On Friday, Dec. 1, David Ramseur, journalist and author, will be discussing his book, “Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier,” at the 49th State Brewing Company.
Ramseur hopes to discuss what he refers to as the “friendship flights,” which helped foster relationships between Alaskans and Russians during the Cold War, as well as examine the political tensions between the two neighbors.
“At the height of the Cold War in 1948, the [Bering Strait] was sealed because of the suspicions between the two national governments. So from ’48 to ’88, there was no visitation among Native people allowed,” Ramseur said. “In the mid-1980s, that started to thaw and there was a lot of pressure on the two national governments to try and reopen the border… So the book really focuses on that whole set of circumstances and era.”
Having previously served Senator Mark Begich and Governors Tony Knowles and Steve Cowper, Ramseur had decided in early 2014 that it was time to tell these stories.
“I’ve been involved in Alaska-Russian relations for quite a while, since the mid-1980s… I’d always been thinking that somebody should write a book about this era in Alaska history,” Ramseur said.
Ben Edwards is the campus liaison for Alaska World Affairs Council, the organization hosting the event on Dec 1. He says that their efforts have been to showcase speakers and present the opportunity for people, especially students, to meet with them and learn.
He has attended events for Ramseur in the past and thinks that students can benefit from attending if they are interested in staying in Alaska.
“The students who feel like they want to be in Alaska—work in Alaska, live in Alaska for a long time—would be especially interested in our geographic proximity to Russia, and I particularly think that will be a growing thing in the lifetime of young people,” Edwards said. “Alaska is really the forefront of U.S. policy in the Arctic.”
There will be three other guest speakers at the event, including Elena Farkas, who is a Russian language teacher at West High School and UAA. After arriving in Alaska from Magadan, Russia in 1992, she became one of the founders of the Russian immersion program in the Anchorage School District.
In her time here, Farkas has found that many Alaskans have been intrigued by Russian culture and expressed interest in maintaining a relationship with the neighboring country. One of those Alaskans was Ramseur, whom she’d met after opening a Russian bookstore.
“Anchorage and community of Anchorage were very supportive to provide second-language learning for young kids because they understood that it’s very relevant to be successful in current political and environmental climate,” Farkas said.
Over the years, Farkas has been able to travel with students to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and conversely, Russian students have come to Anchorage. She says that this exchange and having the younger generation experience another culture is essential.
“I am fortunate that when I came here, I’ve worked with people like David who always had an interest in Russian relationships,” Farkas said. “Whatever he does, it’s to educate the world, to show the similarities and not the differences.”
Due to current political tensions with Russia, Ramseur doesn’t see something like the friendship flights happening again in the near future. It would be especially difficult with Vladimir Putin in power.
“[Putin] is basically a Russian dictator. He does not encourage interaction with the West,” Ramseur said.
Still, he wants to see more interest generated in students when it comes to learning about Russia, especially since the enthusiasm in the ’80s has diminished.
“I would encourage American students to learn what they can about Russia. It’s so close to us and such a dominant player in the world; we’ve got to know something about them and speak their language,” Ramseur said.
For Farkas, investing in the youth will start the conversation about Alaska-Russian relations.
“The curtain was melted once; it does not need to melt a second time. We just need to continue [opening] the curtain more,” Farkus said. “You always fear something you don’t understand and this book is one of the pieces to understanding.”
Tickets for the event can be purchased online at www.alaskaworldaffairs.org or at the door. Students get free admission as well as a voucher for a free lunch item, and do not have to be over 21 years old.
There will be complimentary parking in EasyPark lots for those who preregister online by Wednesday, Nov. 29. For anyone interested in riding a bus from campus, the 10 bus will have the shortest route to the downtown transit center.