There likely will be few tears shed in Russia over the passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, who is broadly blamed for the collapse of the Soviet Union and resulting demise of that nation’s superpower status.
But Americans -- and especially Alaskans -- should raise a glass of ice-cold vodka to the visionary who ended the Cold War, reduced world tensions through nuclear disarmament and helped reunite long-separated Alaskans and Russians across the Bering Strait.
Born into a poor peasant farm family, Gorbachev rose through local politics of the USSR’s Communist one-party system to become the nation’s de facto head of state as general secretary in 1985. His ascension came at a time of Russia’s economic and political malaise overseen by lackluster doddering old men.
The energetic 54-year-old Gorbachev shook his nation to its core with his duel reforms of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). He extended greater freedom to the media, encouraged interaction with the West and even moved toward a reform most Soviets considered inconceivable: elected government.
Gorbachev’s rise to power couldn’t have been more fortuitous for Alaskans. At the outset of the Cold War in 1948, the U.S. and USSR sealed the border between Alaska and eastern Russia. This meant Alaska and Russia Native peoples who had traveled freely across the Bering Strait for millennia were suddenly cut off from each other by what was dubbed an “Ice Curtain.”
After four decades of no contact, aging friends and relatives on both sides of the Strait longed for one last chance at reunification. Gorbachev said “da.”
On June 13, 1988, an Alaska Airlines 737 lifted off from Nome carrying 82 passengers, mostly elderly Alaska Native men and women hoping to reunite with long-lost loved ones in the Soviet Union. About 40 minutes later, it set down in Provideniya, USSR, where hundreds of tearful Russian Natives greeted the American visitors in Indigenous languages they still shared.
The “Friendship Flight” opened the flood gates to several decades of frenzied interaction between Alaskans and Russians, some of which continues today.
Gorbachev and his government welcomed other initiatives to open Soviet borders and lessen Cold War tensions. Two years before the Friendship Flight, a cold-water endurance swimmer named Lynne Cox concocted the outlandish plan to swim the 2.5 miles between Alaska’s Little Diomede Island and Russia’s Big Diomede to illustrate the closeness of the world’s two superpowers.
After years of training and shoe leather diplomacy, Cox pulled it off in nothing but a swimsuit, goggles and swim cap in 42-degree water. Months later, at a White House dinner with President Ronald Reagan convened to celebrate nuclear disarmament, Gorbachev rose to offer a toast.
“Last summer it took one brave American by the name of Lynne Cox just two hours to swim from one of our countries to the other,” the Soviet leader said. “We saw on television how sincere and friendly the meeting was between our people and the Americans when she stepped onto the Soviet shore. She proved by her courage how close to each other our peoples’ live.”
Another initiative designed to chip away at the Ice Curtain was a 1989 skiing and dog-mushing expedition from the Soviet Far East across the Bering Strait to Alaska. With Gorbachev’s blessing, 12 Soviet and American adventurers risked months of frostbite, walrus attacks and international political intrigue to accomplish their goal.
A year later, Gorbachev toured the U.S. after meeting with President George Bush and agreed to commend the Russian and American expedition leaders personally. Minnesotan Paul Schurke told me he memorized his greeting in Russian, but became so nervous, “I went into a nonsensical rant in completely unintelligible Russian.”
“And then Gorbachev did a beautiful thing,” Schurke recalled. “He very discreetly reached over, tugged the sleeve of my suit jacket and said: ‘If you can cross the Bering Strait in the wintertime during the Cold War, you can speak to me in Russian. Now Paul, slow down and start over.’”
The many new freedoms Gorbachev granted Soviet citizens hastened the country’s breakup and prompted an attempted coup by Communist hardliners. At the end of 1991, a bitter and demoralized Gorbachev handed over the launch codes to his nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, and stepped into the history books.
Nearly a decade later, a former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin assumed control of Russia. Calling the fall of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he has since reversed most of Gorbachev’s initiatives and appears hell-bent on making Russia great again at any cost.
David Ramseur is the author of “Melting the Ice Curtain,” which documents the history of Alaska-Russia interaction, including Gorbachev’s many contributions.
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