A close-up view of forged documents which enabled Anatoly Kachenko, a Soviet defector, to join other journalist covering ceremonies for the arrival of the joint Soviet-American Bering Bridge Expedition in Little Diomede, Alaska. By attending the event, Kachenko and another Soviet defector were able to seek out an Alaska National Guardsman and request asylum in the United States.
Soviet dignitaries and members of the Soviet press prepare to depart the area aboard an Mil Mi-8 Hip helicopter following a ceremony celebrating the arrival of the joint Soviet-American Bering Bridge Expedition. Organized to promote better relations between the United States and the USSR, the expedition encouraged natives of Alaska to visit relatives in the Soviet Union. Team members trekked 800 miles through the Soviet Union to the International Date Line and then continued on to Little Diomede.
Soviet border guards erect a ceremonial marker designating Russian territory at the International Date Line during a ceremony celebrating the arrival of the joint Soviet-American Bering Bridge Expedition. Organized to promote better relations between the United States and the USSR, the expedition encouraged natives of Alaska to visit relatives in the Soviet Union. Team members trekked 800 miles through the Soviet Union to the International Date Line and then continued on to a welcoming ceremony at Little Diomede.
Members of the press photograph the joint Soviet-American Bering Bridge Expedition at the International Date Line.
Accompanied by an Alaska Air National Guardsman, Soviet defectors Anatoly Kachenko and Alexander Kendr depart the Air Force control tower to board a C-130 Hercules aircraft bound for Anchorage. Forged documents enabled the two men to join other journalist covering ceremonies for the arrival of the joint Soviet-American Bering Bridge Expedition in Little Diomede. By attending the event, they were able to seek out an Alaska National Guardsman and request asylum in the United States.
Anatoly Kachenko and Alexander Kendr, Soviet defectors, discuss their defection to the United States with Soviet representative Dmitry Shparo. Forged documents enabled the two men to join other journalist covering ceremonies for the arrival of the joint Soviet-American Bering Bridge Expedition in Little Diomede. By attending the event, they were able to seek out an Alaska National Guardsman and request asylum in the United States.
Anatoly Kachenko and Alexander Kendr, Soviet defectors, discuss their defection to the United States with Airman Tom McDowell, Alaska Air National Guard. Forged documents enabled the two men to join other journalist covering ceremonies for the arrival of the joint Soviet-American Bering Bridge Expedition in Little Diomede. By attending the event, they were able to seek out an Alaska National Guardsman and request asylum in the United States.
Story last updated at 6/11/2014 - 5:49 pm
The international border between Little Diomede Island and Big Diomede Island is a strange place. It doesn't just mark the line between the United States and Russia; it also defines the international date line, dividing today from tomorrow.
In 1989, this chronological boundary didn't just separate the days - it also marked the end of an era.
Alaska history is full of these invisible borders: before and after the Alaska Purchase; before and after the Prudhoe Bay strike; before and after the Klondike Gold Rush.
In August 1989, the world's attention was focused on Berlin, where the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Cold War. A few months before that historical border was erased, a similar event happened on the opposite side of the world. The Iron Curtain was destroyed in Berlin, but the Ice Curtain was destroyed on Little Diomede.
After 40 years blocking travel, the Ice Curtain melted when a team of Soviet and American adventurers, a governor and two defectors crossed the frozen boundary between the United States and Soviet Union.
On June 13, 1988, an Alaska Airlines plane packed with dignitaries landed in Nome. They had just finished a daylong trip to Provideniya, a port city of 4,500 people at the far eastern end of the Soviet Union. Bringing Alaskans to the Soviet Union was a tremendous accomplishment in diplomacy, but there was a lingering question: What next?
"I don't think anybody knew what was going to come of this," said former Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper by phone from Texas. Cowper flew on the Friendship Flight and supported the diplomatic efforts that thawed the Ice Curtain.
For thousands of years, Alaska Natives along the Bering Strait traveled to Siberia by boat and across the ice, trading and fishing. Little Diomede and Big Diomede islands, in the middle of the strait, were separated by only three miles, and travel was regular until FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the border closed in 1948, saying on March 22 of that year that "U.S. national security interests should outweigh the interests of local Eskimos."
