Cultural festival opens US-Russian border


When it comes to the Bering Strait, there is no shortage of individual adventurers to try and cross it by any means imaginable. But when news of the Bering Strait Day reached Nome – with the promise to open the international borders between the United States and Russia for seven days – it caught the attention of civic leaders in Nome.

Next summer, the Russian Federal Tourism Agency plans to host a multi-day cultural summit that offers to bring together residents from both sides of the Strait, including a 43-mile boat trip between Uelen, located in the Russian district of Chukotsky, Wales, Alaska.

The first crossing, scheduled for the week of August 2022, raised many questions, including among members of the Nome Port Commission who put the festival on the agenda for its regular meeting on November 18. about it, ”Commissioner Gay Sheffield said.

Apparently few do.

Nome’s nugget contacted officials from federal, state and local agencies, as well as the Indigenous Village of Wales. The State Department was not aware of the festival and Welsh officials said they knew little about the event.

Nikolay Korchunov is Russia’s senior official for the Arctic at the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum of eight Arctic countries. He told the Nugget via email that the Bering Strait Festival is on the theme of “arctic tourism,” but offers few other details.

According to the event’s website, it promotes a seven-day “historic expedition”, where attendees are invited to retrace the early journeys of those who crossed the Strait. Organizers say a forum will focus on indigenous communities and their family relationships that were disrupted by Cold War politics decades ago. Cultural exchange meetings are planned between traditional sports competitions. The main attraction, the boat race, is starting from a base camp in Uelen where, according to the website, “whale meat cooks over open fires and the beat of walrus drums.”

“The first boat that crosses will be a skin boat. And this skin boat will be built by hunters from Lorino (Tchoukotka) and supported by hunters from St. Lawrence Island from Savoonga, ”said Mille Porsild, chief coordinator of the festival in the United States in an interview with Alaska Public Radio in August.

The Chukotka district in Russia is home to Chukchi and Yupik hunters who today continue to actively use hide boats for hunting and racing. In a separate project, Porsild partnered with the Chukotka Marine Mammal Hunters Association to help revitalize a skin boat culture in Savoonga, a community that no longer uses the skin boat. The three-year initiative is part of a program with the US National Park Service’s Shared Beringian Heritage Program. The NPS says, however, that it is not involved in the Bering Strait Festival.

Beyond these details, it’s still unclear how the international transit to support the festival will shake. Porsild was unable to respond to interview requests before press time.

In October, Russia, which has the largest Arctic border and most of the region’s population, claimed much of the Arctic Ocean. It began to assert its position as early as 2007 when a Russian submarine planted a stainless titanium flag on the seabed of the North Pole. Since 2019, the country has imposed a list of requests on other countries crossing the strait, including requiring advance notice. Non-compliance threatens the use of military force. Last winter, for the very first time, a Russian LNG carrier crossed the Bering Strait via the Northern Sea Route, delivering liquid natural gas to China. Several other tankers followed on superb crossings in January and February across the Strait. But the innocent passage from north to south is different from crossing the border from west to east.

At its narrowest point, the Bering Strait is only 55 miles wide between the United States and mainland Russia, but only three miles separate the island of Little Diomede from Big Diomede, claimed by Russia.

Robert Soolook, Jr. of Little Diomede can’t imagine a cross-border trip right now, even for a skin boat race. “A lot of red tape,” he said, describing the turbulent political waters that have divided his Ingalikmiut community for decades.

In 1948, Soviet troops aggressively separated families from the sister islands of Diomedes within three miles of each other, sending those who lived on the Big Island to mainland Russia and retaining others from Little Diomedes. ‘they were crossing from the United States.

“We called it the ‘ice curtain’,” said Soolook, Jr ..

But a border did not sever kinship ties even when crossings were restricted and telephone lines confiscated. In a rare series of meetings from 1972 to 1977, the leaders of the two tribal communities of the United States and Russia were allowed to meet each winter after the Bering Strait turned to ice. At first, these talks took place on the ice between the two islands. Eventually, the elders of Little Diomede were able to gain access to Big Diomede even under the gaze of Russian troops.

“The language and the dialects were the same,” recalls Soolook, who was no more than ten or twelve when he attended the happy talks. And these are observations that stuck with him. “We were a big family,” he said, describing the year his mother was reunited with her loved ones after 47 years of separation. “Every time I think about it, it breaks my heart.”

It is not known why the cross-border gatherings among the Diomedes diaspora came to an abrupt end. A similar reunion would not happen for twenty years. It was the year Soolook met his parents on Russian soil in 1989 on a dog sledding expedition across the country. He was called “the lucky one”.

Today, there are only a few military posts left on Big Diomedes, but Soolook still feels trapped. “I wish that border wasn’t there,” he said, explaining how geopolitics in the region continue to hamper their inherent rights to hunt and fish freely on the lands his ancestors roamed.

The Bering Strait Festival Skin Boat Racecourse is expected to pass right by the Diomedes Islands, Uelen, Wales. But like so many others, Soolook has heard little about it and, so far, isn’t convinced that it can be pulled back because of the bureaucracy.

But that doesn’t mean Soolook isn’t behind the project.

“There’s a whole generation here that doesn’t know this story at all,” he said.


Darcy J. Skinner