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Alaska Warms to Task of Thawing `Ice Curtain' Between US, Soviets

Nome to Provideniya - a 90-minute hop for businessmen, Boy Scouts

By Scott ArmstrongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 1990



JUNEAU, ALASKA

AS relations between the two superpowers improve, Alaska is leading the way in exchanging bear hugs with the Soviet Union. In Nome, cab drivers have begun accepting Soviet rubles.

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In Soldotna, on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, schoolchildren swap classroom experiences with students from Soviet Magadan.

Joint gold mines are being planned. Trade, scientific, and cultural exchanges between the two neighbors have become as thick as a Siberian overcoat.

The reason for this thawing of the ``ice curtain'' - tensions over Lithuania notwithstanding - can be summed up in three Gs: glasnost, geography, and genealogy.

``We are geographically and historically better placed than any state to create a regular commerce between the Soviet Union and the United States,'' says Alaska's Gov. Steve Cowper (D).

Alaska, of course, used to be a part of Russia. The first white men to explore the area were Russian fur traders, tundra-tough men who brought back pelts from the Aleutian Islands in the mid-1700s. By 1867, though, the czars had lost interest in Alaska and it was sold to the US for $7.2 million, a deal that became known as Seward's Folly, after US Secretary of State William Seward, who championed the purchase of the ``useless'' territory.

Today signs of the two neighbors' common heritage remain. Hundreds of natives here have relatives in the Soviet Far East. In Sitka, the former capital of Russian Alaska on the panhandle, an onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church dominates the downtown. Throughout the state, Russian names identify hotels (the Baranov), streets (Verstovia), and ancestry (Ivanoff).

``There is a feeling we have more in common with the Russians than with any other part of the United States,'' says Vic Fischer, director of Soviet relations for the University of Alaska at Anchorage.

Then there is the proximity. At their closest point, Little Diomede Island in the US and Big Diomede Island in the Soviet Union, the superpowers are only a whale bone toss apart: 2.5 miles. The two towns closest to each other, Nome and Provideniya, are separated by a 90-minute plane flight and one carrier, Nome-based Bering Air, has already begun charter flights between the two communities.

Until recently, those excursions were impossible. The Soviets closed the border in 1948. Two years ago the ice curtain began to thaw and last September, in another sign of Soviet openness (glasnost), the nations signed an agreement allowing visa-free travel across the Bering Strait for Eskimos of both countries.

Hundreds of native people, officials, trade delegations - even Boy Scout troops - have hopscotched between Alaska and the Soviet Far East in the past year.

``We're probably the most aggressive state in the union in expanding relations with the Soviet Union,'' says Ron Miller, a state international trade expert.

Part of the interest is financial. Several ventures have already formed, including a joint gold-mining operation. The Alaska entrepreneurs think they can learn from the Soviets about extracting ore from surface rock, while the Americans have more advanced underground technology.

``There is a lot to gain on both sides,'' says Ron Sheardown, a director of Bering Strait Trading Company, the Alaska partner in the deal. Joint fishing, telecommunications, and farm projects have been launched. Officials here are excited about the tourism potential, and Alaska Airlines is trying to gain landing rights in several Soviet cities.

``Perhaps the greatest potential for trade we have is looking West,'' says George Krusz, president of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce.

Getting Ivan and Johnny to do business together, though, will not be easy. Communism, even an evolving system, does not jibe neatly with capitalism.

US entrepreneurs - particularly those in Alaska, where unfettered free enterprise and libertarian thought run deep - will have to deal with Soviet regulations and red tape. There are language barriers and currency problems.

``There are not going to be any quick deals,'' Mr. Miller says.

Ideas may be easier to exchange than ingots. The University of Alaska at Anchorage has already signed more than 20 agreements with Soviet scientists and institutes. These range from joint botanical expeditions to sharing research on Arctic issues.

Most Alaskans seem to welcome chummier ties with the Soviets.

But there are skeptics. This is a state, after all, where residents like to boast that gun control means hitting what you shoot at. About the joint gold-mining venture, one reader wrote to the Anchorage Daily News: ``Why can't Americans invest in their own minerals? I'd much rather see ... anyone but the commie Russians.''