ANCHORAGE — The United States and Russia are in the midst of their most tense relations since the Cold War, but for a small number of residents of both countries, things are warming up a bit.
It will now be easier and cheaper for Alaska Native and Russia Native residents to travel across the Bering Strait to visit relatives on the other side.
Last week, officials announced updates to an agreement that allows such indigenous residents of Alaska and Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula to travel between the two countries without a visa for stays of up to 90 days.
This will mean that some Alaska Natives will be able to visit friends and family in Russia without having to pay for a visa — a cost of at least $160 — or wait for that application to be processed.
The agreement requires that these travelers be residents of the designated areas in Alaska or Chukchi and have a documented invitation from a resident on the other side.
The indigenous people of the region share cultural, linguistic and family ties with their counterparts on either side of the maritime boundary between Russia and the United States. After the end of the Cold War, the Russian and American communities started to reestablish ties long cut off by the “Ice Curtain.”
“I think it’s important, because culturally and traditionally it’s an exchange that’s been happening for a long time,” said Vera Metcalf, an Alaska Native leader in Nome who worked closely with the State Department to get visa-free travel to Russia established. “Hopefully, it will continue, and our relatives and friends can see each other and visit,” Metcalf said.
The bilateral agreement was originally signed between the United States and the Soviet Union in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 1989. Native residents of Chukchi have been traveling to Alaska without a visa since 1989, peaking when 355 people crossed in 1994, according to the regional government’s Web site.
But over the past three years, eligible Alaska Natives had not been allowed the same opportunity, according to a State Department spokesperson, because of unspecified “administrative issues.”
Those issues have been resolved, and Alaska Native residents of the Nome and Kobuk census areas can now travel to Chukchi without a visa.
“I know we have family and relatives over there, and we want to keep visiting,” Metcalf said.
At their closest point, the Russian and American mainlands are separated by 55 miles of water, though there are small islands in the Bering Sea that are less than three miles apart.
American entry checkpoints for the program are in the Alaskan towns of Nome and Gambell. In Russia, they are in Anadyr, Provideniya, Lavrentiya and Uelen.
Not all indigenous residents of Alaska or Russia are eligible. Only those in the Bering Strait region can travel without a visa. Other indigenous populations that stretch across the border, such as the Unangax, who live in Alaska’s Aleutian and Pribilof islands and Russia’s Commander Islands, must continue to apply for visas.
Since the Cold War ended, Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory has made five trips from her home in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to visit Russian Unangax to participate in cultural exchange programs in the Commander Islands.
Since the early 1990s, Russian and American Unangax have been visiting each other’s communities, including as part of a short-lived student exchange in the early 2000s.
But for the islands’ native Unangax, there is no visa-free arrangement to shield them from deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States that have hampered efforts to reconnect communities across the strait.
Lekanoff-Gregory, who has been waiting weeks for her visa to be approved, added that it has become more difficult to make the trip in recent years. She will have to fly from Alaska to Los Angeles, then to East Asia before making her way north to Russia and then to the Commander Islands, which are only 500 miles west of her home.
“Maybe in the future, we can start thinking about including other locations in the agreement,” Metcalf said. “But there would have to be other negotiations to include other areas.”
Schuessler is a freelance writer.