From then on, Americans were forbidden to visit the Soviet Union across the Bering Strait.
Hoover's action followed a similar move by Soviet authorities, who forbade their citizens from traveling anywhere in the country - let alone to foreign countries - without papers, passports and internal visas.
Forty years later, attitudes on both sides of the border were changing. Jim Stimpfle of Nome inspired the flight of an Alaska Airlines jet to Provideniya, and in September 1988, Vyacheslav Kobetz, governor of Magadan province, returned the favor by leading a delegation of Soviets on a flight to Anchorage. It was the first time Soviet officials had crossed the Bering Strait since Hoover's order.
"This back door will be a strong way in and out," Stimpfle told the New York Times that year.
A second Soviet flight to Anchorage followed five months later.
Through 1988, the "back door" seemed to be widening by the day. In the mid-80s, lunatics were the only people who got attention for trying to cross the border between Alaska and the Soviet Union. Three people were arrested for trying to illegally walk from Little Diomede to Big Diomede between 1986 and 1988. Lynne Cox was thought to be a lunatic when she swam between the two islands in 1987, but instead she was congratulated by Soviets and Americans alike for her (permitted) achievement.
After the Friendship Flight, the door was fully cracked open. An Alaska Air National Guard C-130 was allowed to fly into Soviet airspace to search for missing walrus hunters. Six hundred Soviet sailors visited Dutch Harbor in June 1988. The Soviet Union agreed to open three ports to American fishing boats. Alaska Airlines started negotiating for regular air service between Anchorage and the Soviet Union.
"When hundreds of Russian sailors can come ashore in Alaska to get drunk with the whole town of Dutch Harbor, this represents a significant improvement in relations," said University of Alaska professor Gunnar Knapp in 1988.
Planning an expedition
On a cloudy day in February 1989, a dog sled bearing red nylon webbing emblazoned with "DuPont Thermax" was hauled into Anchorage's Egan Convention Center.
The reason for the garish promotion was a lesson in "adventure diplomacy," Paul Schurke told a group of assembled reporters.
Schurke, who led the first unsupported overland trip to the North Pole in 1986, said he had a new goal: He wanted to lead a joint Soviet-American team of skiers (supported by sled dogs) from Anadyr, in the Soviet Union, 1,200 miles across the ice of the Bering Sea to Little Diomede, Nome, and on to Kotzebue.
"Our assignment is to carry the spirit of cooperation and the message of reconciliation to the people to whom this will be most important the communities of the Bering Strait," he said.
Schurke started planning in early 1988. He convinced the Soviet Union's premiere polar explorer, Dmitry Shparo, to sign on to the expedition. Schurke's goal was to create a balanced group - six Soviets, six Americans; six women, six men; six Natives, six non-natives.
As he tried to find people with the right mix of experience, his path crossed that of Ginna Brelsford, who at the time was working for Gov. Cowper in the state's international trade office. Schurke was seeking support from the governor for the expedition - by that point called the Bering Bridge Expedition.
"I wrote the letter and the governor signed it, and Paul said, 'Will you help me find some Eskimo women to ski?' and I was like, 'Paul, Eskimos don't ski - they have dog teams,'" Brelsford said from Seattle, where she now works.
The expedition didn't get the mix Schurke wanted - there were only three women - but among them was Brelsford, who grew up in Anchorage and was known for her skiing ability.
"I grew up skiing and climbing and hiking, and it just seemed like it was a matter of training than anything else," she said.
While the Americans trained, Schurke tried to find sponsors to underwrite the $73,000 cost of the expedition. He eventually found DuPont, which wanted to promote a new brand of thermal underwear.
In February 1989, as the expedition prepared to leave Anchorage for the Soviet Union and the start of the trip, Sen. Frank Murkowski announced that the U.S. State Department and and Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs were beginning talks to fully open the border for Alaska Natives with relatives on the opposite side. Such an agreement had been signed in 1938, but it had been all but forgotten in the 51 years since. Murkowski and others viewed the agreement as a first step toward opening the border for everyone - not just Natives.
On March 1, Schurke's expedition flew from Anchorage to Anadyr. A year before, the Freedom Flight had been packed with journalists and dignitaries. This, the second flight from Alaska to the Soviet Union, didn't get the same attention.
