Editor’s note: The following is an abbreviated excerpt from the new book, “Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier,” by former News-Miner reporter David Ramseur. Published by University of Alaska Press, the book documents how Alaska and Russia citizen diplomats helped end the Cold War in the mid-1980s and launch a 30-year era of perilous yet prolific progress across the Bering Strait. Ramseur covered state and national politics for the News-Miner between 1979-1985 and then worked for Govs. Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles and for U.S. Senator Mark Begich. Ramseur will discuss the “Ice Curtain” era and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, at Murie Auditorium in the Margaret Murie Building, 982 Koyukuk Drive, on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Former News-Miner columnist Dermot Cole will introduce him.
— Gary Black, News-Miner features editor
Cultural and educational exchanges flourished, many through sister-city connections. One of the earliest and most productive was between Alaska’s second-largest population center, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, and Yakutsk, capital city of the Republic of Sakha. The relationship had its roots in World War II and the more contemporary movement to establish nuclear-free zones in the Far North.
Of the nearly 15,000 Lend-Lease aircraft shuttled from the United States to the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945, more than half were flown over the Northwest Route with stops at Ladd Field in Fairbanks and in Yakutsk. In 2006, the Alaska city honored that historic link with a large bronze statue depicting American and Soviet pilots. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was among the dedication speakers.
In winter 1987, Juanita Helms, the Fairbanks North Star Borough mayor, convened a handful of her constituents to consider an international sister-city program, with potential partners in China, Germany, and Japan. The idea of adding a Soviet sister city came from a local peace activist.
For two years, Fairbanks officials sent inquiries to the Soviet city and buttonholed contacts at conferences, without success. Finally, in summer 1989, Sister Cities International blessed the relationship, and three Fairbanks officials flew a circuitous route to Yakutsk, then numbering about 300,000 residents. Helms and her Yakutsk counterpart, Mayor Pavel Borodin, signed a Treaty of Friendly Relations on August 25, 1989. Sister-city pioneer Mimi Chapin has detailed the relationship’s history since her first visit to the region with Helms.
Yakutsk is the capital of an India-size region in Siberia bordering the Arctic Ocean west of Chukotka. It was largely populated by Turkic Native people until the discovery of gold and other minerals in the late 1880s. Its population then swelled with Russians seeking high-paying jobs in resource development, including diamonds and oil and gas. Yakutsk is connected to Magadan by the nearly 1,300-mile Kolyma Highway, also known as the “Road of Bones” acknowledging the forced labor of gulag inmates who constructed it starting in 1932.
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Alaska communities that rushed to find Soviet sister cities tended to select those like themselves, as was the case with the Fairbanks borough and Yakutsk. Both are industrial cities built on permafrost located in their region’s interiors on rivers — the Lena River in Yakutsk, the Chena and Tanana Rivers in Fairbanks. Both have widely varying subarctic climates where temperatures can exceed ninety degrees in the summer and drop to fifty below zero or lower in winter. Yakutsk boasts one of the coldest temperatures ever recorded, minus eighty degrees in 1838.
Universities also dominate the economies and cultures of the cities, so much of the sister-city relationship was centered on exchanges of scientists and scholars. In 1991, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Yakutsk State University agreed to faculty exchanges and joint research.
In 1993, UAF journalism professor Joy Morrison landed an $80,000 US Information Agency grant to bring eight Yakutsk journalists to Fairbanks for immersion into American-style journalism. Fairbanks journalists reciprocated the following year with a two-week training session in Yakutsk focused on both news reporting and how to run successful newspapers and television stations. Morrison said the exchange’s success was in conveying the role of independent media to the Russian journalists whose livelihoods were tied to their government-owned media outlets.
Dozens of joint projects between Yakutsk and Fairbanks followed, including exchanges of police officers, Native artisans, ice carvers, artists, and Rotarians.