Breaking The Bering Barrier -- From Reindeer Sausage To Cultural Ties, Alaskans, Soviets Are Joining Hands

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Doug Drum's contribution to glasnost and perestroika is a plant in the Soviet village of Chaibuka that turns reindeer into sausage to fortify the pallid Soviet diet. He is counting on sales of reindeer antler to Asians, who prize it as an aphrodisiac, to retrieve his $500,000 investment.

Lora Engstrom, who was born in Tashkent in Soviet Central Asia, emigrated to Israel with her mother, then moved to the United States and married an Alaskan, plans to import from the motherland a beer called Esekazkya. Never heard of it? You may.

``I want it to be the Russian beer, just like Stolichnaya is the Russian vodka,'' Engstrom says. If her advertising campaign succeeds in Alaska, whose tipplers have rarely met a beer they didn't like, expect to see it Seattle.

While the Soviet Union threatens to disintegrate from its internal ethnic divisions, Alaskans are busily knitting new ties of culture and commerce with the Soviet Far East, a vast and sparsely populated region that has a good deal in common with America's largest state.

The Soviets, eager to end their isolation and pump some life into their moribund economy, are responding enthusiastically.

The Bering Straits Trading Co., owned by the Bering Straits Native Corp. and Anchorage mining consultant Ron Sheardown, has formed a joint venture with a Soviet mining company named Severovostokzoloto to extract minerals in both Alaska and the Soviet Far East. The initial joint projects: limestone and granite quarries on the Soviet side and a placer gold mine in Alaska.

In Nome, Alaska, real estate and insurance salesman Jim Stimpfle is twisting the arms of local businesses to get them to accept the Soviet ruble, which is considered worthless in international trade. About a third of them - including a taxi company, bars and gift shops - have agreed.

In addition to the modest commercial possibilities it opens, Stimpfle figures this breakthrough marks the true end of the Cold War.

``If the Red Army ever did roll in here, they'd find two things they don't have - churches and bars,'' he jokes. ``And we're taking rubles! We'd stop them dead in their tracks.''

Down in Juneau, the University of Alaska Southeast has invited Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to deliver its commencement address this spring. Gorbachev would appear to have more pressing matters on his agenda, but the way things are going - who knows?

Ron Miller of the governor's Office of International Trade said that last year Alaska hosted 1,000 Soviet visitors. The outlook is for more this year.

Among those who have come since the Ice Curtain began to melt two years ago are Gennadi Gerasimov, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, who reportedly returned home an enthusiastic booster of Alaska contacts, and the urbane Soviet ambassador to the United States, Yuri Dubinin, and his wife.

There also have been doctors and bureaucrats, scientists and schoolchildren, even a documentary film maker and two sled-dog racers who plan to train with three-time Iditarod race champion Susan Butcher.

Passenger and cargo aircraft of Aeroflot, the Soviet national airline, are common sights at Anchorage International Airport. Both sides are eager to establish scheduled service between Alaska and the Soviet Far East, but so far have been unable to agree on details.

This burst of activity has left both Alaskans and Soviets a little giddy - in part because the budding relationship appears to have surprised everyone by transcending the usual diplomatic and business niceties to become deeply personal.

Nearly all the 30-odd people interviewed for this article commented on the intensity of their relationships with their new Soviet friends.

``This whole thing would have worn off pretty quickly if it hadn't been for the tremendous amount of emotion that developed in these exchanges,'' said Jim Rowe, president and chief pilot of Bering Air, a Nome-based commuter airline that made 85 flights to the Soviet Far East last year and resumed them this month after being grounded briefly by Soviet red tape. Rowe has flown 56 of the flights himself, and so has seen a good bit of the other side.

``I now feel I have closer friends over there than among those I know better over here . . . ,'' he said. ``There is a commonality of environment, we're both a long way from our central governments, and we have similar frustrations. But more than that, we are all tired of feeling like we've got to hate someone. Now we realize we don't and never did. . . . We've found a whole new group of people to be friends with.''