"I would say that's true, that it was less memorable than the second," said Bill MacKay, who was Alaska Airlines' regional vice president at the time. "For us, (Alaska Airlines) I would say it was equally exciting."
Skiing across the border
Even before the adventurers arrived in Anadyr, however, there were problems. The six Soviet members of the expedition were experienced explorers and had worked together for years. The Americans were newcomers, who had different ideas about the pace of the expedition and different attitudes than the Soviets. Schurke, polar experience notwithstanding, had less experience than Shparo and was younger than the Soviet leader. The two clashed.
"Often team members aligned as Americans versus Soviets," Schurke wrote in a book about the expedition. "We didn't like doing that. In fact, we tried desperately to avoid that. ... But often communication limits and, sometimes, cultural differences stood between us and our goals."
"I always thought the tension between our countries really got mirrored on our expedition - there was a lot of tension between our leaders," Brelsford said.
That tension couldn't take away from the spectacular scenery and fascinating people along the route. "We would meet people from villages, and it's no different from meeting villages in Alaska. ... It was the most extraordinary ordinary conversations," Brelsford said.
She was the expedition's photographer and operated a camcorder and camera through most of the trip. It was a learning experience on multiple levels. "I grew up having to hide under desks and of an image of Soviets as the whole Evil Empire," she said. "It was sort of walking into fear for me, confronting stereotypes and images. ... Even though I had academically studied this, I had a fear."
Many of the villages the expedition passed through hadn't ever been visited by Muscovites, let alone Americans.
"They had never seen someone from Moscow," she said. "You could just see people, their eyes getting wider and wider."
The expedition shared songs and stories with villagers - the Beatles were a big hit, according to Schurke's book on the expedition - and the villagers in turn shared their food and company. The expedition visited a fox farm and a reindeer herd, a school and a marble bust of Lenin, according to Schurke's book describing the trip.
The trip moved slowly, and by the time the expedition reached the Bering Strait coast in mid-April, the sea ice had moved away. Open ocean stood between the coast and Big Diomede, and the expedition scouted its next move by helicopter.
"There were these crazy Kamikaze pilots; they had all served in Afghanistan," Brelsford recalled. "They were these old Soviet helicopters - they had no seatbelts, no doors - they were seriously crazy."
The scouting flights revealed the best way forward would be aboard umiaqs, walrus-skin boats. It wasn't an easy choice. The currents in the strait are notoriously difficult, and drift ice threatened to return if a storm arrived. "On the actual expedition, the current in the Bering Strait was really vicious," Brelsford said. "We had dogs and dog sleds with us, and the dogs could not go in the boat - they all freaked out. We had to fly them across."
The expedition landed on firm ice a few miles from Big Diomede and skied their way to the Soviet border patrol office, which bore an etched glass sign: "Soviet Border Patrol - A Division of the KGB."
On the ice and snow of the Soviet Far East, the expedition had only an inkling of the attention it was getting around the world. Journalists had flown to interview expedition members at stops along the way, but the expedition didn't see the end result. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev each wrote letters about the expedition, promoting its importance.
"You are truly helping to build a bridge of friendship and cooperation between Chukotka and Alaska as well as between the Soviet Union and the United States," Gorbachev wrote in a letter dated April 21, the day the expedition arrived on Big Diomede Island.
On April 23, Gov. Cowper and his counterpart from Chukotka, Vyacheslav Kobets, were scheduled to meet the expedition on the ice to sign an agreement urging the Soviet and American governments to open the border.
An orange line was spray-painted on the ice between Big Diomede and Little Diomede - it was stable, unlike the rest of the Bering Strait ice - and each member of the expedition signed a wooden obelisk destined for the border.
On the night before the dignitaries arrived, the KGB border guards challenged the expedition to a soccer match on the ice. The border guards beat the expedition handily. "No one thought much about the score, though. All of us, soldiers and adventurers, were reveling in the joy of having fun together in such an unlikely setting," Schurke wrote in his book. "I knew the barriers had fully broken down when we started cross-checking each other with abandon and laughing about it."
