Group aims to organize a goodwill visit from a Russian tall ship

Nathaniel Herz

The spring sun shines down on the snow-capped peaks of the Chugach Mountains as a crowd gathers at the Port of Anchorage, awaiting the arrival of the white sails of a Russian ship called Hope.

It sounds like a scene from a movie. But it's actually the very real vision of a small group of Anchorage residents and city officials, which is trying to arrange a visit next year from a Russian training ship called the Nadezhda -- "Hope," in English.

A three-week voyage, timed to align with Anchorage's centennial celebration, would take the Nadezhda from its base in Vladivostok, in Russia's Far East, to Cook Inlet. Mayor Dan Sullivan has sent an official letter of invitation; the state maritime university that owns the ship responded with its own letter of interest.

"The Nadezhda's call at Anchorage would serve good for enhancing cultural, commercial, and academic ties between citizens of the two nations -- the United States of America and the Russian Federation," wrote Sergei Ogai, the university's rector.

But before a visit can go ahead, it must get approval from Russia's central government, according to Anchorage organizers. Those organizers will also have to tiptoe around a cultural dispute that torpedoed a previous trip by the Nadezhda to San Francisco.

And then, there's the matter of reprovisioning the ship upon its arrival in Anchorage, and who would pay for that.

"I believe it is a firm commitment," said Anya Koritansky, the head of the White Sails of Hope Committee, which is trying to organize the visit. "However, it is up to us to make it happen, to make sure that everything is organized properly."

Koritansky is a financial analyst in Anchorage but was born in Vladivostok. Her uncle, she said, is director of port security at a large bay there.

Her father, a deputy at a tanker company, graduated from the maritime academy that owns the Nadezhna.

"She's obviously got incredible connections," Sullivan said.

The idea for a visit came from several people, Koritansky said. But she added that one particular inspiration was a trip by Sullivan's chief of staff Dan Kendall to Vladivostok, where he saw the ship in person.

Kendall keeps a photo of the Nadezhda on his mobile phone, though he did not respond to requests for comment.

In an interview, Sullivan said that a visit is "intriguing" for the city and could have synergies with Anchorage's centennial celebration, which culminates next year.

But he added that he would be reluctant to commit any public money or other resources to the initiative, and that sponsors would be expected to cover costs like reprovisioning.

The 360-foot, three-masted Nadezhda was built in Poland's famous Gdansk shipyard in the early 1990s. Koritansky said it can hold up to 200 cadets.

On what appears to have been its last attempted visit to the United States, however, in 2011, the Nadezhda approached San Francisco only to turn away the day it was scheduled to arrive, with orders to head for Mexico instead -- a letdown for the two boats full of diplomats and members of the local Russian and Polish communities that were floating in San Francisco Bay awaiting the Nadezhda's arrival.

News reports at the time said Russian officials were afraid the ship would be seized by U.S. authorities in relation to a long-running legal dispute over a book and document collection gathered over hundreds of years by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, which has been held by Russia since World War II.

The Chabad organization is now based in Brooklyn, and claims possession of the library, but Russia refuses to recognize a 2010 order from an American federal judge that said the materials should be turned over.

It's unclear whether the dispute could impact a future visit. The Russian consulate in Seattle did not respond to a request for comment, while the U.S. Department of State declined to comment and referred questions to the Department of Justice, which did not respond to inquiries.

Ogai, the maritime university's rector, wrote in his letter that an Alaska voyage by the Nadezhda would "only become possible if the inviting American party makes every provision to ensure safety of the tall ship with regard to its status (as) a piece of property owned by the Russian Federation government."

There's also the problem of recently rising tensions between the United States and Russia over the latter's recent occupation of Crimea.

Koritansky is trying to put all that aside, saying that she's relying on the ship's name, Hope, to keep her working through late nights communicating with officials in Vladivostok, which is five hours behind Anchorage.

"We hope that the political situation will not affect us in a negative way," she said.

Koritansky added that the visit could be a way to help smooth relations between the citizens of the two countries, and Sullivan agreed.

"What's wrong with having that kind of a gesture between two countries that are a little bit on an edge right now?" he said. "I don't think that would be a bad thing at all."

Koritansky recalled her own experience on an exchange trip she took to Juneau from Vladivostok more than two decades ago, when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union.

She said she spent time in classrooms and hospitals, and even at Gov. Wally Hickel's mansion.

"It was certainly a huge step to open up the relationship, and to show people that we're just people," Koritansky said. "It's people that count, and that's what we want."