Alaska village to reunite Cold War descendants

Tandy Wallack hopes to host a reunion in Little Diomede. Picture: AP
Tandy Wallack hopes to host a reunion in Little Diomede. Picture: AP
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Residents of a tiny Alaska village are trying to resurrect ties with relatives or descendants of people who used to live on a neighbouring Russian island before they were forced to relocate at the start of the Cold War.

National Park Service grants totalling more than $83,000 (£53,000) are funding the project involving residents of Diomede on Little Diomede Island. Less than three miles away is Big Diomede Island, but it is strictly off-limits, patrolled by Russian border guards.

The attempt to visit Russia’s Chukotka region is being coordinated by a travel company, Anchorage-based Circumpolar Expeditions.

Company president Tandy Wallack says one goal is to travel to Chukotka communities with Diomede elders next year to visit relatives. Another goal is to host a reunion in Little Diomede.

Before the Second World War, indigenous people from both sides travelled freely between the two rocky islands.

Soviet authorities ordered the 25 to 30 remaining inhabitants to move to the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Naukan in Chukotka in 1948, when the so-called political ice curtain was put in place. That new community was closed a decade later as the Soviets shut down more sites near the Soviet-US border. The former Big Diomede residents were forced to move again, dispersing among various communities.

Today, all that remains on Big Diomede are Russian meteorologists and troops staffing a border guard station established on the island in 1941, the year Russia entered the Second World War.

Robert Soolook, an Inupiat Eskimo, can easily see the Russian island where some of his relatives used to live before they were forced to relocate to the Soviet mainland at the start of the Cold War. “It’s always a reminder, each and every day,” he said.

It has been more than 20 years since Mr Soolook, 49, visited several long-lost cousins as part of two separate expeditions to Chukotka accomplished after US/Russia relations began to warm in the 1980s. He hopes to be among those going again.

Ms Wallack wants to invite the Russian relatives to travel to Little Diomede for a reunion either next year or in 2017, and she envisions festivities featuring traditional dancing, storytelling and native foods.

“I think the concept is a really good one – reuniting people, sharing information about how they’re connected,” said Janis Kozlowski, a manager at the National Park Service.

Ms Wallack said the idea first emerged when she was working on another Little Diomede project in 2008. A resident asked if she could help find relatives connected with Big Diomede.

“My first thought was, how could I say no?” she said. Ms Wallack told the resident she would do what she could and asked her to send a list of what relatives she knew about.

After the Soviets established control over Big Diomede in the 1920s, most of the inhabitants moved to the smaller island, leaving behind only about a dozen people. That tiny population had more than doubled by the time of the Cold War displacement, according to the Smithsonian Institution.