The next day, four Soviet helicopters flew overhead and landed on Little Diomede Island, the American side of the border. Aboard were 84 Soviet dignitaries and journalists, as well as a handful of KGB agents, officially designated as translators. Their American counterparts were nowhere in sight. "Governor Kobetz and the Russian contingent, they landed all right, they wondered what was happening," Cowper said in November during an Anchorage forum devoted to the history of the Friendship Flight.
A storm over Nome had grounded Cowper and the Alaska side of the delegation. Only a handful of Alaskans made it onto Little Diomede before the storm settled in, but fortunately for Cowper, one of them was the Alascom (ancestor of ACS) employee in charge of setting up a TV feed.
On the ice, the expedition passed over the orange line, between ranks of KGB border guards and Alaska National Guardsmen. Once the expedition crossed the border for the Alascom camera, they went back and did it again - this time for the journalists.
"I could see out there because the guys with the television ... they must've been pointing the camera over there, because you could see that something was going on," Cowper said by phone.
The Soviets enjoyed a half-day of staged activities on Little Diomede, watching Native dances (first from Soviet Natives, then from Alaska Natives) and taking tours of the island. Instead of signing the border agreement on the ice with the expedition, Cowper signed it from Nome while Kobetz signed it in Little Diomede's school gymnasium. The two talked by phone, first about the agreement, then about fishing.
By late afternoon, the storm that had grounded Cowper in Nome was beginning to move over Little Diomede. About 7 p.m., with the wind picking up, the Soviet delegation hurried to its helicopters. They counted off, one by one, to make sure no one was left behind. The count turned up 82 people - there were two missing. They counted again, and there were still two people missing.
With the wind picking up, the helicopters had to either take off or be prepared to stay the night. They left - without the two missing people.
A Moscow Plot
The two missing men weren't actually missing. They had defected.
As the Soviet helicopters flew away, 24-year-old Anatoly Tkachenko and 24-year-old Alexander Genkin hid in Little Diomede's clinic, where the windows were blocked by taped newspapers and rain jackets to conceal them from prying eyes.
The Soviets thought they were journalists, but in reality they were college students, and their defection was almost a year in the making, they told the Anchorage Daily News in a lengthy 1989 account of their defection. Tkachenko, who spoke better English than Genkin, explained their story.
Tkachenko was born in Moscow, the son of wealthy and influential parents. His mother worked as an engineer with the Ministry of Defense. His father was a psychologist who worked with Soviet diplomats and frequently traveled out of the country. Tkachenko initially said he lived in New York City for a time with his father, but he denied it when interviewed at length by the ADN's Doug O'Harra.
Tkachenko and Genkin met in Moscow, where both attended school together. Both worked at the school newspaper but were disillusioned by the restrictions placed on them. It was supposed to be the era of perestroika and glasnost - "reconstruction" and "openness," literally - but when they attempted to push the boundaries of the reforms begun by Gorbachev, they found there were still strict limits.
Attempting to interview American and British diplomats, businessmen and other officials, Tkachenko was turned away from the diplomatic compound by KGB officials and searched. He tried again, successfully bluffing past the compound's guards, but when he handed his editor the story, the editor tore it straight in half. It wasn't suitable, he said, and by contacting Americans, he was violating student rules.
Genkin was outspoken in class, often getting into trouble, and the two began talking. In summer 1988, they took vacations to Murmansk and St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) and searched for a chance to stow away aboard a foreign-bound ship. Shipyard security was too strict, and they returned home.
In March 1989, Tkachenko stumbled across a notice saying that journalists had been invited to the Little Diomede ceremony.
When the two went to the office listed in the notice, they lied to the clerk, saying they were authorized to apply. Had the clerk simply called their student newspaper to verify the claim, they would have been finished. "It was," Tkachenko told O'Harra, "a very strenuous moment."
Instead, the clerk simply told them they had to come up with an official application form from their editor and school dean, then pay 2,800 rubles for tickets and expenses.
Those were no small hurdles, but the two young men found ways around them. Tkachenko stole school letterhead from an unguarded safe - normally it was kept locked up - and forged the signatures of the editor and dean after typing up "official" letters. He sneaked into the desk of the dean's secretary and "borrowed" the official rubber stamp to authenticate the letters.
