For Alaskans, Russians, Distance Was an Asset in Coup

Events in USSR failed to spoil anniversary activities along the Bering Strait - a letter from Anchorage

AS hard-line communism made its shaky last stand in Moscow, it was business as usual for the blossoming Soviet exchanges here in Alaska, a state just 55 miles from the Soviet Union at its westernmost point along the Bering Strait.Not that residents of this one-time Russian colony were unconcerned about the abortive coup. On the contrary, Alaskans, who have a personal stake in what happens across the strait, were probably more crestfallen and more elated than other Americans as events unfolded. For Alaskans and residents of the Soviet Far East, who commiserate together about the ignorance of the distant "Lower 48" and the Moscow-fixated Soviet "center," distance was an asset during the dark hours of the three-day coup. During that time, as Russians and Alaskans marked the 250th anniversary of Vitus Bering's discovery voyage, the state was packed with Soviet visitors and official delegations. Among them were sailors - including a direct descendant of the explorer - retracing Bering's voyage; vacationing children from the contaminated Chernobyl region; officials from the Far East Chukotka and Magadan regions who attended an arctic forum; and construction engineers who conferred with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Across the strait in Provideniya, a tiny outpost about 170 miles west of Nome and 10 time zones east of Red Square, environmental and native officials from both sides of the strait were working out plans for the United States-Soviet Beringian Heritage International Park. Residents of the Siberian town got their news about the coup much the same way as did residents of the Alaska bush - from broadcasts of the Rural Alaska Television Network. "It is not very comfortable for us, such changes in the government. Certainly it's not good for the ordinary people," Michael Kozakevich, Provideniya agent for Nome-based Bering Air, said last Tuesday in a telephone interview. Though participants in the anniversary activities were distracted and sometimes teary, events went on as scheduled on both sides of the Bering Strait. Alaska Airlines, Aeroflot, and Bering Air made their normal flights across the strait. Alaska is probably the only state where the governor held a press conference to discuss the fallout of the abortive coup, and where such a gathering was packed with reporters. After all, Soviet news is nearly local news in Alaska. The cold war was a colossal inconvenience here. It separated Yup'ik Eskimo relatives, retarded important environmental and resource-management projects, and set up an artificial barrier to the trade and travel that had occurred for thousands of years. Glasnost and perestroika opened a floodgate of exchanges across the Bering Sea, too numerous to count and covering subjects ranging from arctic medicine and agriculture to vulcanology and zoology. Many Alaskans have made friends with someone from Provideniya, Anadyr, Magadan, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Petropavlosk-Kamchatka or some other Soviet Far East city. Word of the coup's collapse brought joy to Alaskans and visiting Soviets, many of whom stake their regions' economic futures on each other. "I was shocked to find the news on Sunday. For three days I was in low spirits. But nevertheless, this very morning, we had good news. Now I'm in good spirits," Anatoly Krashakov, international relations coordinator for the Chukotka Autonomous Region, says.

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