For a few dozen Alaskan Iñupiat natives, it is possible to see Russia from their house. Just below the Arctic Circle lie two land masses between Russia and Alaska, the Diomede Islands. Small, rugged, and surrounded by ice and harsh seas, the islands are located off the Alaskan coast in the middle of the Bering Strait. Little Diomede is considered Alaskan territory, while Big Diomede, the Russian island, has remained uninhabited since the Cold War.
Thousands of years ago, the Bering land bridge served as a crucial passage for trade and exploration. When the Soviet government imposed strict rules against Americans crossing the Bering Strait in the 1930s, the Diomede Islands were unexpectedly caught in the middle, and the border between the two islands was re-dubbed the "Ice Curtain" by the late 1940s. Until that point, residents typically did not regard the border as significant, since it was not imposed until 1867, thousands of years after native settlement on the islands.
While the challenges of modernization, isolation, and climate change threaten their way of life, Diomede residents still enjoy and participate in their Native culture. The unique synthesis of Native, American, and Russian influences creates a fascinating and complex dynamic that makes one wonder what life in the Diomede Islands is really like.
Climate Change Threatens The Way Of Life On The Island
The Arctic Circle is climate change's canary in the coal mine, and its effects are hitting Diomede hard. After millennia of a reliable arctic climate with cool summers, the temperature has risen demonstrably in just 50 years.
"Holy cow, everybody was like, 'phew'... pretty soon we'll start growing palm trees," jokes resident Edward Soolook. The subsistence lifestyle is contingent on a stable ecosystem, and food security has taken a hit since the temperature started rising.
There are fewer walruses and seals with each passing year, jeopardizing a crucial element of the Diomede diet. The ice runway that originally accommodated the delivery jet planes is too thin to safely support regular flights, so the resource deliveries have been downsized to a helicopter. The permafrost is melting and the town is slowly beginning to shift down the coast, as much as two to six centimeters a year. As the surrounding ice begins to melt, Diomede becomes more vulnerable to storms as it is no longer protected by its environment.
Troops On The Russian Border Constantly Monitor The People Living On Little Diomede
Even during (relative) peace between the United States and Russia, there is an undeniable air of tension hovering over the Bering Strait. Though the times of total hostility are bygone, the observation post at Big Diomede is still in operation, and the people of Little Diomede are well aware. While examining the outlook post on Big Diomede from his own personal telescope, tribal leader Robert Soolook reports:
It shouldn't be like this... We've been here for thousands of years, before the English came, the Americans, the Russians, before any governments and regulations separated us from our families. This border is breaking our hearts.
Native Peoples On Big Diomede Were Moved To The Russian Mainland In Order To Build A Military Base
Before the Cold War, both Diomede Islands were populated by the same tribe of Iñupiaq people. The border existed for over a century before the formation of the Iron Curtain, when America bought the Alaskan territory from Russia in 1867. Even so, the people of Diomede were able to cross freely from one island to the other.
In 1948, the border was abruptly closed due to escalating tensions between the United States and Russia. The inhabitants of Big Diomede were forcibly relocated to Chukotka Okrug on the Russian mainland and the island was reconfigured into a military base.
Even with the conflict at an end, Big Diomede remains occupied by Russian forces, and many of the resettled residents of Diomede still remain in the eastern Siberian peninsula of Russia.
Travel Between The Two Islands Has Proven Difficult
Theoretically, Diomede residents are able to travel freely from America to Russia without a visa permit. In reality, these expeditions have been few and far between. Though it is no longer enacted by law, the strength of the "Ice Curtain" that separates the two islands still exists.
There is no direct air or boat service from one side of the Bering Strait to the other. To get from Diomede to the nearest Russian port, one must take an expensive trip to the Alaskan mainland before flying to the Diomede Islands and then to the Russian mainland.
After arranging very expensive air travel, one must secure a formal invitation for the community that they would like to visit. Given the extreme isolation that the respective groups face, this is no simple task.