Current talk echoes Cold War, but Alaskans know diplomacy still counts

It seems naive and absurd to speak positively about Russia, as we think we understand it today.

With Russia's seizure of Crimea and the trade sanctions that followed, its return to state-controlled media, its shrinking economy and huge capital outflows, its provocations in eastern Ukraine, and with its intractable dualism between East and West, it appears we are moving backwards diplomatically.

I spent most of last month visiting friends outside Moscow. I've traveled to Russia about a dozen times since first going there in 1990 as a staff member of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce.

After we organized the historic and successful "Soviet American Reunion Week" at the Egan Center in February 1989, and the hoopla of perestroika continued, we conducted high-level trade missions to cities such as Magadan and Vladivostok where Russian President Vladimir Putin recently convened the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum.

On our first trade mission in the early 1990s, I vividly remember my first glimpse of the Soviet Union. Our charter jet landed right below the Arctic Circle, in remote Anadyr, where the runway was lined with MIG fighter jets.

By 1992, the Soviet Union was gone; the worst nightmares of communism lay far behind us. Archives related to Stalin's Great Terror were opened up. Tragic state secrets about the purges, repressions, labor camps, and the persecution and executions of the intelligentsia could, at last, be openly acknowledged. Truth was being told.

From Alaska's unique vantage point, we bypassed the bureaucrats and pundits in Washington and Moscow to more quickly focus on matters of kinship, ancestral ties, and our geographic commonalities.

I witnessed dynamic, life-altering transformations among people — including in my own life.

On both sides of the border, we viewed the political reordering as unprecedented and profound, of historic and long-lasting magnitude.

Later, before the euphoria died down, and while severe economic pain took its toll on everyday Russians, I worked in an Anchorage food export firm. We sold and shipped 40-foot containers of frozen strawberries, vegetables, hot dogs, and ice cream to our Russian partners from the Port of Tacoma to ports on Sakhalin Island and Magadan.

Russia, as described in Walter Laqueur's new (2015) book "Putinism," is under ideological reconstruction again as it searches for its national and global identity in the 21st century.

We are starting to make Cold War comparisons again, too, counting icebreakers, submarines and Arctic military outposts.

Who has triumphed as a superpower, and who deserves to be maligned? Have America and Europe grown too weak? Are Putin's nationalist deformities and ideas about a "sovereign democracy" here to stay?

The new Cold War rhetoric, on both sides, is disturbing, especially given the renewed Arctic spotlight with President Barack Obama's important visit here.

The challenges of global climate change, new transportation corridors, resource extraction balanced with strict environmental protections, and the need for more collaboration in scientific research — these are crucial issues that require more fact-based, global dialogues, and mutual cooperation.

What political and economic fruits will fall from Russia's tree? This is anybody's guess.

A lecturer once warned we should not pin our hopes too high, as disintegration and chaos are the Russian norm. I heard him say Russia borders on disaster, teetering between glorious achievements and political ruin.

Maybe, I'm suffering from a bad case of nostalgia, but I don't want to jump to conclusions that Russia is a lost cause, untrustworthy, and unable to set itself on the right and best political course.

Do we really want to go through Cold War II, raising fears about possible threats more often than talking about areas of common interest, especially in the Arctic Ocean?

Andrei Tsyankov in Russia Direct (Aug. 4, 2015), an online foreign policy journal, said: "Russians have historically viewed being a great power and a strong state as necessities of survival, not a luxury… Although it is not a Communist-style or Tsarist-style autocracy, the new Russian system is a type of the strong ruling system that has governed the country for centuries."

According to Laqueur, social and economic chaos is more feared in Russia than authoritarian rule and dictatorship.

As Americans we've never quite understood why democracy, as we know it, didn't spring up like a mushroom overnight to make everything better instantly.

You can't reduce Russia to a mere media sound bite featuring a shirtless, well-sculpted Putin flexing his muscles anymore than you can reduce the novel "Doctor Zhivago" to a Broadway musical.

Nor can foreigners get an accurate or meaningful portrayal about The American Idea by watching Hollywood films. We're more than a violent, spiritually bankrupt collective living in the bubble of mass consumerism.

Grass-roots diplomacy and well-informed, honest communications still count for something.

Alaskans led the way across cold ground before. We breathed hope into the future of the New Russia, whatever it was—and however big or small it ultimately will come to be.

Kathleen Tarr is a longtime Alaskan and Anchorage writer. She is a former coordinator of the master's degree in fine arts creative writing program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

Kathleen Tarr

Kathleen Tarr is a long-time Alaskan and writer, and the former program coordinator of the MFA creative writing program at UAA.