My turn: U.S.-Russian relations: The Alaska experience

Posted: Monday, October 13, 2008

In the post-Glasnost period in Russia (after 1986), many Americans are asking the essential question: How do we build a bridge of peaceful communication with Russia and other former Soviet Republics without jeopardizing U.S. security and the world's economic and social stability?

Unfortunately, there is neither a simple, concrete answer, nor a magic formula for minimizing the risk of a possible global conflict between the two nations. Up to recent times, inconsistent U.S. policies dealing with the former Soviet Union have demonstrated a lack of understanding of the Soviet people and their national values.

History teaches us that nations, in some ways, are like people. While having many things in common, each is unique. As with people, a nation's behavior is often understood in terms of the psychological attitudes and style that characterize its personality. A failure to understand cultural complexity and a nation's psychological behavior in the historical context creates tension between governments and often leads to political conflict.

The history of Soviet-American relations has been quite short and somewhat intense. Evidently, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933 not out of any goodwill or political vision of peaceful cooperation with Soviets, but for entirely pragmatic economic reasons.

The Soviet Industrialization Plan required huge economic investments from the West and in that Great Depression year of 1933, United States manufacturers needed business wherever they could find it. In fact, in the 1930s more than 200,000 unemployed Americans wrote to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., asking for work and some of them were actually hired. Certainly, the Soviet government, in turn, hoped that diplomatic ties would open doors to United States bank loans, western technology and the export of socialist ideology.

An analysis of the post-depression period in the United States history demonstrates the need for a dynamic rather than static approach toward foreign neighbors whose political and economic systems differ from ours. The lessons of post-depression history in the United States demonstrated that two nations could compromise in their views and set aside conflicting cultural values and economic principles enough to achieve a common, mutually beneficial goal.

A dynamic approach to dealing with potentially antagonistic neighbors, therefore, may help the United States government and United States citizens achieve favorable results in their exploration of new avenues for cultural, political, commercial and military cooperation and exchanges with Russia and other former Soviet Republics.

Questions surrounding the causes of socio-political, military and economic tensions between the U.S. and Russia are complex; they must be studied objectively if we hope to elucidate the confrontational patterns between military powers in the past in order to avoid the formation of similar patterns into the future.

Historically, Alaska has played a unique role in the U.S.-Russian relations. From the early 1920s to mid-1980s, with the exception of the Alaska-Siberia Airway Lend-Lease Program during World War II, Alaska and Siberia were mutually closed for the visits by the U.S. and Soviet officials. Nevertheless, in the 1970s and 1980s, some Soviet and Alaskan scientists (e.g. archaeologists, biologists, botanists) were engaged in cooperative academic programs and occasionally visited each other's home countries.

From the mid-1980s to present, Alaska has been in the forefront of the Russian-American scientific and cultural exchanges. In 1986, Juneau activist Dixie Belchie organized Alaskan musician to a then-novel performing trip to the Siberian cities. In 1988, former State of Alaska Chief of Staff Garry Peska initiated government negotiations with the regions of the Russian Far East; in the same year of 1988, former state Sen. John Binkley and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game were involved in constructive negotiations of the Bering Sea fishery with then Soviet counterparts. Since early 1990s to present, Alaskan and Siberian Natives enjoy visa-free visits on both sides of the Bering Sea.

In the last 25 years, the grassroots, academic and government exchanges enriched both nations, and, as a result of it, the Russian-speaking population in Alaska increased from several hundreds residents in the early 1980s to about 10,000 residents today.

The experience of the Alaska-Russian relations should serve as a model for the U.S.-Russian relations in the future; and Alaska leadership should always keep this in perspective.

• Alexander Dolitsky is chairman and director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center and a delegate of the Russian Federation for the Compatriots Program in the U.S. He lives in Juneau.

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