NOME -- "Siberia: 164 Miles," reads the signpost outside the Nugget Inn in this roistering old gold-mining town (population 4,300) pitched on the westernmost edge of North America. Yet for the past four decades, Siberia might as well have been 164 light years from here. Mother Russia lay tantalizingly close, just over the pale horizon, but she was sealed off behind a political ice curtain. People here could only gaze across the floes, and wonder.
All travel between the Soviet Union and Alaska through the so-called "back door" was strictly forbidden during the Cold War. Occasionally a foolhardy peacenik would march across the icepack and get arrested by Soviet border guards waiting on Big Diomede Island. Alaskan Eskimo hunters were said to meet their Siberian brethren in the middle of the Bering Strait to trade sealskins and mukluks beneath the Northern Lights. And sometimes pranksters from Nome would venture out to the International Dateline to take a novelty snapshot of Bud standing over there in 1987 while cousin Jim sipped champagne a few feet away in 1986. But any resident of Nome who wished to see the Soviet Union legally was obliged to fly east for two full days -- through Anchorage, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Europe and on through the "front door" to Moscow.
Then four years ago, thanks to the efforts of two bald men working on opposite sides of the curtain, the ice began to thaw. The first, of course, was Mikhail Gorbachev, whose broad reforms opened up possibilities for renewed ties between the Soviet Far East and Alaska, the old fur-trapping colony which the Soviets still refer to as "Russian America."
The other bald man was a Nome real estate agent named Jim Stimpfle. From the outset, Stimpfle was a quixotic character, a kind of guerrilla diplomat whose ice-thawing equipment consisted of little more than a personal computer and an unusual capacity for hypothetical thinking. A native of McLean, Va., Stimpfle came to Alaska as a young man 20 years ago to get as far away from politics as possible. Yet today he's something of a political celebrity in these parts -- a prophet of Alaskan glasnost, goad of officialdom, one-man Siberian travel service and Nome's unofficial ambassador to the Soviet Union.
A palpable sense of giddiness now fills the air here, a feeling that the old rules are out the window and just about anything can happen. A "sister city" relationship has developed between Nome and Provideniya, a small frozen port 250 miles due west from here. Exchange visits occur almost daily. Scientists, cub scouts, dog mushers, businessmen -- everyone is scrambling to get a Soviet tourist visa. Bering Air, a Nome-based charter service, has made more than 100 shuttle flights to Provideniya this year, and there is talk of introducing a ferry system to link the two cities by water during warmer months. Alascom, the Alaska telephone company, has installed a direct satellite hook-up, making intelligible phone conversations across the Strait possible for the first time. A few months ago, the Immigration and Naturalization Service hired a new border inspector in Nome to process the sudden influx of Soviet visitors from Provideniya. And soon, under a recent agreement between the two governments, Eskimos will be able to travel freely, without visas, throughout the Bering Strait. Stimpfle's New Frontier Realty office doubles as the de facto Soviet consulate here. His fax machine spews out an endless stream of documents from Soviet officials and visa requests from American tourists. On his coffee table is the glossy Kremlin propaganda magazine, Soviet Life, in which Stimpfle's name is prominently mentioned. His kitchen shelves are lined with Russian crystalware and silver samovars -- gifts from his frequent Soviet houseguests -- and his refrigerator is stocked with bottles of Esekazkya beer, a local brew from the Soviet Far East.
Stimpfle has a flaky sense of humor about his brand of free-lance diplomacy. Recently he concocted a kind of informal institute called "The Nome Thinktank" and dedicated it to cutting through the layers of "red, white, and blue tape" that prevent casual exchanges between Nome and the Soviet Far East. At The Nome Thinktank, Stimpfle says, "no opinion is considered beyond the realm of possibility." Among Stimpfle's proposals: a marriage-brokerage service to promote trans-Bering romance, dual citizenship for Eskimos and the marketing of Siberian tundra as a novelty item akin to the pet rock.
When Jim Stimpfle first got involved in what he calls "the Soviet stuff" four years ago, he couldn't speak a word of Russian and had no particular fondness for vodka or beluga caviar. He was just a businessman who thought it was a shame that the people of Nome couldn't visit their neighbors across the Dateline. Much of his inspiration grew out of sheer boredom: There's not a whole lot to do in Nome during the interminable winter darkness.
Stimpfle envisioned a day when Nome would thrive as a jumping-off point for adventure tourists who wanted to explore the forbidding tundra of Solzhenitsyn's " Gulag Archipelago ." As the only town of any size on the Seward Peninsula, Nome had historically been the gateway to the Soviet Far East. During World War II, 8,000 Lend-Lease bombers passed through town on their way to Stalin's airfields. And Stimpfle imagined that in the freebooting era of glasnost, American entrepreneurs might use Nome as a capitalist beachhead for planning sales trips to the Soviet Far East. "Think of all that pantyhose the Soviets have never had a chance to buy!" he would say. " And the Russian men could actually get prophylactics that work!"
Stimpfle, who is married to an Eskimo woman, was also interested in reuniting ancestral Eskimo families separated by the Cold War. For centuries the Eskimos had treated the border as a fiction of the white man. Yupik and Inupiaq tribespeople routinely traded, hunted and married across the Strait. But in 1948 J. Edgar Hoover got the border sealed, fearing that Stalin might use the Siberian Eskimos as a fifth column to spy on Alaskan military installations and spread the specter of communism. As a result, some Eskimo blood relatives hadn't seen each other -- or even communicated -- for over 40 years. With the Eskimo issue foremost in his mind, Stimpfle began campaigning to open the border for limited goodwill flights to Provideniya. He wrote to officials in the Soviet Union. He called Alaska's governor, its two senators in Washington, the State Department. "They'd say, 'Who's this crackpot calling?' and hang up," Stimpfle recalls. The people of Nome were no more assuring. Some local war veterans called him a communist; most people just thought he was a fool.
