Russian Views From Alaska
Little Diomede Island, Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, and Wales
By: Courtney Dowd-Stanley
Russia and Alaska are divided from one another by the Bering Strait, which is located in the Pacific Ocean and bordered by the Chukchi Sea to the north and the Bering Sea to the south. At its narrowest point, the Bering Strait is only 53 miles wide, making it easy for the neighboring countries of Russia and the United States to observe each other. In the extremely isolated Western Alaska communities of Little Diomede, Wales, and the St. Lawrence Island village of Gambell, a clear day presents residents with the uncanny ability to view the Russian territory of Siberia. The map below shows just how close the two countries are.
Rewind a bit to the idea of being able to see Russia from the great state of Alaska, which originally flooded international headlines back in 2008. It was at this time when former Governor Sarah Palin was discussing foreign policy during her Republican Party nomination for the position of Vice President of the United States. After the infamous Saturday Night Live skit aired where comedian, Tina Fey, mocked Palin’s statement saying, “I can see Russia from my front door” – the world had a heyday. Before we knew it, life-size billboards and yard signs popped up all over the country with the cringe-worthy phrase.
The silver lining that came out of all the wacky media coverage is that we started talking about (and paying attention to) the remarkable places in Western Alaska where you can, in fact, see Russia from your doorstep.
Big Diomede Island (located in Russian territory) and Little Diomede Island (located in Alaska) sit in the middle of the Bering Strait only a little over two miles apart. They form the closest points of land between Russia and the United States.
Both of these rocky islands have distinct “tuya” formations, which are essentially flat-topped and steep-sided volcanic land areas that are formed when lava erupts through a thick glacier or sheet of ice.
The border separating the two islands was created in 1867 when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. Residents traveled freely between the islands until the Cold War when the border was closed and nicknamed the “ice curtain.” The islands are also separated by the International Date Line, which puts Big Diomede 21 hours ahead of Little Diomede, which is the reason why Big Diomede is sometime referred to as “Tomorrow Island” and Little Diomede is called “Yesterday Isle.”
During the Cold War the residents of Big Diomede were relocated to the mainland of Siberia, so other than military units, the island remains uninhabited. Unlike Big Diomede, Little Diomede (also known as Iŋaliq) is home to a year-round population of roughly 100 Native Alaskan residents.
The community is carved into the only area on Little Diomede Island that doesn’t have near-vertical cliffs shooting straight down into the ocean. The total land area of the island is only 2.8 square miles which makes for a very close-knit community.
While there are no hospitals or airports on Little Diomede Island, there is a heliport. During the harsh winter months that are normal for Western Alaska, the Bering Strait freezes, forcing locals to manually carve a runway in the ice for bush planes to deliver supplies.
Because residents on Little Diomede Island are unable to have television, they keep themselves busy by enjoying outdoor activities such as kayaking. Fishing and hunting are crucial methods of survival as the community relies heavily on subsistence practices to feed and clothe their families.
Another place where you can see the Russian territory of Siberia from Alaska is the tiny village of Gambell located on St. Lawrence Island. Located west of mainland Alaska and slightly south of the Bering Strait, Gambell is home to roughly 700 permanent residents. Although the community is extremely isolated, it does have an airport, clinic and a K-12 school.
In 1952 the former Northeast Cape Air Force Station opened on St. Lawrence Island. This military base was used during both WW2 and the Cold War. There was also a White Alice Communications System site that operated from about 1952 to about 1972 on St Lawrence Island.
Last but certainly not least on our list is the community of Wales, Alaska (population 145) which can view Russia from their doorstep as well. Located in the Nome census area, Wales is the very westernmost city on mainland North America (Cape Prince of Wales) and perhaps the only place on mainland Alaska where you can view Russia on a clear day.
Wales is another extremely isolated community in Western Alaska, with challenging means of accessibility. Its location on the western tip of the Seward Peninsula is at the northern end of the Continental Divide where the Pacific and Arctic oceans collide. The town is roughly 111 miles northwest of the larger neighboring community of Nome.
Long story short; if you’re willing to travel to these remote Western Alaska communities, you’ll definitely have the opportunity to see Russia from the great 49th state. To see the unique terrain and visit the people that live in this isolated region of the Last Frontier would be an unforgettable experience.
Looking for more where that came from? Check out this story on Portage, the sunken Alaska ghost town that nature is reclaiming. Also, check out the Pioneer Stories, A One Dog Man.