Interview Transcript, June 2001.
Petrov: First of all, let me state that it’s an honor for me to meet you, because I was in Alaska for the first time in 1996 in Kodiak, when I met Dawn Lea Black, with whom we completed our project in Nataliia Shelikhova, whom we consider to be the first governor, founder of the RAC. And I also hope to give (you) a copy of this book as soon as it is published. Let me just, if it’s possible, mainly, briefly, ask you three questions, and then I’ll also share with you my research; what I am doing right now. Okay?
Petvov: My first question is “what distinguishing characteristics does Alaska possess, and what sets it apart from the other states, in your opinion?”
Stevens: Well, of course geography is the first of our
characteristics that sets us apart, because we’re separated from what we
call the contiguous 48 states, not only by water, but also on land by Canada,
and I think that that is one of the great things that distinguishes us
from other states. Hawaii is completely off-shore and accessible only by
water, while we’re accessible by land by going through another country.
And ours is the only state that has that circumstance. We have, uh, of
course we’re the largest of the states in terms of size; we are--one-fifth
of all the land that is under the American flag; that’s in Alaska. I’m
sure you know all the superlatives--we have half of the coastline that’s
in the United States, and we are...we have more time zones, really, than
the United States put together...all the 48 states put together. The difficulty
we have, of course, is that what sets us apart is the problems of insufficient
(?) communications, because we have very few roads built in our state;
we only have one major road system, from Canada up through Fairbanks and
down to Anchorage. We have--our tradition has been that we opted not to
build roads, but to rely on air transportation almost exclusively. We have
from the point of view of communications, we arrived, literally, in the
communications era long after the rest of the country, if not the world.
Actually, eastern Russia had better communications that we did in the early
1900’s. The army ran our communications as military communications until
One of the characteristics that sets us apart, we are a very small population in a very large area, with a substantial indigenous population, in terms of the people who call themselves Alaskan natives--as you know, Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts--and we have, beyond that, we have such a polyglot population that there is no majority in our state, in terms of population, of any one nationality or race. We have, as you know, many black people, many people immigrated from the pacific rim including, as you know, a great many that came to our state and date back to the days of the Russian control of Alaska. And I think there’re almost as many indigenous people--descendents of Russian influence as there are from the Eskimo influence.
But, uh, other characteristics...we are a people who...you’ll find most of the people who come to Alaska have come to Alaska to get away from crowds. There’re people who...those that have migrated to Alaska have come because of the openness and freedom of Alaska.
Petrov: My second question about the project “Meeting of Frontiers”, that was the conference in the middle of May. This project was developed by your discussion with Dr. James Billington, Librarian of Congress. On behalf of all conference participants, I would like to thank you for this wonderful opportunity, and I would like to ask, briefly, how this project came together, and what’s your opinion--where do you see it going?
Stevens: Well, its genesis is that we call ourselves “the last frontier” of the United States. And I think that it’s a truism; we are basically the last area that’s relatively undeveloped and probably will remain underdeveloped for a substantial period of time. The genesis of the two frontiers is, I don’t know if you know it, Dr. Billington did some work as a graduate student before he came to the library, in his Russian studies, and one of them was a project for the Rockefeller Foundation in terms of analyzing the potential of the Russian Far East. And we had a discussion about that fact that that is really still the Russian frontier, and so we believe that we should find some way to join together the efforts to make available the advantages of new technology to the areas involved in the areas of the two last frontiers. It was something that Dr. Billington and I talked about, and we talked about getting some financing to start some meetings to see if there wasn’t some we could share, in terms of the experience. For instance, we have recently put up some satellites , and those satellites have a footprint both on eastern Russia and Siberia as well as Alaska. We believe we’re going to have a common communications infrastructure, and we have taken off of the burden of the visas and passports off our indigenous people along the Northwest coast and the Aleutian chain; they do not have to obtain visas to come and go to visit relatives on the other side of the Bering Sea. So the Bering Sea exemption, that’s part of the same process of trying to restore a commonality of experience for the people on both sides that’re indigenous people. But it wasn’t limited to indigenous people; it was a process that Dr. Billington and I had talked about in terms of trying to have some help with one another...to further that, when we heard about the discovery of oil in the island off of Russia...oh God, I’ve been there several times. I journeyed to Sakhalin twice to talk to their people and their governor came here to talk to me about trying to see to it they didn’t have the same experience that we did in terms of developing oil in a frontier area. We tried to share some experiences with them we’d had with the international oil people and help them train their people so they could find employment in the new developments. It was not just an academic thing, we’re talking about integrating the approaches to common problems, so if we solve a problem on our side of the Bering Sea, we would share it with those on the other side, and vice-versa--trying to share experiences and gain a really, basic...some , you know, time and modernization and development by trying not to have to make the same mistakes twice in effect. It’s a concept of basic planning for the future, I think we were trying to find some way to bring together people from eastern Russia and Alaska to see about some joint planning. And George reminds me, I obtained some money from the federal expenditures to train oil field workers for Sakhalin in Alaska at the University of Alaska, and also opened a Russian-American Center in Sakhalin where they are assisting in the development of education and training for residents of the Khabarovsk area.