One day in 1986, Stimpfle suddenly got the idea to send a bunch of helium balloons over the Soviet Union as a way of saying "hello." The balloons sank ignominiously in the Bering Sea a hundred yards out, but "at least they were going in the right direction," Stimpfle says. His next brainstorm led him to American-held Little Diomede island, where he and a few friends erected a humongous peace sign for the benefit of Soviet border guards peering through binoculars three miles across the Strait. The guards displayed no visible reaction, but photos of the sign appeared on the front page of a Moscow newspaper several days later.
Then in the fall of 1987, a remarkable thing happened. A ship carrying scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quietly paid a research visit to Provideniya -- the first time in memory that a U.S. vessel was permitted to drop anchor in the Soviet Far East. When the American scientists finally sailed away, their Soviet counterparts gave them a hefty stack of peace greetings to take home. "People of Nome," one official proclamation read, "let us become friends."
And so they did. Nome's new relationship with Provideniya took on the quality of a secret love affair, a romance pursued without the knowledge or approval of their respective governments. You could see naughty smiles on people's faces, the euphoric look of someone who's getting away with something.
With the ice unofficially broken, it was only a matter of time before the two governments acquiesced in the trans-Bering enthusiasm. In June of 1988, a delegation of 83 politicians, journalists and Natives flew to Provideniya for a one-day visit dubbed the Friendship Flight. Stimpfle's dream of reuniting Eskimo families materialized as scores of tearful relatives hugged on the tarmac and reminisced in their ancient common tongue. The Friendship Flight was soon followed by a Friendship Float, then a Friendship Expedition, and pretty soon the friendship was flowing in earnest. It hasn't stopped. Store windows along Front Street are festooned with greetings in Cyrillic script. KNOM, a Jesuit-run AM station broadcasts a regular vocabulary lesson called "Let's Learn Russian!" Russian language tapes and grammar textbooks sell briskly in the stores, and the public school is teaching a class in Soviet culture. Cab drivers now accept worthless rubles as a goodwill gesture to Soviet tourists. Soviet-American scientific teams are studying everything from alcoholism to the breeding habits of the bearded walrus. Citizen diplomats have crossed the Bering Strait by every imaginable mode of transport: boat, plane, kayak, dogteam and cross-country ski. A champion balloonist from Oregon has completed the first-ever hot-air flight across the Strait. Next month an international team of astronomers will pass through Nome on their way to a remote location in the Soviet Far East to observe a solar eclipse. And next year the committee that runs the Iditarod Sled Dog Race will sponsor a 1,000-mile mushing marathon from Nome to the town of Anadyr on the Chukotka Peninsula.
Commercial ventures are beginning to spring up, too. The Bering Straits Trading Company, for example, has entered into a joint mining agreement with officials in the Soviet Far East. An Anchorage meat-packing company has built a factory in the Soviet village of Chaibuka that grinds up reindeer sausage in exchange for clipped reindeer horn, which the company then pulverizes and sells as an aphrodisiac in the Orient.
Stimpfle, meanwhile, has been cooking up schemes for what he calls "The Ultimate Yuppie Adventure Tours." In one package, tourists would spend New Year's Eve in Provideniya, then backtrack across the Dateline and celebrate it again in Nome the next day. Another tour would involve a cruise to Provideniya on a Soviet icebreaker. "Imagine it," Stimpfle says. "You're soaking in a hot tub on the deck, sipping Stolichnaya and listening to the strains of Rimsky-Korsakoff. The Northern Lights are out. Polar bears are frolicking on the ice. And you are smashing your way toward the Evil Empire. It's the last great trek on Earth."
Despite its proximity to Nome -- 45 minutes by prop plane -- Provideniya is not likely to become the yuppie tourist mecca that Stimpfle envisions, at least not anytime soon. By all accounts, it's a pretty bleak place. There are no hotels or restaurants. A giant power plant smokestack looms over the town and constantly belches black soot. Reindeer outnumber people five to one. Provideniya's principal attraction appears to be a workers' health spa that specializes in an unorthodox therapy treatment known as an "electro-static shower."
Nor does Provideniya hold much promise as a trading partner. The ruble has no value on the open market, and the Provideniyans have few goods or commodities to trade anyway -- other than high-testosterone reindeer antlers. In any case, until the Jackson-Vanik Amendment is repealed in Washington, restrictive tariffs on Soviet goods will continue to hamstring the few trade opportunities that do exist. When trade finally does open up, of course, bigger cities like Anchorage, Seattle and San Francisco will inevitably eclipse Nome as gateways to the Soviet Far East.
But right now the people of Nome -- some call it Nomesky -- are having too much fun to worry about the obstacles ahead. The grizzled prospectors who still make a living in this century-old gold mining outpost have seen their share of booms and busts, and they know how to savor the moment. Most people are amazed that their fling with Provideniya has come this far, and still a little bemused by the historic changes that have warmed this frozen corner of the world. "For 40 years we went through life thinking we had to hate them," Stimpfle says, as a Russian lesson plays on his tapedeck. "But we've learned there is security in friendship. The day that our border will be guarded by friendship alone is fast approaching."
W. Hampton Sides is writing a book about 10 American subcultures for William Morrow & Co.