We sailed on Silversea’s ship Silver Discover from Nome, Alaska, on the July 31st and headed out to the west across the international date line, jumping a day ahead as we did so. August 1st 2014 was instantly lost forever as the clocks changed (on the way back we will get two August 14th’s to compensate). In reality, it felt like we stepped back in time by decades as we sailed the into the Siberian outpost of Provideniya, in the State of Chukotka. It is a proudly autonomous region, but this town is also a relic of the Cold War and the power of the former Soviet Union.
Reminiscent of Barentsburg far to the west in Svalbard, the strategic value of a remote settlement can sometimes be enough to justify its presence, even if geography and climate challenges its existence to the absolute limit. As we look at a world map, with its typical projection, the Atlantic ocean at its center and the world stretched out flat and distorted in order to appear on a flat page rather than a sphere, it is easy to forget that Russia and the US come so close together at the Bering Straits. In fact, at its narrowest point the twin Diomede islands sit just a couple of miles apart, straggling the date line and also the border. Big Diomede, on the Russian side, had all its native people forcibly removed as the Cold War escalated and now is only home to Russian meteorologists and border guards. In contrast, Little Diomede, on the US side, is still home to a few native people, struggling to make a life amidst a geographical region engulfed by both a changing climate and economy, plus many social issues.
The people of Little Diomede and others Bering Strait villages like those on St Lawrence, or places like Wales, look out across the border to Russia, and although Washington DC controls their fate, the East Coast of the US is a world away. The people in these native villages have family ties that span the US / Russian border, ties that are much stronger than links to us East Coasters.
Provdeniya used to be home to more than 8000 people. Situated near the narrowest squeeze of the Straits between the USSR and the US, it buzzed with activity during the Cold War. Growing out of a shared history between native people and hardy Cossack traders, it became important strategically and was home to a very active air force base and well equipped army stronghold. Today it is home to only 2000 people and although the native people of the region hang on to their culture, here as well as in the surrounding villages, the Russian influence is somewhat withdrawn, sleeping in the shadows waiting to reemerge when the time is right.
We were greeted by a ominous fog, swirling through the town and amongst the giant Eastern German cranes that lined the dock. The cranes loomed like the giant machines from movies such as Star Wars or War of the Worlds. The scene told the story of the town once supported by the Soviet military machine, now sadly sitting waiting for revenue to return. We in the West remember the break up of the Soviet Union as being the fall of oppressive communism and peoples taking back self governance, something to celebrate. While that may be true, the other consequence is that the inhabitants of places like Provideniya no longer were supported, suffered financially and the break up of the USSR is seen as a disaster to locals in locations like this. This outpost has fallen into to ruin, but not completely into ruin.
As the Arctic’s rapidly evolving climate drives change across the region, you could say they are winners and losers. But questions remain as to whether these winning scenarios will be good for the health and well-being of the region. The North East Passage is opening up, allowing ships to shave off days their voyages between Europe to Asia, benefiting the transit of goods between these bustling markets. Laying in the wings, towns like Provideniya may benefit if ships call into her port, it is well protected and a welcome haven in this angry ocean. But the truth is that bulk carriers plying the waters between Asia, the West Coast of the US and onto Europe have no need to stop for fuel or other supplies, breaking their journey would just add time and cost to their voyages. On the other hand if a ship were to be in distress, a problem that happens time and time again, outposts like Provideniya would be key to rescuing the stricken vessel or crew, plus being the center of any environmental clean-up.
As we make this journey, the tragic situation Ukraine continues. With little access to news, I am weeks out of date on actual events but we feel the ripples caused by those events in this place, which is over 5000 miles away from the war. Delicate and skilled negotiations have also been required for foreign vessels visiting Chukotka, but in the days prior to our arrival, other entries had been refused because of directives that seem to come all the way from Moscow. Even the local officials wanted the ships to dock as they knew visitors would help inject valuable funds into the local economy, but had their hands tied by politicians a continent away.
As the West rightly tries find solutions to help end the conflict in the Ukraine, placing sanctions on Russia seems an obvious and non military solution. But there may be unforeseen consequences. I sense that creating financial hardship may in fact cause many Russian people be drawn to Putin, further bolstering his image as a hero and champion of their nation. By creating distance between Russia and the Western nations, there may be a danger that Cold War could escalate all over again. Towns like Provideniys would likely benefit, as military expansion across Siberia is already taking place.
As climate change alters this region, there will undoubtedly be change in trade and economies across the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions. This also creates potential for conflict, as nations maneuver to control places like the Bering Straits, as well as the whole Arctic Basin. I am not an expert in international diplomacy, but if the future of the places like the Bering Straits are to be secure, building bridges between nations, to foster dialogue, seem like it must be part of the ongoing solution. If this fails, geography, climate and economic interests may fuel a new Cold War and stifle any change for good.