an assortment of business and political leaders, reporters, and other hangers-on.”
“I was fortunate to get a seat on the flight as Governor Cowper’s press secretary.”
“The friendship flight and the many initiatives which preceded it launched a nearly 30 years of emotional and often successful interaction. After the flight Alaskans and Russians simply couldn’t get enough of each other.”
“One of the most lasting legacies of this era was the creation of the American-Russian Center at UAA in 1993. This was fueled by money from Senator Stevens, about $26 million in earmarks. They did two things. They ran business training programs in Russia where they set up centers in the major cities of the Russian Far East and taught American business practices, to try and inculcate capitalism on the Russian side. And they also ran cultural and educational exchanges.”
“Over the 15-year life of the American-Russian center we touched about 62,000 Russians. And we helped give 100 business degrees to Russian students. During this time more Russian students entered UAA than any other university in America.”
“By the late 1990s relations across the Bering Strait began to cool for five primary reasons. First, the Russian economy just got too chaotic for Westerners. There was an overnight devaluation of the ruble in August of ’98 and it forced western companies to walk away. Alaska Airlines ended service to Russia at about the same time. Another reason was earmarks from Congress started to dry up. Most federal money was going to Afghanistan instead. And another reason was the thrill started to leave for Alaskans who were hosting Russians. The fifth reason is Mr. Putin came to power in 2000. He discouraged interaction with the west.”
“Today, unfortunately, there’s very little interaction between our part of the world and Russia.”