In Dire Straits Across the Bering

It was a little over 10 years ago that the Ice Curtain that hung between Alaska's west coast and the Russian Far East began to thaw. With its melting, a warm blast of friendship swept across Alaska, infecting many with an irrepressible case of Russian Fever. The once impossible became an everyday event as delegations from towns across Alaska were visited and hosted their Soviet counterparts.

Since that brief time of mutual wonder and elation, the collapse of the Soviet Union has raised logistical, financial and political barriers between our two countries that are almost as effective as the Iron Curtain had been. And as the number of exchanges decreases, information filtering in about the rising humanitarian crisis in our neighboring region increases.

I participated in some of the earliest expeditions to the Chukotka Region Alaska's nearest neighbor to the west and traveled the coastline by dog sled and umiaq. I had not returned since 1993 and was feeling the weight of an unpaid debt for the incredible kindness and generosity shown me by the Eskimo, Chukchi and Russian people living up and down the nearby coast. I wanted to see old friends and to learn what changes had taken place since those early days of renewed contact.

Grants from the National Park Service and the Alaska Humanities Forum, to survey people's perspectives on the re-opening of the border, allowed me to return for six weeks this past spring. With a translator, I traveled by iron tank and dog sled to many of the region's villages to see and hear about the differences that a decade had wrought.

The realities of capitalism hit swift and hard in Chukotna. Under the Soviet system, living and working in the Russian Far East was considered a ``hardship tour.'' The greater the distance from Moscow, the higher the salary, the longer the vacation and the better supplied the stores_similar to the treatment of workers at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay during the pipeline boom. That equation has reversed 180 degrees in the last 10 years, and the once well supported villages must fend for themselves. They are now subject to laws of a free-market economy, but Russia's version of capitalism doesn't offer the safeguards of democracy, ``rule of law,'' or the safety net of government assistance that we take for granted in America.

At an October Park Service Beringia conference in Anchorage, I learned from Russian friends that the situation has not improved with the passage of a brief, stormy summer of poor hunting and no fish. People are scared as the inevitable dark and cold of winter begin to close in.

When the ice curtain first lifted on Provideniya, it revealed an active seaport of 10,000 people perched on a mountainside deep within a fjord-like bay, its waterfront dominated by huge cranes that serviced supply ships plying the northern shipping route. The looming concrete apartment buildings startled those of us accustomed to the wood frame and shiplap homes of Nome, but we thought with a little paint Provideniya could become a welcoming tourist destination and an active Alaska business partner.

Today many of those buildings stand abandoned, their central heating and water systems broken as Provideniya's infrastructure crumbles. Without their lace curtains or windows you peer into the empty coffins of people's former lives. Some people continue to live in unheated buildings, keeping one or two rooms warm with electric heaters when there is electricity. My friend, Luda, checked daily for the comforting plume of sooty smoke from the town's coal-fired generator that assured there would be electricity for another day. At the same time, some buildings continue to operate normally, with residents living in relative comfort.

The once large, state-run stores have been replaced with smaller state stores and small, private shops tucked away down unmarked stairs or in the back of an obscure building. They sell food flown in from Moscow and Kamchatka, at prices that at first don't seem too unreasonable to Alaskans_one quart of cooking oil, $2.40; one pound salami, $2.90; one pound onions, $1.08; one pound apples, $1.25; five pounds flour, 1.20, a small jar of instant coffee, $3.13_until you consider that wages range from approximately 600-6,000 rubles ($20- $200) per month, if salaries are received at all.

Provideniya's population is now down to 3,000 as many non-natives return to their hometowns in warmer parts of Russia. There they face the difficulty of finding work, but can at least subsist on home-grown potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Some are happy to leave the north, while others are dismayed at having to leave the land and friends they love. The cost of a one-way ticket is about six month's salary, so there is little hope of ever returning.

But there is something about the Russian character that thrives in hard times. Women still dress in long, beautifully tailored coats and fox or sable hats as they delicately pick their way through Provideniya's snowdrifts and mud holes. Friends gather nightly in the collection of bars and restaurants, where glasses of vodka are raised in toasts, and people dance into the morning. To enter someone's home still means to gather close around the kitchen table.

Under the Soviet system, marine mammal hunters, fur trappers, reindeer herders, ivory carvers, skin sewers, even dancers and drummers worked for the state. They were paid a good salary, but all the products of their labor including the seal, whale and walrus belonged to the government. People often told me that prior to the opening of the border they believed they lived very well. But discovering the selection of fresh produce and consumer goods available on the other side of the ice curtain, and the collections of privately owned trucks, four-wheelers, snowmachines, boats, motors and guns, left people stunned and reconsidering their standard of living. Yet today that former standard of living is looked on wistfully as a time of abundance and comfort.

During my visit I saw basic foodstuffs in most of the village stores, but at prices few could afford. Irina, a teacher in Uelen, explained, ``The children look at food in the store as things in a museum. They can see it but they cannot touch it.'' Friends recently told me that what little European food there was in the spring is now entirely gone.

A year ago the fuel ship failed to deliver diesel fuel to Yanrakinot and Sireniki, leaving both villages to struggle through last winter without electricity and little heat. Televisions, radios and telephones sat dark and silent while homes were lit with candles, and whale and seal oil lamps. The Yanrakinot school could only operate during the brief daylight hours the change of classes signaled by the ringing of a handbell instead of the familiar electric buzzer. Families doubled and tripled up in homes with a stove that could burn scavenged coal or wood from demolished buildings. One woman in Sireniki described how they'd built a tent over the living couch where everyone slept together for warmth.

Recent reports are that all the villages have received shipments of coal and diesel for the upcoming winter, but Provideniya and Lavrentia are still waiting and watching worriedly as their bays begin to freeze up.