This is a common theme among Alaskans, the only Americans to share a border with the Soviet Union. At its closest, the frontier splits the three-mile distance between America's Little Diomede Island and the Soviet Union's Big Diomede in the Bering Strait.

``People have the feeling that they are participating in the most important event of our time, the stabilization of relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.,'' said Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper. ``It is the one initiative this administration began that has an acceptance level of over 90 percent. I couldn't get that for motherhood or apple pie.''

When two young Soviet citizens who had boarded an Aeroflot flight with forged documents defected - an event that in earlier times would have generated serious fallout - a Soviet official shrugged it off, saying, ``We all love Alaska. In fact, some of us love it so much that we stay.''

A potent link in the connection between Alaska and the Soviet Far East are the Yupik and Inupiaq Eskimo peoples on both sides, who traveled back and forth for hundreds of years before the Cold War. When the border was closed in 1948, many Eskimo families were split, and their members were unable to visit or even communicate for 40 years.

Their special situation was one of the chief arguments for opening the frontier as Gorbachev's policies began to dissipate four decades of tension between Moscow and Washington.

The reunions of Eskimo families have, by all accounts, been poignant. Even those who have no close relatives on the Soviet side were deeply moved by the opportunity to visit others who share their threatened traditions.

``Hearing my own language spoken was like a dream,'' said June Martin of Nome, who visited the Soviet town of Provideniya last summer.

Her father, Tim Gologergen, who also made the trip, was struck by the fact that the Yupik spoken on the Soviet side was the language he remembered from growing up on St. Lawrence Island in the early decades of the century. Alaskan Yupik, he said, has been heavily infiltrated by English.

Among other things, Gologergen said, he found out for the first time the meaning of his name, ``bridge across the river.''

White people on both sides of the strait also have a considerable past history of contact. Alaska was, after all, first explored extensively by Russian expeditions and was known as Russian America until the United States purchased it in 1867 for $7.2 million.

The map of Alaska is dotted with Russian place names, there are several Russian Orthodox churches and Russian surnames are common among Alaska natives.

After gold was discovered in Bering Sea beach sands, leading to the founding of Nome in 1898, some Americans crossed and prospected on the Russian side. Others, in violation of Russian law, traded liquor to the native peoples for fur and ivory.

Aviation pioneer Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers were preparing for a trip across the Bering Strait when their plane crashed at Barrow in 1938, killing both. And during World War II, 7,308 U.S.-made airplanes were ferried from Nome to the Soviet Union by Soviet pilots for use against Germany.

With the new thaw, a particularly close relationship has developed between Nome and Provideniya, 230 miles apart. Though the products of very different societies, the towns share some characteristics. They're about the same size (Nome 4,300; Provideniya, 4,500). They're both isolated. They're both economic backwaters in search of better living.

One of the first major people-to-people contacts was the June 13, 1988, ``Friendship Flight'' in which an Alaska Airlines 737 ferried Cowper (pronounced Cooper), several dozen residents of Nome and a number of reporters to Provideniya.

Spurred by the proselytizing of the irrepressible Stimpfle - who says he finds Soviet bureaucracy a minor challenge after raising triplet boys - and the practical link provided by Bering Air, they have since exchanged several citizen delegations.

In one, Nome Cub Scouts flew to Provideniya last summer to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Accompanied by about 200 kids from Provideniya, the delegation of 31 from Nome clambered up a steep, rocky hill in a drenching rain clutching pieces of scrap wood. At the top they built a bonfire, roasted hot dogs and marshmallows and lit fireworks to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

``It was like a religious experience,'' said Glenn Martin, Nome's cubmaster and parole officer, searching for a comparison that would make clear the emotion of the occasion.

Afterward, Martin said, ``People opened their hearts and their homes to us. They gave us gifts - often very personal, sentimental items. We were just floored.''

The scouts had a surprise of their own for the kids of Provideniya - 200 frisbees left over from a local political campaign. Bearing the obscure message, ``Vote for Frink,'' they were soon gliding all over the little gray port town.

Soon Nome was receiving groups of Provideniyans.