Coming up with the money was more difficult - 2,800 rubles was almost twice what the two of them earned in a year.
They ended up scamming a black marketeer they both knew, a man who made his living copying Western TV shows on videotape and selling them. They offered to be a part of a scheme common in the Soviet Union at the time. On the black market, a dollar could be traded for 10 to 15 rubles - many times its government-sanctioned value. Soviet citizens traveling to foreign countries would frequently take rubles overseas, convert them to dollars, then bring the dollars back to be sold on the black market for instant profits.
Tkachenko and Genkin borrowed their 2,800 rubles from the black marketeer, and they were on their way.
They continued their bluff as they lived alongside other Soviet journalists for two weeks, during a staged swing through the Russian Far East. When they arrived on Little Diomede, they tried to get away from the group, but Tkachenko was pulled back again and again to serve as a translator for one or another of his fellow journalists.
Just after noon, he finally managed to get away from the group and speak with John Michael Butzon, a National Guardsman on the island for the ceremony.
"What do you think," Tkachenko said, "about the possibility of us asking for political asylum here, for me and for my friend Alex?"
In an interview with O'Harra, Butzon recalled his thoughts: "Oh, my God. What have we got going on here? Something staged by the KGB?"
After talking with the pair, Butzon told his superiors what had happened. They spoke to their superiors, and word reached Cowper in Nome.
"We spent our time standing around in the National Guard hangar in Nome trying to find out what was happening," recalled David Ramseur, who was serving as Cowper's press aide and now works for Sen. Mark Begich. "I can sort of visualize us standing around the National Guard hangar trying to figure out this international incident."
The U.S. State Department was informed, as was Gary Johnson, head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization service in Alaska.
After about 20 minutes, the word came back from the State Department - take them in.
Hiding in the village clinic, Tkachenko and Genkin listened over National Guard radios as the Soviets searched for the missing men. Peering through a gap in the window coverings, Tkachenko said he watched as Yuri Zaichev, a KGB agent on the trip, rushed to the school, the village store, then back to the airport when the pilot warned that he had to take off.
They hid until the next day, when the Bering Bridge Expedition was officially told. "The whole expedition team was furious at these journalists," Brelsford said. "The feeling was like oh my gosh, after all this skiing and all these Arctic nights, these two guys are going to get on a helicopter and ruin everything for us."
"I felt ripped off," Schurke wrote in his book. "They had used us. They had taken advantage of our goodwill event for their own gain."
Tkachenko said he was sorry if the defection marred the expedition or the ceremony. They had no other choice, he said.
Tkachenko and Genkin then spoke to Shparo, the Soviet leader of the expedition. The meeting was videotaped by National Guardsmen. In it, Shparo is furious, upset at the pair's actions. He demands to know why they defected. If they could have left the country legally, they would have, they say. They aren't after American beer and American jeans - they're after freedom of self-expression as journalists.
The Soviets on the expedition didn't buy it, Schurke wrote. The only thing they knew was that the pair weren't being held against their will. The Soviets wondered if the whole expedition was a setup - if it had been planned by the CIA to make a PR splash for democracy.
In Nome, rumors spread that the border talks in Washington had collapsed, that the thawing of the ice curtain was over.
At the Diomedes, there was suspicion, but things progressed as if the defections hadn't even happened. The expedition traveled back to Big Diomede to pick up their remaining supplies. They crossed the border, where the orange line had been covered with blown snow. There were no guards, no dogs, no passport checks. The Ice Curtain had vanished.
"We got a chuckle out of it, but it was embarrassing to Kobets and we felt sorry for him," Cowper said. "These things happened, and they weren't people from Magadan (in Kobets' territory). They were people who came out there from Moscow to cover it. There wasn't anything he could've done. He could've shot 'em, I guess, but he really didn't want to do that."
Tkachenko and Genkin flew to Tin City Air Force Station on the mainland, then on to Anchorage.
The expedition was left to worry - but there was no need, as it turned out.
"They just saw it as the price of doing business," Cowper said of the Soviets' view of the defections.
Shparo learned the same when he returned to Moscow after the expedition's end. "Dmitry detected no significant repercussions," Schurke wrote.
