Nearly four decades ago, a picturesque Russian Far East city which most Alaskans had never heard of was the first to reach across the Bering Strait seeking friendly relations with Alaska after almost a half century of Cold War tensions between the world’s two superpowers.
Today, that city — Khabarovsk — is leading a dangerous national resistance to perceived repression by the Putin regime. Daily street protests have broken out, attracting tens of thousands of demonstrators chanting slogans such as “down with the czar” and “Putin resign.”
Unfortunately for Alaska and the world, Russia’s civil unrest — and Putin’s crackdown on it — is likely to worsen, making the successful “citizen diplomacy” Alaskans and our Russian counterparts once practiced even more difficult.
Khabarovsk’s unlikely role of facing down the Kremlin may be surprising to the thousands of Alaskans who ventured there under the “glasnost” openness of the 1980s.
For decades after World War II, contact between Alaskans and residents of the Soviet Far East was prohibited by a Cold War directive. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev changed that by encouraging business and cultural interaction with the West and allowing Russia’s regional governments to elect their own leaders.
In 1987, Khabarovsk was the first of Alaska’s neighboring Russian cities to seek friendship through a letter to then-Gov. Steve Cowper. Cowper and his Khabarovsk counterpart soon established the first-ever “sister-state” agreement between a U.S. state and a Soviet territory. Over the subsequent couple of decades, Khabarovsk became a favored destination for a steady stream of Alaska business and government officials, students and sports teams.
About the same latitude as Washington state, the bustling city of about 600,000 lies along the fabled Amur River which separates Russia from China. Eleven time zones from Moscow, its wide, tree-lined boulevards and czarist architecture give it a more European-like feel than the bleaker northern Russian outposts.
A cherished memory of my first visit there in 1989 as Cowper’s press secretary was a high-speed cruise up the Amur River in Soviet military patrol boats. After spotting remnants of deadly Sino-Soviet border conflicts in the late 1960s, we made a sudden white-knuckle turn in the river, nearly swamping a Chinese fishing skiff.
Two years ago, I made a return visit as part of a book tour organized by the U.S. State Department. Khabarovsk was even more bustling than I remembered, its Orthodox churches beautifully restored and restaurants offering pricey steak dinners to well-heeled patrons. A local businessman we met was designing some of Russia’s first “green energy” apartment buildings.
My book event there attracted the largest audience of more than 100 than in any of the six Russian Far East cities we visited. It included members of Rotary Clubs established by Alaskans and others fondly reminiscing about Alaska-Khabarovsk relations and hopeful about their renewal.
Khabarovsk’s current place in international headlines began in 2018. In today’s Russia, Putin appoints virtually all regional and local leaders, who are loyal to him and typically re-elected in non-competitive elections. Yet two years ago, a little-known public health expert named Sergei Furgal shocked the country when he beat a Kremlin-backed candidate for Khabarovsk governor 70% to 28%.
The 50-year-old Furgal garnered local praise as an accessible and responsive administrator, winning higher job approval ratings than Putin. But on July 9, a police special forces team suddenly dragged Furgal from his car and jetted him 4,000 miles away to a Moscow prison to face 15-year-old murder accusations.
Since then, thousands of Khabarovsk residents have filled the streets, demanding Furgal’s return and protesting their nation’s overall direction. Putin responded by appointing an acting governor from outside the region who told reporters he had better things to do than talk to those “screaming outside the windows.”
The Khabarovsk protests have taken on national significance. Russian economic stagnation in recent years has outraged average Russians, now exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Recent polls show the once enormously popular Putin has just a 23% approval in public confidence, while nearly half the nation supports the Khabarovsk protests.
To stay in power, the Kremlin has jiggered election laws, such as new rules to disqualify unwanted candidates and unsupervised extended voting which opponents say allows fraud. Last month, Russian voters were convinced by government-run media to adopt constitutional “reforms” which will permit Putin to remain president until 2036.
As Putin tightens the screws on his nation, prospects for free elections and productive relations beyond Russia’s borders, like those pioneered by Alaskans a generation ago, will remain just a distant memory of better times.
David Ramseur is a former Alaska journalist and author of “Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier.”
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