Sunday, September 30, 2018

‘It’s Easier to Go from Moscow to the US than from Chukotka to Alaska’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 29 – At their closest place, between the two Diomede Islands, Russian and American territories are separated by only 3.7 kilometers, allowing residents on each side to catch sight of those on the other. But “in fact,” Russian journalist Elena Lipova points out, “it’s easier to go from Moscow to the US than from Chukotka to Alaska.”

            There is a visa-free regime for border region residents, she says, but “up to the summer of 2018, no one, including residents of Russia was allowed to go to Chukotka without the permission of the FSB.” To compensate, she offers a “virtual” tour with 49 photos from both sides (

            The residents of Little Diomede Island and adjoining Alaska, which are part of the United States, and those of Big Diomede Island and the Chukchi region of the Russian Federation live in completely different worlds, whether they can see each other or not, the Russian journalist says and her photographs demonstrate.

            On the American island, there is a town of approximately 120 people who are entirely supplied by air from the mainland. Residents joke, Lipova says, that when planes are delayed, they can run out of toilet paper.  They have electricity from diesel generators and water from a spring, supplemented during the winter by melted snow.

            The American island, she continues, has a good school with running water and indoor plumbing. It has its own web page (, and its students are flown to mainland towns to take part in athletic competitions. 

            The situation on the Russian island is entirely different. There used to be two Inuit settlements there, but even before World War II, most chose to resettle on the mainland. After 1945, the Soviet government forcibly removed the remaining 30.  The only people there now are 12 border guards.

            No tourists, from abroad or even from Russia, are allowed in without special permission; and when they are given that, they are accompanied throughout their stay by a military escort, Lipova says.  What products and fuel the residents have are brought in by military plane or naval vessel.         There is no Russian radio or television, and residents don’t have access to the Internet.

            The contrast between the two sides of the Bering Strait is even clearer if one compares not these two islands but the two mainlands they are linked to. There are no railroads in Chukotka and only a few kilometers of paved roads.  Alaska has 760 kilometers of rail line and far more paved roads, although many areas are still served only by air or water.

            Russian officials claim that residents of Chukotka receive “a little less than 100,000 rubles” (1400 US dollars) a month, but residents say the actual figure is half that or about 700 US dollars a month.  In Alaska, residents earn on average 6700 US dollars a month – or using current exchange rates, about 450,000 rubles.

            In addition, Alaska residents receive 1150 US dollars every month from the amount the state earns from the export and sale of oil. Chukotka residents receive nothing for the natural resources Moscow takes out, Lipova says. 

            This difference in incomes is even worse than it seems, she suggests, because unlike what some might expect, the cost of living on the Russian side is approximately the same as it is on the American; but incomes are “incomparably less,” resulting in massive poverty in the Chukotka region. 

            The pictures Lipova offers confirm her words. 

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