Seeing Russia from my House

The ptarmigan of peace?

I’m encountering a lot of anxiety about Russia these days. Maybe it’s because our recent election turned out to be triumph of Kremlin meddling. Or it might be that the insecure man-child they helped install is now threatening to revive the nuclear arms race. Could Russia end up digging its fingers further into American soil? I’m no geopolitical analyst, and I don’t know. Certainly there is precedent. Russia has done so before, for longer than these fifty states have existed as a nation. Of course I’m talking about Alaska. And I do know something about that. I can’t predict or explain the actions of a foreign government, or even our own. But maybe we can all learn to get along anyway.

Throughout my entire childhood, I spent part of each year in the former Russian Empire. My otherwise-Midwestern parents were schoolteachers in several tiny villages on the Kodiak Archipelago. I attended two years of high school in Ouzinkie, population 221, a Native Alaskan community on Spruce Island. The island is lush and evergreen, covered with spruce and alder, teeming with salmon and eagles, and free from the famous bears of the larger islands. Everything comes in by bush plane via a rocky airstrip. The majority of vehicles on the gravel streets are ATVs, along with a handful of trucks. Folks enjoy fishing, hunting, boating, basketball, and, at least in those days before Netflix, plenty of satellite TV.

Most of the people in Ouzinkie are Alutiiq by blood and Russian Orthodox by faith. The common surnames all end in “-off.” The only building in town with any architectural beauty is the Orthodox church, which looks just like you might imagine with a lovely blue onion-shaped steeple. The community shows traces of original Native culture, such as the importance of wild organisms in people’s diets and the political heft of the Tribal Council. But the most overt cultural difference compared to mainstream white America is the church. Most houses have a corner devoted to icons of saints. Russian clergy never adopted the Gregorian calendar, so holidays such as Russian Christmas and Russian New Year are celebrated two weeks later than their western counterparts. The festivities include fireworks and food, but also spiritually unifying rituals. During “starring,” a crowd travels en masse from house to house and blesses the icons with a large sparkly spinning wheel resembling a star. The village is occasionally visited by monks from the monastery on the far side of the island. St. Herman, the patron saint of North America and local hero, was buried there.

I didn’t fit in particularly well. This had as much to do with me being introverted, nerdy, and unathletic as it did with me being a white outsider. My gregarious brother integrated much better. Still, I value the friendships I was able to build. My classmates and I learned from each other. I knew nothing of the island’s traditions: the baseball-esque beach game of lapture, for example, or the bigfoot-like Olak which supposedly stalked the forest. They had their own misguided assumptions about the Lower 48 fueled by HBO gansta movies, and an uneasy mistrust of mainlanders. Our day-to-day social lives wandered the same emotional maze as any teenager’s. But underneath, I’d like to think we were also becoming less xenophobic.

I recall one spring evening on the boardwalk below the church. The breeze off the harbor rippled the tall grass, which was regaining its green after the long winter. I was talking with three other boys. One began to rant at me about how Alutiiqs always get the short stick compared to white people. His mannerisms grew increasingly aggressive, and with his two buddies at his back, it looked like he was about to attack me. There are several ways you might imagine this going badly. For one, it could have come to blows. For another, it could have left me silently dismissing all Natives as entitled or violent. But I’d lived in Ouzinkie long enough to know that neither outcome was likely. Such tough-guy performances were common and rarely went anywhere, so long as everyone was sober. And anyway, I realized that he had a point. It had started with the Russians forcing the islanders to collect sea otter pelts. Exploitation in subtler guises continues to this day. But some whites were different. St. Herman stood up for Natives tirelessly, and they’ve honored him ever since. There on the boardwalk, I knew what kind of person I was. I laughed at the blusterer and said he was right, but it wasn’t my fault. Not that my adolescent understanding of race relations was the height of sophistication, but it worked in the moment. We talked about it, and we parted on good terms. After all, we were hardly strangers. We would see each other the next day in the 50-student (K-12) school.

Tina Fey, in an SNL parody of Sarah Palin, famously said, “I can see Russia from my house.” The joke’s basis was Palin suggesting that Alaskan life somehow made her qualified to conduct diplomacy with Russia. Although you can indeed see Russia from Alaska, Palin was clearly grasping at straws to try and justify her doomed campaign. But let’s take her statement at face value for a moment. In Ouzinkie I actually could see Russia from my house. Not the literal landmass, but its cultural influence. Spruce Island is, after all, a cold, dark, northern land that struggles with alcoholism and depression. Despite these challenges, people find joy in a traditional subsistence lifestyle while adopting what is useful from modern Western materialism. I’ve never been to the indigenous communities of Siberia, but I imagine life there to be pretty similar. The ecology, too: the rock ptarmigans on Mount St. Herman are the same species as those in the Altai. The little Russian outpost was new for me with my WASP background, even having partially grown up in other villages just a few leagues away. It helped me learn to accept people with different worldviews. From Ouzinkie I went on to more intense intercultural experiences, both domestically and abroad. But I’m thinking about Spruce Island lately as Washington’s relationship with Moscow veers into uncharted territory. As Russian New Year looms.

I’m not saying that having played basketball with Orthodox Christians gives me any insight into Putin, any more than hanging out with American Baptists would tell you anything about Trump. That’s the kind of thing Palin got mocked for. What I am saying is that intercultural interactions are our best hope when world peace feels fragile. If you’re worried about World War III, go meet some people from somewhere else. Physically moving to a remote village isn’t for everyone. But if you want to make a real difference at home, consider hosting an exchange student. If that is beyond your means, befriend an immigrant in your city. Follow people in other countries on Twitter. Do something. Building those relationships is the key to geopolitical stability. Our leaders might be nuts, but there’s not much we can do about that until the next election. What we can do now, as citizens, is reject the idea that people of different nationality, tongue, faith, or race are “others.” We can realize that borders between peoples or cultures are fuzzier than usually presented. That the more empathy you have, the less likely to are to punch first. And when an immature bully throws a temper tantrum, even if he’s in control of the nukes, at least we can remember not to panic.

How did we ever survive the Cold War? A series of lucky accidents, really. In key moments, Soviets like Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov refused to fire on America. How did the Alutiiq people survive colonialism? Mostly their own indomitable spirit, but also thanks to compassionate outsiders like St. Herman who defended them. It took humans who could see the humanity in all of their conspecifics. Honestly, this should be even easier in the Information Age. Would-be enemies are right there in your computer, inches away from your face. Reach out to them. Make friends. Together we can weather the dark winter.

3 thoughts on “Seeing Russia from my House

  1. Excellent reflective essay. I agree with the author’s perceptions and hope we can all reach out to embrace other human beings from different backgrounds.

    Liked by 1 person

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