In 1991 Suzi and I kept up our contacts with the Russian Far East. This is an excerpt from an end of the year letter I sent to my family in October 1991. We have continued to maintain contact with the folks who hosted us in Vladivostok. Brian’s “Russian sister” lives in Alaska now, with her mother.
1991 is the 250th anniversary of the Bering-Cherikov voyages of exploration from Siberia to Alaska. 1990 ended with a trip by all four of us to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. In April some of the people we stayed with in Vladivostok joined us in Alaska and stayed in our home. One of the women broke into tears when she got to our Sea Mart grocery store. She said that Vladivostok was a large city and Sitka a small town. How could we have all this? “They lied to us about Russia and America.” She was dumbfounded at the fact that we had a whole isle of different varieties of ketchups.
In July a squadron of 5 Russian sail boats made it to Sitka from Vladivostok, recreating the Cherikov voyage, and we were involved, as members of the welcoming committee, in laying a commemorative plaque designed by Sitka artist Norm Campbell. It read “May the Wheel of Change Forever Turn with Peace, Justice and Opportunity” in English and Russian. It has a relief of islands in Sitka Sound and a replica of a “Possession Plate” buried by Russian explorers near Sitka to claim Alaska for the Tsar.
In August we all watched the attempted coup in the Soviet Union. We were brought closer to events when I got two faxes from a Russian Friend who was with Yeltsin in the “White House” in Moscow. Part of the time we followed events with the legislative correspondent from “Neveski Vreme” (Neva Times) of St. Petersburg, who was stranded in Sitka.
In early October, a month and a half after the coup, Suzi, Kevin and I went back to Vladivostok; Suzi and Kevin as part of a delegation to lay an identical plaque to the one the Russians laid on Sitka in Vladivostok. I went a as a reporter. We stayed with Russian friends. Our first landfall in Russia was in Magadan where we transferred to a domestic plane. I noticed that we did not get the oxygen mask demonstration so I asked the flight attendant why. She said “The plane does not have oxygen masks for passengers, only crew. If we lose pressure the captain will take the plane lower. Then you will get oxygen. It will be uncomfortable but you will be ok.” When we landed into Magadan one of the Americans wanted to ride up front so the pilots let him into the cockpit. He sat in a folding chair. The flight attendant was still standing giving an announcement when we bounced to a landing. “Soon we will be landing in Vladivostok (bump) and we just have.” Aeroflot is not like Alaska Airlines.
We got a chance to go sailing on some of the yachts that had just returned from Sitka. The yacht club is maintained by the navy. Submariners use the yachts when they are in home port to sail upon the sea rather than under it. A submarine commander took us out on a boat and, when we were out on Amurski Bay he pulled out some prints. He wanted to show me the layout of his nuclear submarine, a “boomer”, ballistic missile sub.
The Changes in just 10 months are amazing. You have all read about the food shortages and the price hikes, but for us the most amazing things to watch were the changes in education. Suzi and I sat in a literature class in a public school, and watched the instructor lead a class on bible study. We had dinner with six English teachers who were thrilled to assign readings in American Literature from others than Hemingway and Jack London. One teacher was assigning Harlequin romances to try to keep teenaged girls interested in learning the language. A teacher we stayed with was much disoriented because she didn’t know how to teach anymore. She asked if everything else she had taught in her career was a lie.
We would return to Vladivostok about three and a half years later. In that letter you will learn what happened to the plaque.
The 1990 letter from Vladivostok can be found here.