Visiting author looks at Alaska-Russian relations

Central Kenai Peninsula residents may not be able to see Russia from their homes, but on Thursday they’ll have a chance to see and hear writer David Ramseur, whose new book “Melting the Ice Curtain” is a history of Alaska-Russian relations focusing on the interactions of local Alaska officials, entrepreneurs, and regular citizens with their Russian neighbors in the late Cold War and the post-Soviet decades since.

Ramseur will give a talk about the book today at the Soldotna Library at 6 p.m.

Ramseur himself is among the Alaskans with Russian connections. After coming to Alaska as a journalist, he began working in 1986 as a press secretary, chief of staff, and foreign policy adviser to Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper and later Gov. Tony Knowles. When he began making trips to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s as one of Cowper’s staff, Ramseur said “it sort of dawned on me that there was history in the making.”

“So at that point I started keeping a journal, and files of all the official documents and materials I received in Russia,” he said. U.S-Soviet relations were tense at the time. Ramseur said his book is the story of how “we managed to break through all that to establish this 30-year period of good relations.”

The book documents how the ancient connection between Alaska Natives and indigenous people in the Russian Far East, combined with citizen idealism and a state government looking for international opportunities — particularly in oilfield development — to ease its late 1980s fiscal crisis, led to increasing contact between Alaskans and Russians: the 1986 music tour across the Soviet Union organized by Juneau musician Dixie Belcher, the June 1988 “Friendship Flight” from Nome to Provideniya (on which Ramseur flew as a Cowper staffer) and finally the 1989 U.S-Russian decision to allow visa-free travel across the Bering Strait.

“I draw some contrasts between (the 1980s and 1990s) and today, when arguably relations between the countries are as bad as they’ve been since the Cold War,” Ramseur said.

Yupik culture and language exist on both sides of the Russian-Alaskan border, and Ramseur saw familiar Native clothing items such as kuspuks, and games such as the high-kick, in Russia as well. In a 2015 trip through villages in Chukotka — the Russian province immediately west of Alaska — he remembers seeing an Alaska license plate nailed to a cabin door and meeting an ivory carver who wore souvenir sweatpants from Koetzebue. The freedom to cross the border has varied greatly through history.

The “Ice Curtain” of Ramseur’s title went up when Soviet officials and U.S FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover mutually closed the border in May 1948. It remained closed and guarded, cutting off families and acquaintances, until the 1989 decision to open visa-free travel. That decision was withdrawn in 2012, though reinstated for Native Alaskans visiting less than 90 days in 2015.

After the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, Alaska and Russia became interested in each other economically as well as culturally. With the state in an oil price recession, Alaskan officials began eying the Russian island of Sakhalin, immediately north of Japan, where untapped oil reserves drew comparisons to Cook Inlet in the 1950s. In the actual Cook Inlet of the early 1990s, the oil industry and its support services had been in steady decline since the basin’s 1971 production peak, with investment now going to Alaska’s North Slope. Local officials jumped on board early — in June 1991, Kenai and the Sakhalin Island town of Okha became sister cities with an exchange of official visits sponsored by Marathon Oil. Soldotna proclaimed sisterhood with another Sakhalin Island community, Nogliki, in 1994.

Economic partnerships were growing in other areas as well. Kenai attorney Bob Molloy — today a city council member — made a visit in 1996 to the Russian city of Magadan, a growing focus of Alaskan investment which Anchorage had joined as a sister city and where the Alaskan grocery chain Carr Gottstein had opened stores and a warehouse. He and a partner met with makers of the local Magadanskaya Vodka — “really an excellent vodka,” Molloy said — about import opportunities. He and his partners began importing Magadanskaya Vodka to the U.S in 1999.

“The politics were very much involved in business,” Molloy remembers. “Especially politics at the national level affected business. When relations were good between Russia and the U.S, there a lot more of a positive social component with the business there in Magadan. When relations were bad, there weren’t.”

Molloy said problems arose in 2006 — the vodka factory’s private owners abandoned it and the government foreclosed on its tax debt, eventually turning it into a state-owned kielbasa factory.

“Our partner agents still had the rights to make the product, but we couldn’t agree on where to make it or anything like that,” he said. “So we got out of the business. … We wanted them to produce it in Magadan, because that was the product. There was too much capital required for that. They wanted to produce it either in Vladivostock or in the Ukraine. We said no. And I’m really happy we didn’t go into Ukraine.”

After documenting how citizen action had helped open the border, Ramseur also covers how economics and politics eventually ended the enthusiasm for international joint ventures. He himself last visited Russia’s Chukotka region in 2015 and saw a very different place.

In one town, Providenya, Ramseur said the population during the post-Soviet era plummeted from around 10,000 to about 2,500. Ramseur observed that without the government subsidies they’d received under the Soviets, communities in the region have begun returning to subsistence economies — creating little opportunity for present-day Alaskans to pursue trans-border businesses. Though Alaskans still visit Russia occasionally, and some are involved in oil and gas development on Sakhalin Island, “there’s not much of the bread-and-butter, beer brewery, food sales sort of joint ventures that happened in the ’80s and ‘90s,” Ramseur said. 

The legal environment is likewise discouraging. Since coming to power in the early 2000s, current Russian president president Vladimir Putin has reversed Gorbachev-era rules on Russian-foreign joint ventures, requiring international investors to register as foreign agents.

“The big boys like Shell and Exxon are still operating in Russia, but the smaller companies don’t want to put up with all that bureaucracy and harassment, so they’ve pulled out,” Ramseur said.

Ramseur quotes deputy administrator Vladimir Paramonov of Providenya in the chapter toward the end of his book that details his latest visit: “‘The era of active relationships between Chukotka and Alaska has passed and it probably will never come again,’ the dour Paramonov speculated.”

Reach Ben Boettger at benjamin.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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