``You can imagine how they felt,'' Martin said. ``It was like the Berlin Wall coming down for them when the Ice Curtain melted.''

Many Alaskans are adamant that business takes second place to human relations in their dealings with the Soviet Far East. This may be just as well, because the realistic prospects for commercial relations in areas other than fisheries, where long-established joint ventures operate successfully, appear limited. Among the problems are these:

-- Small populations. Alaska has barely a half-million people, little more than live within the city limits of Seattle, and the Soviet Far East is also thinly peopled.

-- Similar economies, based primarily on exploitation of natural resources. Each has relatively little to sell to the other. This problem is particularly acute on the Soviet side.

-- The nonconvertibility of the ruble means that people who want to sell to the Soviets have to find a Soviet product they can resell abroad, as Drum has with reindeer horn.

-- High tariffs on Soviet goods, a Cold War measure, make the relatively few Soviet products less competitive in the U.S. market. Washington and Moscow have begun negotiations on a new trade pact that could remove this hurdle and extend ``most favored nation'' trading status to the Soviets.

-- Poor communication and transportation systems in the Soviet Far East.

-- Lots of what Stimpfle calls ``red, white and blue'' tape on both sides of the border.

Nonetheless, determined entrepreneurs are intent on doing what they can to cultivate business in the Soviet Far East in the hopes of making a few bucks and, many hope, helping the Soviets improve their lot. And there clearly are areas in which the Soviets can use U.S. goods and expertise.

Alaskans who have visited the Soviet Far East paint vivid pictures of an economy of want, bedeviled by a lack of the most basic consumer goods and served by such singular institutions as a bra factory that makes only one size.

A Soviet delegation from the town of Lavrentiya was awestruck by the material wealth they found in Kotzebue, said Willie Hensley, one of their hosts. Hensley is one of the state's best known Alaska native politicians and businessmen and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor this year.

When he showed the Soviets around the primarily Eskimo community of 3,700 on the Bering Sea, ``They were amazed by what we take for granted - grocery stores stocked with meat, fish and soda pop, our rifles, boats, motors and cars. They were just amazed.''

Into this consumer vacuum are stepping such brave souls as Drum, owner of Indian Valley Meats outside Anchorage, a supplier of smoked and canned meats for the Alaska market.

Drum, who moved to Alaska from his native Michigan 22 years ago, got his first exposure to the Soviets in the fall of 1988 when he provided a variety of reindeer sausages and smoked fish as snacks for a visiting delegation headed by Vyacheslav Kobets, governor of Magadan Oblast (region), an administrative district nearly as large as Alaska directly across the Bering Sea. Drum was an immediate hit. The Magadan region had 2.7 million reindeer, Kobets said, but no sausage.

Drum was invited to the Soviet Union and was by turn amazed and distressed at what he found: a primitive meat industry in which the consumer gets no consideration and, one official told him, 37 percent of all meat spoils before it reaches the home.

After careful study - which included everything from living on the tundra with Soviet reindeer herders to touring packing plants and stores - he agreed to set up a joint-venture sausage plant in Chaibuka. It was a huge risk for Drum, requiring an investment of $500,000, which he said represented his life savings.

He marshaled 18 tons of modern equipment in Anchorage, crated it and planned to ship it to Chaibuka by Aeroflot in plenty of time to set it up before a visit by high-ranking Soviet officials.

But the cargo flight was delayed - U.S. red tape this time - leaving only two days to turn a bare concrete building into a sausage plant.

By the time the more than 100 Soviet officials from as far away as Moscow arrived, the first products from the smokehouse were set out on party trays. Some of the plant's first production was shipped to Gorbachev and other high Soviet officials, and the Chaibuka plant was featured on Soviet national television.

The total time from initial discussions to production was seven months, compared with the Soviet norm of five years for such a project.

Drum said the Soviets have since identified about 50 towns where they would like to establish similar facilities, and he is negotiating to establish plants in several of them.

