Melting the Ice Curtain, Pt. 3

Editor’s note: This is the third and final segment of this series. Part 1 published Sunday, June 15, and the second installment ran Monday, June 16.


Hiding in the village clinic, Tkachenko and Genkin listened over National Guard radios as the Soviets searched for the missing men. Peering through a gap in the window coverings, Tkachenko said he watched as Yuri Zaichev, a KGB agent on the trip, rushed to the school, the village store, then back to the airport when the pilot warned that he had to take off.

They hid until the next day, when the Bering Bridge Expedition was officially told. “The whole expedition team was furious at these journalists,” Brelsford said. “The feeling was like oh my gosh, after all this skiing and all these Arctic nights, these two guys are going to get on a helicopter and ruin everything for us.”

“I felt ripped off,” Schurke wrote in his book. “They had used us. They had taken advantage of our goodwill event for their own gain.”

Tkachenko said he was sorry if the defection marred the expedition or the ceremony. They had no other choice, he said.

Tkachenko and Genkin then spoke to Shparo, the Soviet leader of the expedition. The meeting was videotaped by National Guardsmen. In it, Shparo is furious, upset at the pair’s actions. He demands to know why they defected. If they could have left the country legally, they would have, they say. They aren’t after American beer and American jeans — they’re after freedom of self-expression as journalists.

The Soviets on the expedition didn’t buy it, Schurke wrote. The only thing they knew was that the pair weren’t being held against their will. The Soviets wondered if the whole expedition was a setup — if it had been planned by the CIA to make a PR splash for democracy.

In Nome, rumors spread that the border talks in Washington had collapsed, that the thawing of the ice curtain was over.

At the Diomedes, there was suspicion, but things progressed as if the defections hadn’t even happened. The expedition traveled back to Big Diomede to pick up their remaining supplies. They crossed the border, where the orange line had been covered with blown snow. There were no guards, no dogs, no passport checks. The Ice Curtain had vanished.

“We got a chuckle out of it, but it was embarrassing to Kobets and we felt sorry for him,” Cowper said. “These things happened, and they weren’t people from Magadan (in Kobets’ territory). They were people who came out there from Moscow to cover it. There wasn’t anything he could’ve done. He could’ve shot ‘em, I guess, but he really didn’t want to do that.”

Tkachenko and Genkin flew to Tin City Air Force Station on the mainland, then on to Anchorage.

The expedition was left to worry — but there was no need, as it turned out.

“They just saw it as the price of doing business,” Cowper said of the Soviets’ view of the defections.

Shparo learned the same when he returned to Moscow after the expedition’s end. “Dmitry detected no significant repercussions,” Schurke wrote.

The expedition gathered its supplies and flew over broken ice to Wales, on the Seward Peninsula. The travelers skied and mushed to Nome, then flew to Kotzebue, ending their stay on May 10. That day, the Soviet half of the expedition boarded planes and flew west, crossing back over a border that was no longer intimidating.


Full circle

The events of late April 1989 definitively melted the Ice Curtain between the Soviet Union and the United States.

On July 13, three months after the Diomede adventure, small Bering Air became the first U.S. airline certified for regular service to the Soviet Union. Less than a month later, U.S. and Soviet negotiators initialed the agreement allowing visa-free travel across the border for Natives who live along the Bering Strait.

By September, the U.S. Customs Service had hired a part-time agent at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island to handle the flood of Soviet visitors. By August 1990, more than 3,000 Soviet citizens and 3,000 American citizens had crossed the Alaska border between the two countries, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The open border brought a business and cultural boom. “Everybody was really hyped up on the positive opportunities of Alaska-Russia trade,” Ramseur said.

Alascom brought American television to Chukotka, Alaskans built a reindeer sausage plant in the territory, mushers organized a 1,200-mile sled dog race between Nome and a Russian city, and Alaska Airlines started regular flights to the Soviet Union in summer 1991, six months before the country collapsed.

“We felt important because we were continuing to foster opening up the Russian Far East to Alaska and vice versa,” MacKay said. “From our point of view, it was always something special.”

Alaska Airlines was joined by Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, which also offered scheduled service to Anchorage from the Russian Far East. Many of the Soviet passengers aboard those flights envisioned themselves following in the footsteps of Tkachenko and Genkin — albeit without a scramble across the ice.

There were so many asylum-seekers that businessman Fedor Soloviev (who arrived in Anchorage from Moscow in 1990) started a business catering to them. He videotaped arrivals, translated paperwork, and generally guided immigrants through the government process. “When the Russians would come into Anchorage, they wanted to apply for different immigrational paperwork. I helped them to translate the paperwork,” he explained. “For me, it was a big deal — I would get $100 or $200 per person; that was big money for me at that time.”

As people came in, goods went out. Soloviev sent electronics and other products to Russia on the flights leaving Alaska. When the Soviet Union turned into Russia, the business accelerated. Polaroid cameras and film were the hottest sellers, he recalled. “There was weeks and months when no store in Alaska had any Polaroid film because it was all going to Russia,” he said.

MacKay laughed when asked about Polaroids. “We learned early on that was one of the most popular things we could take with us was Polaroid cameras,” he said. “Much like automobiles, it’s not like they didn’t have automobiles and cameras, the big challenge was film.”

In the late 1990s, however, the good times started to end. Many of the Alaska-Russian business ventures failed. The sausage plant went bankrupt, and Russian buyers learned there were cheaper stores than Alaska’s. “After 1995, Aeroflot opened a new office in Seattle, so people stopped flying through Anchorage because the prices were so much lower in Seattle,” Soloviev said.

In 1998, the Russian ruble collapsed as a currency, and even Seattle’s cheaper stores became too expensive. Aeroflot stopped flying to Alaska. Alaska Airlines stopped flying to Russia.

“Once the flights stopped, that was it. It all stopped,” Soloviev said. “Everybody thought there will be no problems between America and Russia anymore. Now, we have new problems.”

From her home in Seattle, Brelsford said Russia today seems to be becoming more like the Soviet Union than the freewheeling Russia of the 1990s. Crackdowns on free speech have been followed by the invasion of Crimea. Direct flights from Alaska to Russia have all but vanished, except for a handful of high-priced tourist charters and Bering Air’s reliable service.

The Alaska Airlines jet that flew the Friendship Flight is now a museum piece in Anchorage.

“There were people on the expedition, people who grew up under communism who were afraid literally to speak out,” Brelsford said. “You’ve got this same dynamic coming back. I think you have people who are once again afraid to speak on the phone honestly or that fear is coming back. It almost seems to me like it’s full circle.”

For his part, Cowper sees things more positively. He visited Vladivostok last summer and said people still remember the region’s ties to Alaska. “That was quite clear in their minds, lo these many years afterward,” he said.

As for the collapse of the Ice Curtain? “It’s just one of those things,” he said. “You could make a pretty good story out of it.”

Melting the Ice Curtain, Pt. 1
Melting the Ice Curtain, Pt. 2


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