RENEWING OLD CULTURAL TIES ACROSS THE BERING STRAIT

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Some 50 miles separate the Alaskan and Siberian mainlands; Russia's Big Diomede Island, a military post, and Alaska's Little Diomede Island, an Eskimo settlement, are separated by just 2 1/2 miles.

Legacies of the Russian colonial period are plentiful in Alaska. Alaskans, mostly Alaska natives, make up more than half of the nation's Russian Orthodox Church members. Russian family and place names abound here. The Yupik word "gussaq," meaning Caucasian, came from the time Russian Cossacks lived and traded in southwestern Alaska.

But cultural ties run deeper than the mingling that started when Vitus Bering landed in Alaska in 1741 and ended with Russia's sale of the territory to the United States in 1867. Natives for thousands of years freely traveled across the Bering Strait; before then they migrated across the Bering Land Bridge. Yupik Eskimos on both sides of the strait share blood ties, language and a culture, as do Aleuts in Alaskan and Russian islands of the Aleutian chain.

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Contact across the Bering Strait was blocked in the four decades of cold war. Then glasnost and goodwill tours - including a swim from Little Diomede to Big Diomede and other ceremonial journeys by aircraft, dog sled, ski, sailboat and kayak - melted the Bering Strait's "Ice Curtain."

Regular scheduled airline service by Aeroflot and Alaska Airlines started last summer, the 250th anniversary of Vitus Bering's 1741 voyage. Nome- and Kotzebue-based carriers offer charter service; related Alaskan and Siberian Natives can travel visa-free across the strait. Residents of Russia's Chukotka and Magadan regions watch US and Alaska television programs beamed to their towns by the Rural Alaska Television Network.

Much of the credit for the early breakthroughs is given to Gennadi Gerasimov, a former spokesman for former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and a frequent visitor to Alaska.

"We had our October Revolution, and one of the reasons for the revolution was that the czars were so silly to have sold Alaska. But there's no way to get it back," Mr. Gerasimov said in a 1988 visit to Anchorage.

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