Most retirees receive pension money, but it is often a very small amount. Mothers also receive small amounts of ``children's compensation'' money, but with no regularity. The ones with the most reliable incomes are the lucky few who work as doctors, teachers or for the local administration, and even they have not been paid for the past four months. Some workers receive only a small amount of food in trade. Many have not received any money since 1993 or 1994.

Many children are facing another winter without adequate winter clothes. Mittens, hats, boots and jackets are often not available in the villages, and when they are it is at a price most cannot afford. In Yanrakinot I saw kids using their parents' oversized boots and was told that in some families the children have to share the same outdoor clothing and can only play outside one at a time.

The schools, even in the larger hub cities of Provideniya and Lavrentia, struggle with shortages of the most basic items; pencils, pens, paper. In Uelen, Irina lamented, ``I can teach biology without any supplies, but how do I teach mathematics without paper and pencils?''

In Sireniki I was shown where the schools bathrooms had collapsed, forcing students and teachers to run home, go outside even in the winter storms, or wet their pants. Disgusted, the school director told me, ``The communist system was bad, but this is worse!' Dependence on subsistence.

People are now entirely dependent on the hunters to provide food but guns and ammunition are not available, and there is no gasoline to run the boat motors. In the village of Inchoun this summer the men were once again rowing and paddling skin boats in pursuit of seals and walrus. Summer storms piled up unusual amounts of ice along north coast beaches, often keeping the boats from launching.

Under the Soviet system, whales were caught by large processing ships and towed to the villages where the local people butchered them. But the ships never returned after 1992, leaving the villages without a critical food source. With guidance from their elders and support and training from Alaska's North Slope Borough, hunters have re-learned how to hunt whales from small boats.

Ten years ago the reindeer herds were large and healthy. The Chukchi herders, who lived nine months of the year on the tundra in their skin-covered yarangas, were well paid and comfortable. The herds are now nearly gone. The reindeer have been eaten for food or traded for other needed goods. There is no longer vaccine available and little ammunition for the herders to protect their animals from the increasing number of wolves. People have lost not only their source of income and food, but also their traditional lifestyle that holds reindeer at its center.

In an effort to help people feed themselves, the grassroots organization, Alaskan Friends of Chukotka, has sent more than 160 salmon nets to Chukotka villages. And, apparently, this past summer's disastrous chum and pink salmon runs in western Alaska were even more dismal in Chukotka.Hope survives.

In the early 1990s the Hope Dog Sled Race ran up the coast from Nome to the village of Wales, where Russian helicopters transported the teams across the Bering Strait's 60 miles of moving ice to the village of Uelen. From there, the mushers raced down the Russian coast to Anadyr, the administrative center of Chukotka. The international race was suspended in 1994 because of political and economic chaos in Russia, and most Alaskans assumed the race had just faded away. But when I arrived in Lavrentia last April I discovered that the Hope Race was one element of early Chukotka-Alaska relations that has remained active, at least on the Russian side. This year 27 Native mushers raced 350 kilometers from Lavrentia to Provideniya and back, cheered on by crowds in the villages and towns enroute.

The number of dog teams in Chukotka has exploded as gas, spare parts and money for snowmachines become scarce. Lessons learned from Alaska racers on breeding, feeding and equipment have helped the Chukotka mushers improve the performance of their teams, which they now depend on for survival as well as competitive sport. All mushers I spoke with are easger to again match their teams against those of Alaskans.

The future?

They have a joke in Chukotka that goes, ``How come America is so poor they only had enough money to buy Alaska and not Chukotka, too?'' It's too late to correct that oversight, but an Anadyr newspaper recently reported that Roman Abramovich, a declared candidate in Chukotka's Dec. 24 election for governor, promises to turn Chukotka into the second Alaska if he wins. He visited Alaska twice this fall to meet with Gov. Tony Knowles and numerous organizations eager to develop a wide range of ties with the Russian Far East.

Alexander Nazarov, the governor of Chukotka since 1992, has discouraged economic, cultural and humanitarian relations between Chukotka and Alaska. When I asked why people continue to vote for the current governor, I received the same answer. ``It doesn't matter who you vote for. It only matters who counts the votes.'' High voter turnout is expected this Christmas Eve, with everyone watching closely.

Several years ago the Yupik people of Alaska's Saint Lawrence Island brought the needs of their Chukotkan relatives to the attention of local churches. Since that time a number of churches and organizations have worked to provide food, clothing, medical assistance and subsistence equipment to the Chukotka villages. Alexander, a hunter from New Chaplino, stretched his arms out wide and asked me tell others, Thank you! Big, big thank you! In Sireniki, a mother and unpaid seamstress burst into tears as she explained that the only clothes they had were gifts from Alaska. Basic items like fishing nets, lures and skin sewing needles from Alaskan Friends of Chukotka are helping to keep people alive. Even Abramovich, considered one of Russia's wealthiest men, has established a personal fund to help with some immediate food supplies. But the winter remain long and cold and the needs staggering.

I overheard an Alascom worker on his way out of Provideniya last spring observe, ``There is no shortage of misery in this country.'' This remains true, but the fact that people need each other more than ever for their survival may in some ways help to strengthen communities. In every village, when people finished telling me of their hardships, they invariably expressed their concern that it was even worse in other villages.

I also observed that people still find joy in the beauty of the tundra and the sea that lie just beyond their coal-dusted villages. All were eagerly awaiting summer's green plants and birds when I left. I was often told, ``Come back in the summer, it is beautiful here then.''

I'll come back, I thought, because the resiliency, the humor and the beauty of the people are as moving as the landscape.

Sue Steinacher is a free-lance writer and past contributor to Heartland who recently moved from Nome

arrw_l6.wmf (468 bytes)