An international exchange

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Bryce Ward welcomes and presents a friendship gift to Yakutsk City Council Chairman Albert Semenov. 

This year marks the 30th year since delegations from the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the Siberian city of Yakutsk exchanged visits and began the process of forging a sister-city relationship between the two municipalities, which remains strong to this day.

To mark the occasion, a trio of representatives from Yakutsk were in Fairbanks this week, visiting residents, meeting with officials, attending events and further strengthening the bond that has been built between the two cites.

Yakutsk is the administrative capital of the Russian Republic of Sakha (formerly Yakutia). At nearly 2 million square miles, it’s the largest republic within Russia. Sakha is in many ways similar to Alaska. Lying in far-eastern Siberia, the republic is vast and sparsely populated, with a sizable percentage of it falling within the Arctic Circle.

Much like Fairbanks, Yakutsk is built alongside the Lena River, the 11th longest river in the world. The city is landlocked, with no road directly into it, and is even harder to access than Fairbanks. (There is a road on the eastern side of the Lena, but no bridge; ferry service is required to get to the city, which is on the western bank.)

Summers in Yakutsk are brief and hot, winters long, cold and dry. While the population of Yakutsk is roughly three times that of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the economy of the two cities are much the same. Both cities host major universities, both have significant governmental functions and both are heavily dependent on mining and resource extraction.

These similarities were highlighted by Albert Semenov, who headed the delegation. Currently the chairman of the Yakutsk City Council, he spoke before a small group at the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation Tuesday morning. Following a brief video with footage of Sakha’s remarkable natural beauty and the republic’s residents, he discussed the challenges and opportunities presented by life in Yakutsk.

“We have so much in common,” Semenov said later, speaking through an interpreter, “with global warming, with mining. The issues are common between Alaskan people and Yakut people, because we have a mining industry and Alaska has a mining industry. So it would be good to establish relationships between the mining companies.”

Much as in the greater Fairbanks area, Yakutsk deals with infrastructure shortcomings and is experiencing growing problems from melting permafrost. On the other hand, thanks to subsidized natural gas produced by Sakha, Yakutsk has been able to build a massive greenhouse complex that supplies the city with year-round cucumbers, tomatoes and greens.

The delegation also included Semenov’s interpreter, Kiunnei Artamonova, from the Yakutsk Department of External Relations, and her aunt, Nina Varfolomeeva. Now a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Varfolomeeva is originally from Yakutsk and has long been involved with the sister cites program, although this was her first visit to Fairbanks. They were shepherded about town by Melissa and Terry Chapin, who have also been involved with the sister cities project for many years and who have visited Yakutsk.

On Wednesday, the Chapins and other volunteers escorted the delegation to the Noel Wien Library, where a wooden carving called a Sergeh stands between the circulation and reference desks. This is a traditional Yakutian hitching post and symbol of hospitality and friendship that was given to Fairbanks by Yakutsk in 1990.

Another stop was the Lend-Lease Memorial Monument downtown, which commemorates the World War II program that saw thousands of American aircraft flown through Alaska and to the Soviet Union to aid the war effort. A wreath was laid by the Ben Eielson High School JROTC color guard, followed with a speech by Semenov commemorating the sacrifices made by American and Soviet troops in defeating the Nazis.

At the FEDC talk, Semenov had said part of the purpose of the visit was to share governing experiences. This led to a meeting with FNSB Mayor Bryce Ward, and the city mayors of Fairbanks and North Pole. They also met with Matt Cooper, presiding officer of the borough assembly, who said, “I enjoyed meeting my counterpart from the Yakutsk City Council. Fairbanks and Yakutsk share many of the same challenges and opportunities unique to living in the arctic despite international borders, and visits like this just show that we are all more alike than we are different.”

Melissa Chapin, one of the chief organizers of the visit, noted that the sister city relationship that began with meetings in 1989 and was formalized in 1991 has been a rewarding experience for all involved. “We’ve been working with Yakutsk for about a year to bring a delegation from their city administration to Fairbanks,” she said. “It’s gratifying to reaffirm and strengthen the thousands of ties of friendship and collaboration between Fairbanks and Yakutsk that have lasted so well.”

Her feelings were echoed by Semenov, who said, “This year is the anniversary of the sister city relationship between Fairbanks and Yakutsk. And we don’t want to lose this friendship between people, not between politicians, not between governments, but between people.”

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. He can be emailed at nobugsinak@gmail.com