Alexander Dolitsky: The beginnings of Alaska-Soviet relations happened in a Sitka living room



In the Spring of 1985, I was a visiting scholar at the Slavic Reference Services of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Evidently, this Center is known for the largest collection of the Slavic primary and secondary sources in the United States and, I was told, presumably the third largest Slavic collection in the world.

The late Dr. Ralph Fisher was the founder and a champion for building the Slavic collection at the University of Illinois Library. Thanks to Dr. Fisher’s vision, the University Library and Slavic Reference Service provide a consummate collection and outstanding research support service to scholars around the world.

In the 1970s through 1980s, there were nearly 50 Russian Centers in the United States, mostly established by and affiliated with prestigious universities and colleges (e.g., Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, Indiana, Bryn Mawr College, etc.). Most of these Centers were funded and supported by the U.S. State and Defense Departments, and some private donors.

From the mid-1980s, under the ruling of the U.S.S.R.’s Chairman of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev, the world faced a new chapter of the international dynamic, namely: the introduction of Glasnost (social openness) and Perestroika (economic restructuring from the planned and command economy to a free market economy) in the former Soviet Union. These progressive socio-economic changes in the former Soviet Union had a fundamental effect on how Soviets viewed the West and, subsequently, vice versa.

While I was at the Russian Center in Illinois, in one of my frank conversations with Dr. Fisher, he speculated that the end of the Cold War would result in a decrease of funding for the Russian Centers nationwide and the ultimate emergence of people-to-people unmitigated exchanges. And he was right.

In the mid/late-1980s, an international popularity of Mikhail Gorbachev was greater than “rock stars” worldwide; various peace-seeking organizations and social activists were excited about new socio-economic prospects with the Soviets and by early 1990s my academic courses (i.e., Soviet Ethnography and Culture, Soviet Character in the Soviet Literature, How Soviets View the World) became obsolete and somewhat inadequate, except for the Russian History and Russian Language courses.

In fact, for the most part, Russian experts and Sovietologists in the West found themselves antiquated; the sudden social activists and amateur historians claimed to be the new voices in Soviet affairs and history.

During the Cold War (1946 to 1991), Alaska was the only State in the U.S. that restricted travel for Soviet citizens, apart for limited scientific or academic exchanges or the official visits of the Soviet governmental representatives under auspices of the International Research Exchange Board or the U.S. State Department. Reciprocally, Siberia and some security-sensitive locations in the Russian Far East were also out of reach for the U.S. citizens.

Nevertheless, in April of 1986, Genady Gerasimov became one of the first post-World War II Soviet officials to visit Alaska. Gerasimov was a career journalist and editor of Moscow News, one of the largest newspapers in the former Soviet Union, which was published in dozens of languages and distributed worldwide accordingly.

Like all editors of the major newspapers in the former Soviet Union, Gerasimov was closely associated with Politburo (the principal policy-making committee) and the high-ranking officials of the Soviet Union Communist Party.

Sitka was Genady Gerasimov’s first stop in Alaska. Then I was employed as an archaeologist by the Tongass National Forest Service and as an adjunct assistant professor of Russian Studies at the Islands Community College in Sitka (today University of Alaska Southeast). Sitka city officials held a modest reception in honor of Gerasimov’s visit to Claudette Bechovech’s residence. Claudette Bechovec was a long-time resident of Sitka; she was married to Mr. Bechovec—a resistance fighter against Nazi Germany in Yugoslavia during WWII.

At one point during a rather unassuming reception, Gerasimov approached me, “Sasha, please would you ask the organizers to accommodate me in the hotel. I don’t want to cause any inconveniences to gracious hosts.” I quickly conveyed Gerasimov’s concerns to a seemingly reception organizer. “Oh, no,” he responded. “Bechovecs are members of the Communist Party, and they have a gun. He will be safe with Bechovecs and comfortable on this sofa,” he continued, pointing to the saggy sofa in the corner of the living room. So, I cautiously explained to Gerasimov that his request couldn’t be accommodated on such short notice.

The next day, Gerasimov pursued his travel to Juneau for meetings with the State officials and several enthusiastic activists who were preliminary engaged in the negotiation for cultural exchanges with the Soviet counterparts. Incidentally, Gerasimov’s visit to Alaska coincided with the tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident on April 26, 1986. As a result, Gerasimov abruptly returned to his home country.

Soon after Gerasimov’s visit to Alaska, he was appointed to the position of Foreign Affairs Spokesman for Mikhail Gorbachev. In the late 1980s, Genady Gerasimov visited Alaska several times; he was fond of Alaskans and instrumental in fostering Alaska-Russian relations.

