Staunton, September 22 – Moscow’s expansion of its military presence on the Bering Straits opposite Alaska in recent months has prompted some Russians to recall what happened in the late 1940s when Stalin did the same thing and when Soviet Eskimos and Chukchis actually clashed with American ones.
Most Russian and Western attention to developments at the beginning of the Cold War not surprisingly typically has focused on Europe, Moscow’s efforts to expand its influence there, and the West’s response which was intended to contain it. Relatively little attention has been paid to what was going on in the eastern part of the USSR and in the American state of Alaska.
Now that Moscow is expanding its military presence land and sea in the same region, Russian historians are focusing on events of some 70 years ago. In an article entitled “Did Stalin Secretly Gather an Army in Chukotka to Conquer Alaska?” Versiya commentator Igor Kiyan reports their findings (versia.ru/stalin-tajno-sobiral-armiyu-na-chukotke-chtoby-zavoevat-alyasku).
According to the Russian historians, Stalin feared that the US, fresh from its experience with D-Day landings might seek to invade the USSR by crossing the Bering Straits. To block that, he created the 14th Shock Army, under the command of Nikolay Oleshev who had won renown during World War II for his deep raids on Nazi-occupied territory.
The Army was based at Provideniya, a place which had been a transfer point for lend-lease material from the US and where more than a dozen Soviet naval vessels could be put in place quickly. Building facilities on land was extremely difficult and did not go well as various inspections showed.
Many of the buildings were not completely finished, machinery arrived only in part, and many of the officers and men serving there believed that they had been sent to this furthermost part of the USSR as punishment, Soviet government surveys reported.
In February 1948, the US government concluded that Stalin was preparing to invade Alaska, even though overflights would have shown them that the planes at the Russian base were defensive fighters rather than offensive bombers. What Stalin was doing, Russian historians say, was to make Chukotka not a base for aggression but a defensive “fortress.”
One aspect of this Stalin-era buildup that is especially intriguing now is the fact that both the Soviets and the Americans used Eskimos as agents to gather intelligence for them. Soviet Eskimos were sent into Alaska, and American ones were sent into the Russian Far North, travelling routes both had used from time immemorial.
One detail is instructive, Kiyan says. Before the late 1940s, most of this human traffic consisted of women and children who were following their hunter husbands. Now, it was almost exclusively on both sides Eskimo men aged between 20 and 35. Most of their activities passed without much notice on either side.
But there was at least one significant clash: “A group of Chukchis, sent across the Bering Straits landed in Alaska and near the city of Nome, it attacked local Eskimos” before returning to Soviet territory. The two communities, the Chukchis and the Eskimos, have a long history of conflict and so it was more likely caused by that than by Soviet-American tensions.