Melting the Ice Curtain: islands on the Russia/US border

Little Diomede Island village, Alaska, USA Little Diomede Island village, Alaska, USA Richard Brahm/United States Coast Guard
15 Oct
2016
Two islands, divided by an international border and separated by geopolitics, are on the verge of being reunited. But will fractured US-Russian relations stand in the way?

Between eastern Russia and the western edge of Alaska sit two small islands: Big Diomede and Little Diomede. The islands are separated by just four kilometres of ocean, the international date line and the Russian-United States border.

Both islands once had small yet established Iñupiat populations. The border was arbitrary: a small stretch of water (or a frozen bridge in winter) which was crossed easily and often by both sides. However, when Russian-US relations deteriorated after World War II, the Soviets established a permanent military base on Big Diomede and forcibly removed the people living there to the mainland. Big Diomede became separated from Little Diomede behind an invisible ‘ice curtain’, and it has been a reminder of estranged friends and family for almost 70 years.

The underlying objective is clear and simple – to have a meal together, laugh, cry and remember a shared heritage

‘The populations of both islands have been physically separated since 1948, which has caused great pain on both sides,’ says Tandy Wallack, president of Circumpolar Expeditions. Wallack runs a project reuniting separated families, funded in part by Alaska’s National Park Service. In July, she crossed the Bering Strait accompanied by a small group of Little Diomede inhabitants, and travelled along Russia’s northeast coast, where Big Diomede Iñupiat had been dispersed. ‘As we travelled up the coast of Chutkotka, we found relatives all the way along,’ she says. ‘It was incredibly exciting, even though English and Russian translators were needed throughout.’ The native Ignaluk language has faded on both sides since the separation.

The Russian meeting was the first of a two-part effort towards a larger reunion on Little Diomede next year. It’s a plan that continues to be complicated by the increasingly tense political relations between the US and Russia – since the crisis in Ukraine the ice curtain has hardened again. ‘The logistics will take a lot of work and many will have to apply for passports,’ says Wallack. ‘But the underlying objective is clear and simple – to have a meal together, laugh, cry and remember a shared heritage.’

This was published in the October 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

Target Ovarian Cancer

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

Explorers

Charles Stevens explores the landscape, history and peoples of the…

I’m a Geographer

Rodrigue Katembo risked his life to expose the corruption behind illegal…

Cultures

Of the approximately 7,000 languages thought to be alive, the…

Cultures

After years of debate, the German alphabet has got a…

I’m a Geographer

Kerstin Forsberg is the director of Planeta Océano, a marine…

Explorers

Conrad Humphreys was recently part of the team that re-created…

Cultures

Traditional crafts and cultural tourism are visible symbols of the…

Development

Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one…

Development

Almost two billion people around the world depend on imported…

Explorers

Hiking and exploring Zagori, northern Greece, reveals more than just…

Development

For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about…

Cultures

The conflict in Syria has focused attention on the ‘war…

Explorers

In 2015, Rod Rhys Jones, Chairman of the British Antarctic…

Refugees

Photojournalist Narciso Contreras exposes the reality of large-scale human trafficking…

Explorers

Ursula Martin never thought she would walk 3,700 miles around…

Development

Snake bites remain a major danger for people in developing…

Cultures

For many living in the Outer Hebrides, the Gaelic language…

Refugees

Meet the Greek islanders being trained by the RNLI, saving…

Explorers

For most, taking a 53-day, 11,000-mile road trip through 18…

Development

After nearly a year since being set alight, the raging…