Genady Gerasimov’s diplomatic visits to Alaska in the 1980s were the beginning of people-to-people Alaska-Russian relations; later followed by extensive development in various social, cultural and economic spheres between two regions. Alaska-Russian communication was interrupted by the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Historically, however, Alaska has always experienced boom-and-bust socio-economic developments, much like boom-and-bust Alaska-Russian relations.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1976; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

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  1. Alexander
    That might have been the most oversimplified un inclusive description of alaska russia relations I’ve ever read.

    Russians are shockingly interwoven in alaska.
    Genetics, place names , financial, history in general.

    Your statement that relations began in a sitka living room is so laughable it must be a bad joke like Palin say she sees russia from her living room.
    Russians have been intregrated into Alaska society and history far before statehood and frankly were effectively pioneers of this state after Native Americans and never severed their historical and cultural connections.

      • Alexander
        To even half way understand soviet relations with Alaska you have to fully incorporate Russia relations as they supersede by centuries .
        Alaska and Russia cultures are surprisingly intermixed .
        Very few Alaskans even think of the Soviet Union without directly thinking Russia/ Siberia ect .
        We have had a surprisingly cordial relationship. Aside from fighter jet drama.
        Ice breakers and rescue ship’s work together a lot . We have sent them food during famine times.
        Obviously russia the political precursor to Soviet Union pioneered our state in many ways . Discovery , place names ect. Many natives are genetically mixed with and carry russian names.
        We have had actual races from Alaska through Siberia back in 80s- 90s ect
        Alaska heritage is so mixed with Russia its silly . We barely care wether its called, Russia, Soviet Union or usssr . Our relations never ended barely changed except right after sale of the land .
        Our relations should not be considered to have started in the 80s because in Alaska- Russia started ak and Russia akn Soviet Union ect. is still considered a very close relative and distant friend.
        Lend lease . Ect .
        ( especially the people)

  2. The article brings up numerous key points from the recent past, which are relevant today. There was no sudden “collapse” of the Soviet Union, rather a lengthy slow motion process of the incremental failing of the economic, monetary, leadership, social and political systems leading to inevitable collapse. The concepts initiated by Soviet elites/leadership for salvaging the Union by transitioning to “social openness” and “economic restructuring from the planned and command economy to a free market economy”, what were at the time believed to be US/EU norms, the foundation of wealth, good will and democracy, were too little, too late. During the collapse and formation of the modern Russian Federation, there was ample opportunity for the West to develop close social, economic, political and strategic security framework. Common Russian people looked to the west in an admirable manner and it’s leader/elite class had looked to the West for hundreds of years, from the era of Peter the Great until the short 70 year Soviet dictatorship period. Russia requested to join NATO, but was rejected by our American leadership. Our leaders had ulterior plans to exploit the vast expanse of energy, mineral and agriculturally rich lands, with a large industrial infrastructure populated by a highly educated population. The US/EU had already been devolving away from a free market economy, prosperous middle class, socially open societies with good will toward developing nations. Our US/EU economies are now centrally planned and commanded through byzantine regulations by hybrid partnerships of government/globalist corporation fascistic governances, decayed/dying social/family structures, while dismantling the industrial base and ending access to education and reliable energy. The Western leadership/elite class places no value on human life or living conditions. The current toxic condition of West-Russian relations are a result of the catastrophic miscalculations by our leaders thinking they were in a position of economic, social, military and industrial strength to overwhelm Russia and break it into regional “colonies” to exploit and exfiltrate the wealth and enslave the populations. Another version of the EU model of so called “nations” dominated and exploited by the US through their local elite class. We are facing our own imminent collapse while unnecessarily creating powerful enemies. With Alexander’s knowledge base, it would be awesome if he posted articles on Sino-Russian relations and how common Russians survived the Soviet collapse era.

    • To Brian: Brian, I came back to the Soviet Union for the first time after my departure from the USSR (1977) in 1989. Then, I was a translator for the Alaska Chief of Staff Garry Peska and Alaska Director of International Relations Bob Poe. I will write about these experiences in the following articles. As for the Soviet-Chinese relationships, all I remember are: Chinese colorful stamps, thermoses, Ping-Pong sport equipment and military confrontation between two countries along Sino-Soviet border on the Amur River in 1969 (the year I just graduated from the high school).

  3. Very, very well put together article and I always appreciate reading your work. Wish I had the advantage of taking one of your classes. It would be fun to go through the history.

  4. Prof Dolitsky, thank you for the informative essay. This kind of historical information is always helpful in supporting discussion about many things statewide.

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