It was back in the old analog days, when photographs needed development and newspapers had wars. When facsimile machines were high tech and the ozone hole existed. An "ice curtain" separated the Soviet Union from the United States.
"You knew it was there," longtime Native leader Willie Hensley said of Russia. "You just never saw it."
Such was life in the late 1980s when Alaska officials, academics, business leaders and entrepreneurs, artists, Native elders, students and others organized an Alaska Airlines “friendship flight” from Nome to Provideniya in Russia’s Chukotka region.
Now participants are marking the 25th anniversary of the small hop across the Bering Strait that became a giant leap for international relations. At a World Affairs Council of Alaska meeting on Friday, former Gov. Steve Cowper joined Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, Hensley and others to reminisce about the accomplishments and missed opportunities in the years since.
About 70 Alaskans were aboard that flight, one of the major cultural exchanges conducted during the Soviet glasnost period that transformed the USSR and left America as the world's lone superpower. It was also an important time for Alaska, which has been influenced for thousands of years by Russian culture and proximity.
People who expected the friendship flight would produce a business boom were ultimately disappointed. Alaska does only about $10 million a year in trade with Russia. That's on par with Mexican business, Treadwell said.
Much more significant were the bonds created or renewed between Alaskans and Russians long separated by the "ice curtain," said Cowper, who led Alaska during that period.
“In the end the most important part of it was establishing the friendship between the people of the Soviet Union" and Americans, Cowper said.
That friendship-flight era, which included subsequent trips, exchanges and lasting joint scientific work, produced new families and new Alaskans. There were cross-border marriages, children born and adopted and, for Alaska, some important new residents like Rada Khadjinova, a former member of the Soviet national ski team.
Around 1990, she was the interpreter for an Alaska delegation visiting Sakhalin. “It was the best job because I could actually understand them,” a contrast with interpreting for visitors from Texas and Louisiana, said Khadjinova, an Alpine skiing champion who represented Alaska at the Master's Series last spring.
But there has been some failure to take advantage of the openings created by those glasnost overtures.
The Norwegians have done a better job than Americans of nurturing people-to-people relationships with the Russians, as evidenced by effective agreements on managing the Barents Sea in the European Arctic, Treadwell said.
A big misstep by both the U.S. and Russian governments, Cowper said, was allowing the international Arctic Council to overshadow regional efforts.
“These were the national governments trying to control everything,” Cowper said. “The people who actually worked together across the borders were shut out of whatever conversations that came later.”
Another opportunity was lost in the late 1990s, Cowper said, when he, John Tichotsky and Shawneen Conover were deputized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to go Vladivostok to negotiate with regional officials and Russian fishermen, the "people with actual power."
At stake was Bering Sea pollock; Alaska fishermen were upset that Russians were catching too many small and young fish, and Russians were upset that Alaskans were catching too many big and old fish.
At a meeting lubricated by multiple rounds of vodka, the Alaskans and Russians hammered out the outline of a bilateral fisheries agreement, Cowper said. But when he took that agreement to Washington, it was ignored by the State Department.
The pollock dispute has yet to be resolved, Cowper said.
Contact Yereth Rosen at yereth(at)alaskadispatch.com