Petrov: In Russia, there is a good deal of interest in the history of Alaska--centers, museums devoted to the subject, I mean study of this subject. And you partly answered this question, but what forms of contact and cooperation between Russian and Alaskan towns do you see, or would you like to see?
Stevens: Well, I think we’d like to have much more. We
have a growing relationship in Anchorage with a series of areas in the
Russian Far East. And I think that that should be expanded. There is this
‘sister city’ concept. I’m not talking about that. That’s sort of an honorary
thing, where you exchange keys to the city and local service clubs travel
back and forth. We’re looking to a concept of sharing, developing, knowledge
of how to deal with mutual problems. For instance, we are experimenting
now with what we call “tele-medicine” and “tele-education”, we have tele-conferencing,
we’re going into a whole new concept for development of broadband communications.
We have in our rural areas, we have opted not to go further in developing
land lines, because of the distances, we’re going to cellular, broadband
wireless concepts. What we’re doing is to try to share that experience,
and share the developmental aspects of it that assist in education, communications,
modernization of transportation. We have, for instance, and experiment
going on through the postal service, the US Postal Service, using air-cushioned
vehicles to deliver the mail in rural Alaska, particularly during the winter
time, when its very hard to fly and, as I said, there are no roads. But
these air-cushioned vehicles, ACV’s as we call them, are less expensive
to operate and can carry extremely heavy loads compared to airplanes. So
it is improving their economics because the cost of transportation is less.
Those are the kind of things we’re trying to work on, and increase our contacts in cooperation with the Russian areas in the Russian Far East.We’re not limiting ourselves just to the coastline, if that’s what you’re saying. We’re into Magadan and Povedeniye, and Khabarovsk and to Nakhodka, and that whole area up and down the western zone. Beyond all that is that all the studies being made about trying to find a way to put a tunnel under the Bering Straits to open up both rail and road transportation into that part of Asia. That’s a long way off maybe, but there is money being spent in this country to pursue that plan. It envisions putting a tunnel out about the area of Hope on our side coming out at bout Povedeniye on the Russian side. That’s still a possibility somewhere out there, that we’ll have a tunnel like the one that goes from London, Britain, into France. It’ll be shorter than that one, by the way. There’s a place where the tunnel would be actually shorter than the chunnel in Europe. But first you have to build the roads to get to it, so that may be difficult. Did you ever see the exhibit “The Crossroads of the Continents”?
We originated that, too. I originated that even before my conversation with Dr. Billington. That goes back to work with the Smithsonian, and it really started in the 70’s, we finally got it into a show by the early 90’s, but it was the maybe late 80’s, early 90’s; it was an example of the art that is prevalent in Eastern Russia and along the coastline of Alaska. It’s still on exhibit somewhere, I think there’s part of it down at the Smithsonian now.
Petrov: I’d like also to share (with) you briefly my research, what I am doing in Washington DC, if it’s possible. Actually, up to the sale of Alaska, up to 1867, the activity of the Russian American Company stopped. And what remained, that’s the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska which continued...it’s a rather difficult period, transformation period which has happened to be, and all these documents on these issues are gathered not only in United States archives, Manuscript Division, where I do most of my research, but all over the United States and in Russia as well.
Stevens: And that’s been one of the problems for our two areas, because collectors have come to both areas and taken great liberty in gathering up the artifacts and the history of the areas and transporting them to museums throughout the world. Some of our records are over in New England, in the areas where the whaling ships had their home, and you’ll find a lot of Russian-American artifacts up around Martha’s Vineyard and those places in Nantucket; those places where most of those sailing ships did most of their activity. Some of the sailing ships came up from some of the Caribbean islands, you know that, there were several islands down there where they hunted whales off those islands as well as off our coast, and they shared some of the culture. We find that there’s a tremendous amount of the information that has been sort of transported into the areas of Europe where they’ve built enormous museums or centers of knowledge. You can go to some of the bookstores in London and find some of the old Russian-American stories and whatnot...just they were all gathered and collected and very inexpensive to buy. Mainly because people were ready to just throw them away. Our Park Service has most of ours, you know that don’t you?
Petrov: Yes, sure. It’s time right now to publish the collection of documents devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church dealing with the different aspects of this period. Because these documents, actually, that’s in written form, I mean in old Russian language, and I already told you that’s scattered in mainly archives...
Stevens: Most of those have been taken by the members
of the Russian Orthodox Church, you know that… The Church was...torn down
during World War II, it was hard to rebuild, as it dispersed at the beginning
of World War II, many of their documents were lost. But many also were
taken into Philadelphia, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox area,
some to San Francisco. I worked years ago to try and help Metropolitan
of America and Canada Theodosius. We go back a long time, and we talked
about those records a long time ago. He may have more knowledge now of
where they are, but we’re looking for them.
My sister-in-law, if you haven’t met with her, when you’re in Alaska you should meet her. She is the state historical preservation officer.
Our state is doing a lot, and they have many foundations in the state, like the Rassmussen Foundation and others, are trying to collect money to do what you’re suggesting. I personally am very interested in it, but as far as federal money is concerned, I think I’d have a very hard time putting it...
Petrov: So thank you very much for your time, my very last perhaps question, can I take picture with you?
Stevens: Sure, sure. We should do that, thank you. Thank you for the book, I’ll give it to my wife.