The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A U.S. woman’s frigid swim to the U.S.S.R. helped thaw the Cold War

Lynne Cox did a practice swim in the Norton Sound near Anchorage on Aug. 7, 1987. The California woman was preparing for an unprecedented 2.7-mile swim in frigid waters and fast tides from the U.S. island of Little Diomede to the Soviet island of Big Diomede. (Rob Stapleton/AP)
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On the other side of the world from the Iron Curtain — the 4,300-mile line separating Europe’s capitalist- and communist-aligned nations during the Cold War — was another, much smaller boundary where tensions between the superpowers ran almost as high: the “Ice Curtain.”

The Ice Curtain was just 2.4 miles wide at its narrowest, running through the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. It was marked not by border crossings but by two remote islands. One, Little Diomede, belonged to the United States; the other, Big Diomede, belonged to the U.S.S.R.

On Aug. 7, 1987, the Ice Curtain was breached — not by spies or missiles, but by a lone American swimmer looking to traverse the waters of the near-freezing strait.

The two Diomede islands straddle the international date line, which divides the Alaska Time Zone (nine hours behind Coordinated Universal Time) from the Petropavlovsk Time Zone (12 hours ahead). If you stand on the shores of Little Diomede and gaze west toward Big Diomede, you’re looking across a 21-hour time difference.

As the Cold War gained momentum in 1948, the U.S.S.R. established a military base on Big Diomede, repatriating its Inupiat residents to mainland Siberia. Families who used to move freely between the two islands now found themselves aligned with opposing superpowers.

Little Diomede — which the United States secured as part of the Alaska Purchase of 1867 — retained a civilian presence. Its sole town has a population of 83, according to the 2020 census, but it features a school, post office, local store and the U.S. Essential Air Service, a government flight program that connects isolated American communities.

For much of the Cold War, a radar network called the Distant Early Warning Line, based in the United States and Canada, kept vigil for Soviet bombers. The Alaska Army National Guard, after building a military outpost on Little Diomede, appointed local hunters “Eskimo scouts” and called on their knowledge of the frozen terrain to look out for signs of Soviet infractions.

Reports soon emerged of footprints along the Little Diomede coastline. Russian army equipment was found discarded inland. There were whispers of local residents suddenly vanishing, presumed kidnapped or killed.

Villagers were warned to black-out their windows so that Soviet observers across the sea couldn’t spy on them. As the Cold War deepened, Diomedes remained a hot spot for potential escalation.

“Growing up during the Cold War, I was afraid that the tension and misunderstanding between the people of the United States and the Soviet Union would cause our mutual self-destruction,” an American woman recalled in a 2017 Washington Post op-ed.

The author was Lynne Cox, and she was marking 30 years since she publicly punctured the Ice Curtain by swimming from Little Diomede to Big Diomede in broad daylight.

Cox had already swum across the English Channel as a teenager (in record time), and she was the first woman to swim across the shark-infested 13.5-mile Cook Strait between the north and south islands of New Zealand.

When she was 19, her father suggested she attempt to traverse the Bering Strait. She decided to do it, noting in The Post that, if she crossed the choppy waters between the Diomedes without incident, “it might help change the way Soviets and Americans viewed each other.”

The journey was a huge gamble. Not only was the water 44 degrees, but making the crossing from East to West was also illegal.

“Most people thought the swim was impossible,” Cox told The Washington Post in an email. “They did not think the Soviets would open the border that had been closed since 1948. No one believed that a person could survive a swim across the Bering Strait wearing only a swimsuit, swim cap and goggles.”

Military officials on both sides were on high alert against defection; one incident in 1945 had seen a Russian mechanic escape across the Bering Sea in a kayak with his 6-year-old son.

A daylight crossing by a lone swimmer seemed even more brazen, like the infamous 1979 hot air balloon defection by two East German families into West Germany — but done openly, with advance notice.

Cox wanted to make her crossing with the blessing of the world’s leaders, and so she wrote to the U.S. government to help her obtain Soviet approval for the swim.

After Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave his permission in 1987, Cox was accompanied by three men in walrus-skin boats: Rich Roberts, a Los Angeles Times reporter and experienced sailor; and local expert guides (and Little Diomede residents) Pat Omiak and David Soolook Jr. Under their supervision, Cox leaped into the icy water at the beach on Little Diomede on the morning of Aug. 7.

“I knew that this was my moment to make a positive difference in the world and that the swim would open the border and promote peace between the two countries,” Cox recalled. “But the water was so cold I was fighting to catch my breath. I had to sprint to swim faster than I had ever swum before to create enough heat to survive. My hands felt like blocks incapable of catching the water, and I had to keep pushing away the fear that I might fail.”

Fog had also closed in, reducing visibility to just over 50 yards. With no radar, Cox and her team were concerned they might miss their destination, which was only four miles wide.

As Cox neared Big Diomede’s shores, she noticed her hands had “turned gray, the color of a cadaver,” she said. Then she heard the purr of a motor. A Soviet launch was approaching her.

Onboard was Vladimir McMillan of the Russian news agency Tass. He was excitedly encouraging Cox to complete her crossing.

To Cox’s further surprise, on the Big Diomede beach ahead of her, a delegation of KGB officials and Russian sports stars had been hastily convened, with a medical tent, hot water bottles and other supplies. Cox chose to swim an additional half-mile to arrive closer to them.

“Rita Zakharova, a Russian doctor had me climb into the sleeping bag and she leaned over and put her chest on me to help me get warm,” Cox said via email. “It was an amazing moment having someone from the Soviet Union giving me her warmth. All those years of the Cold War melted away. We were not enemies. We were both just people.”

Cox had made the crossing in 2 hours and 16 minutes. A year after her swim, President Ronald Reagan highlighted her triumph while signing the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty, saying, “We saw on television how sincere and friendly the meeting was between our people and the Americans when she stepped onto the Soviet shore. She proved by her courage how close to each other our peoples live.”

Cox’s swim was momentous — and today has inspired “X-Files” creator Chris Carter to write a screenplay about her life — but it actually wasn’t the first time an American had traversed the Ice Curtain.

Twenty-two-years earlier, in 1965, 19-year-old Dennis Schmitt had made the same crossing without getting wet. He walked across the icy causeway that forms each winter between the two Diomede islands.

Big Diomede occupants at first thought he was a ghost, then watched as Schmitt was arrested by the KGB. In response, the CIA dispatched helicopters to the scene.

Schmitt was released after being interrogated. But for a few brief moments, his breach of the Ice Curtain made World War III seemed alarmingly feasible.