The expedition gathered its supplies and flew over broken ice to Wales, on the Seward Peninsula. The travelers skied and mushed to Nome, then flew to Kotzebue, ending their stay on May 10. That day, the Soviet half of the expedition boarded planes and flew west, crossing back over a border that was no longer intimidating.
The events of late April 1989 definitively melted the Ice Curtain between the Soviet Union and the United States.
On July 13, three months after the Diomede adventure, small Bering Air became the first U.S. airline certified for regular service to the Soviet Union. Less than a month later, U.S. and Soviet negotiators initialed the agreement allowing visa-free travel across the border for Natives who live along the Bering Strait.
By September, the U.S. Customs Service had hired a part-time agent at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island to handle the flood of Soviet visitors. By August 1990, more than 3,000 Soviet citizens and 3,000 American citizens had crossed the Alaska border between the two countries, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
The open border brought a business and cultural boom. "Everybody was really hyped up on the positive opportunities of Alaska-Russia trade," Ramseur said.
Alascom brought American television to Chukotka, Alaskans built a reindeer sausage plant in the territory, mushers organized a 1,200-mile sled dog race between Nome and a Russian city, and Alaska Airlines started regular flights to the Soviet Union in summer 1991, six months before the country collapsed.
"We felt important because we were continuing to foster opening up the Russian Far East to Alaska and vice versa," MacKay said. "From our point of view, it was always something special."
Alaska Airlines was joined by Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, which also offered scheduled service to Anchorage from the Russian Far East. Many of the Soviet passengers aboard those flights envisioned themselves following in the footsteps of Tkachenko and Genkin - albeit without a scramble across the ice.
There were so many asylum-seekers that businessman Fedor Soloviev (who arrived in Anchorage from Moscow in 1990) started a business catering to them. He videotaped arrivals, translated paperwork, and generally guided immigrants through the government process. "When the Russians would come into Anchorage, they wanted to apply for different immigrational paperwork. I helped them to translate the paperwork," he explained. "For me, it was a big deal - I would get $100 or $200 per person; that was big money for me at that time."
As people came in, goods went out. Soloviev sent electronics and other products to Russia on the flights leaving Alaska. When the Soviet Union turned into Russia, the business accelerated. Polaroid cameras and film were the hottest sellers, he recalled. "There was weeks and months when no store in Alaska had any Polaroid film because it was all going to Russia," he said.
MacKay laughed when asked about Polaroids. "We learned early on that was one of the most popular things we could take with us was Polaroid cameras," he said. "Much like automobiles, it's not like they didn't have automobiles and cameras, the big challenge was film."
In the late 1990s, however, the good times started to end. Many of the Alaska-Russian business ventures failed. The sausage plant went bankrupt, and Russian buyers learned there were cheaper stores than Alaska's. "After 1995, Aeroflot opened a new office in Seattle, so people stopped flying through Anchorage because the prices were so much lower in Seattle," Soloviev said.
In 1998, the Russian ruble collapsed as a currency, and even Seattle's cheaper stores became too expensive. Aeroflot stopped flying to Alaska. Alaska Airlines stopped flying to Russia.
"Once the flights stopped, that was it. It all stopped," Soloviev said. "Everybody thought there will be no problems between America and Russia anymore. Now, we have new problems."
From her home in Seattle, Brelsford said Russia today seems to be becoming more like the Soviet Union than the freewheeling Russia of the 1990s. Crackdowns on free speech have been followed by the invasion of Crimea. Direct flights from Alaska to Russia have all but vanished, except for a handful of high-priced tourist charters and Bering Air's reliable service.
The Alaska Airlines jet that flew the Friendship Flight is now a museum piece in Anchorage.
"There were people on the expedition, people who grew up under communism who were afraid literally to speak out," Brelsford said. "You've got this same dynamic coming back. I think you have people who are once again afraid to speak on the phone honestly or that fear is coming back. It almost seems to me like it's full circle."
For his part, Cowper sees things more positively. He visited Vladivostok last summer and said people still remember the region's ties to Alaska. "That was quite clear in their minds, lo these many years afterward," he said.
As for the collapse of the Ice Curtain? "It's just one of those things," he said. "You could make a pretty good story out of it."