Welcome To The Diomedes, The Two Tiny Islands Smack Dab In The Middle Of Russia And Alaska

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.

  • Big Diomede And Little Diomede Are Two Small Islands Separated By The Russian-US Border
    Photo: NASA/GSFC/METI/Japan Space Systems and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Big Diomede And Little Diomede Are Two Small Islands Separated By The Russian-US Border

    Big Diomede and Little Diomede are two neighboring islands located in the center of the Bering Strait. The border between Russia and America lies in the gap between the two islands, which is just over 2 miles wide. Big Diomede is Russian territory, and Little Diomede is considered a part of Alaska.

    The islands are flat-topped and rocky, surrounded by rough seas and heavy fog. The village of Diomede is located on the western shore of Little Diomede. 

  • The Islands Are Nearly A Day Apart
    Photo: Jailbird / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

    The Islands Are Nearly A Day Apart

    While the two islands are only a little over two miles apart, the International Date Line lies in the narrow passage between them, putting Big Diomede almost an entire day ahead of its American counterpart. The islands are colloquially called "Yesterday and Tomorrow Island" for this reason. The islands are actually 20 or 21 hours apart, depending on the time of year.

  • A Small Ingalikmiut Eskimo Community Makes Up The Majority Of People Who Permanently Reside On The Island
    Photo: Walter Holt Rose / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

    A Small Ingalikmiut Eskimo Community Makes Up The Majority Of People Who Permanently Reside On The Island

    According to the 2010 census, the town of Diomede has a population of approximately 110 people, though more recent sources suggest the population has dwindled as low as 80.

    The Iñupiaq people indigenous to the Diomede Islands live on a subsistence diet primarily comprised of seal, walrus, polar bear, whale, and crab. In addition to being a primary source of food, hunting is also an important social rite. While some modern adjustments have been made, such as home electricity and a limited Wi-Fi connection, Diomede residents generally adhere to their traditional lifestyle: drying hides and living off the land. There is a push to preserve the Iñupiaq language, which is undocumented and only spoken by eight to ten elders.

  • Living A Modern Life Has Proved Difficult In The Remote Island Community

    As the shrinking census numbers suggest, it is difficult to live a modern life in a place as remote as Diomede. Outside factors like climate change and border conflict contribute to this difficulty, and the pressures of modernization are a major challenge facing the future of Diomede, especially when it comes to the younger generation.

    Although Diomede traditions are still practiced, kids who grow up on Diomede are not entirely isolated from modern fixtures like video games and the internet. Their access is limited, but exposure to the outside world has made kids aware of their isolation. It is not unlikely that the younger generation will eventually leave the island. 

    Tribal leader Robert Soolook has a realistic and understanding perspective on the matter. When asked about the looming threat of relocation, he told National Geographic, "I'm sure they would vote [to] move... But like all animals, or any human who lives on Earth, [we] are adaptable."

  • 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 
    Photo: Ansgar Walk / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    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.