Kristine L Ming

The ice curtain that divides US families from Russian cousins

Two islands in the Bering Straits, one Russian, one American, are barely two miles apart. Only a few military observation posts remain on the Russian island, but a community of Eskimos lives on the US island. After the Cold War they hoped to resume regular contact with Russian relatives – but now the chances seem to be fading again.

Frances Ozenna points to a snapshot on the wall of her 19-year-old daughter, Rebecca. “You see how fair she is. That’s from our Russian side. From my great-grandfather. She came out beautiful, didn’t she?”

Ozenna is an Eskimo tribal leader for the island of Little Diomede on America’s western border. Her small home is built on to a steep hillside, and her living-room window looks straight across a narrow stretch of water to Russia just over two miles (about 4km) away – the sister island, Big Diomede.

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Frances Ozenna has relatives from the Russian island of Big Diomede, just two miles away

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Her daughter Rebecca takes after the Russian side of the family

“We know we have relatives over there,” she says. “The older generations are dying out, and the thing is we know nothing about each other. We are losing our language. We speak English now and they speak Russian. It’s not our fault. It’s not their fault. But it’s just terrible.”

The people of this Bering Strait region still see themselves as one people and the border as an irritant. It was first drawn up in 1867 when America bought Alaska from a cash-strapped Tsarist Russia. But no-one took much notice then. Families lived on both islands and criss-crossed back and forth until 1948 when the border was suddenly closed. The Soviet military moved on to Big Diomede and the civilians were forcibly resettled on the Siberian mainland.

“If we could get reunification going, it would bring a lot to our peace of minds here,” says Ozenna. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

All of the 80 people who live on this remote island have relations somewhere in Russia. A quarter of a century ago, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, there was a glimmer of hope that they would be able to meet again. Robert Soolook, another Diomede tribal leader, took part in an expedition that travelled through the Siberian east-coast province of Chukotka looking for lost relatives.

“By skis and dog sled we covered 20-25 miles a day and went to 16 villages,” he remembers. “I found relatives on my mother’s side in three villages, and her favourite cousin – Luda – she was in Uelen. It was very special. I was with family again.”

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