Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

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.

Related items

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

DurhamBath Spa600x200 Greenwich Aberystwythherts

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

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...

Cultures

'The British Isles' by Jamie Hawkesworth is a celebration of…

Development

A technique that uses bacteria to leach precious metals from…

Cultures

Hadani Ditmars explores the Iranian neighbourhoods of Vancouver, where the…

Development

Overshadowed by the uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo games, the Olympics…

Cultures

High in protein, antioxidants and requiring little space. What’s not…

Cultures

Snake wine is sold openly all over Southeast Asia but,…

Explorers

Going out into the world’s wildernesses or performing extraordinary feats…

I’m a Geographer

Chris Morgan is an ecologist and award-winning conservationist, educator, TV…

Global Health

The technology of mRNA-based vaccines – first approved for immunising…

People

The decades-long decline in hunger has now ended, despite the…

Explorers

Trapped at home in Vancouver during the pandemic, but with…

Cultures

The dramatic scenery of the Jurassic Coast and the fossils…

Global Health

With millions of lives at stake, scientists have accelerated research…

Explorers

Polar explorer Felicity Aston and her Icelandic husband took on…

Development

Pressure is mounting on steelmakers to decarbonise, but it’s proving…

Development

 Traditional methods of design and construction have led to a…