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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
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.

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