He received partial return on his investment when one consignment of reindeer horn sold for $250,000. Drum estimates that this year's horn harvest could be worth $10 million. In addition, 156,000 reindeer hides, which produce good leather, will be available for sale, he said.

Drum still seems slightly bemused that he's not only doing business in the Soviet Union, but that it may soon dwarf Indian Valley Meats.

``I asked them why the picked me instead of Armour or Wilson,'' he said. ``I'm just a small operator. But they said they wanted a small company that had been successful. They said, `We've got lots of big companies, but they aren't successful.' ''

Drum was particularly struck by the Soviet citizens' desire to improve their lot and their willingness to abandon long-established ways in order to accomplish it. Soviet workers are willing, he said, and need only the modern equipment the United States can provide and instruction on how to use it.

A more difficult problem, he said, is overcoming the legacy of 70 years of disregard for people's needs. ``We're making progress, but it's frustrating,'' he said. ``We're still learning a lot.''

Lora Engstrom became interested in doing business with the Soviet Union after serving as a translator for a delegation from Magadan last October - one of the relatively few occasions when she was able to really exercise her Russian since she and her mother left Tashkent for Israel in 1972 when she was 9.

Engstrom believes that if Alaska and the Soviet Union are to develop a productive relationship, cultural contacts must come first. Thus, she said with a laugh, she seized on beer as a helpful ``transitional product'' - one that could lubricate friendship and business deals on both sides of the Bering Strait.

The state-run brewery at Provideniya produces four kinds of beer whose quality is high because of excellent water, she said. She describes the one she intends to import as a light, lager-style brew of hops, barley and rice.

Plans call for initial weekly shipments of 250 cases, each containing 20 half-liter (roughly 16-ounce) bottles. The Russian bottles will carry labels printed by Universal Printing in Seattle and will be boxed in Anchorage - a genuine Pacific Rim product, she notes. The beer will be wholesaled by Alaska Distributors, she said.

If all goes according to schedule - a frequent question mark in dealing with the Soviet Union - Engstrom expects to receive the first shipment soon.

``They're extremely excited in Provideniya,'' she said. ``They can't believe it's happening.''

The mining joint venture between Bering Straits Trading Co. and Severovostokzoloto, announced late last month, is the most recent joint venture between Alaska and the Soviet Far East and potentially perhaps the largest.

Severovostokzoloto employs about 100,000 people in gold and other mines, some of which were part of Stalin's infamous system of labor camps. Some Soviet mining technology is considered advanced. The partners have approved a $2.2 million budget for the first year.

A major obstacle to increased Alaska-Soviet contact is the lack of scheduled air service, but there are indications of progress.

Bering Air was grounded late last year when the Soviets suddenly insisted that each flight had to carry a Soviet navigator - a requirement that Rowe said appears to have originated with the Defense Ministry, effectively pricing the flights out of the market. Old suspicions die hard.

After negotiations involving the governor's office, the Soviets agreed this month to a resumption of flights, and Rowe promptly brought over a delegation of six Soviets who are to tour Alaska schools.

Several more flights are scheduled for March and April. Rowe said he believes there is a potential for operating flights four or five days a week, and that negotiations are under way with Aeroflot, which wants to fly some of them.

A proposal by Seattle-based Alaska Airlines for service from Anchorage to Magadan and on to Khabarovsk, the administrative center for the entire Soviet Far East, has yet to be approved because of Aeroflot's insistence that it be granted landing rights in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle rather than Anchorage. Airline officials hope the deadlock may be broken at aviation talks between Washington and Moscow that begin this week in London.

If the plan is approved, Alaska plans to begin summer-only service two to three times a week next summer, catering primarily to tourists, with service expanded as demand warrants.

Meanwhile, travelers endure such absurdities as that experienced by a Magadan delegation which took three days to reach Anchorage via Moscow, Havana and Mexico City.

``If we could somehow resolve the transportation problem and get `most favored nation' status for Soviet products, my guess would be that activities would quadruple from a base that already is very high,'' Cowper said.

``. . . The results we could get are limited only by imagination. I personally can't imagine all the things that are going to happen, and I'm glad I can't.''