Guest Blogger David Ramseur | Melting the Ice Curtain

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Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier

I can still see the smiling man with the movie star tan waving from the back seat of a white convertible as the crowd thundered: “Ken-a-DEE, Ken-a-DEE.” My mother had pulled me from first grade for my first campaign rally: Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1960 visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Little did I know then that Kennedy’s presidential campaign centered on getting tough with the Soviet Union by flexing America’s nuclear muscle. After the rally, the 43-year-old candidate soberly addressed the New Mexico Democratic Convention, singling out Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for his threatening behavior.

This vague childhood memory would have remained just that had I not been inspired more than half a century later to transform that brief USSR interaction into a 320-page book. This month my book, Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier, was published by University of Alaska Press. It focuses on a 30-year era of perilous yet prolific progress achieved by Russian and Alaskan citizen-diplomats melting Cold War tensions starting in the mid-1980s.

I’m honored to be June’s guest blogger for 49 Writers. I’ll use the opportunity to share my experience in researching and writing Melting the Ice Curtain, tips for producing a contemporary history, and ideas about marketing, which I’m now aggressively pursuing.

It’s been a revelation to me that this book originated with my family, which found itself on the front lines of the Cold War. Only from recent research did I appreciate that my dad’s assignments as a Marine sergeant in the 1950s involved guarding and arming nuclear weapons for use against the Soviet Union. And only when asking about my early childhood did my mom share the story of feeding me a bottle one early dark morning when an atomic-bomb test lighted up the Nevada desert sky.

That early exposure to the Cold War stimulated my lifelong fascination with international affairs, especially those of the Soviet Union. Alaska’s proximity to Russia was one reason I pursued a reporting job at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

I relocated from the sleepy Carolinas to Fairbanks in 1979 to find the Cold War alive and well. We wrote about Soviet Bear bombers threatening Alaska airspace, mysterious Soviet military equipment washing up on Bering Sea beaches and the occasional quirky adventurer attempting to walk or paddle the two and a half miles across the international date line before being snatched up by Soviet border guards.

After two years as the News-Miner’s Washington correspondent, I returned to Alaska and began 30 years as a top aide to Governors Steve Cowper, Tony Knowles, and Anchorage mayor and US Senator Mark Begich. With Cowper, I made my first trip to the mysterious USSR on the 1988 Alaska Airlines “Friendship Flight.” I got so hooked on Russia I’ve returned more than 10 times and lived and worked there. I’ve struggled to learn the language and still passionately follow Russian current affairs.

After witnessing Alaska and Russia Native relatives reunite after 40 years of Cold War separation on a chilly 1988 June day in Provideniya, I knew history was being made. So I began collecting Russian memorabilia – gubernatorial briefing papers, news clips, photos – and kept a journal of early interactions and travel. Those accumulated boxes formed the nucleus of my research three decades later. Fortunately, dozens of other Alaskans kept similar treasure chests of their Russian adventures and happily shared them.

With Senator Begich’s re-election loss in late 2014 and my day job ending, I decided there was no better time to attempt a book on my passion: Alaska-Russia relations. I approached the initial research as a reporter, interviewing virtually everyone who helped melt the Ice Curtain. All told, I interviewed more than 130 people across the world by Skype, phone, coffee shop conversations, and sometimes by emailing questions I had translated into Russian. Quickly overwhelmed transcribing those recorded interviews, I hired a transcriber.

An invaluable break came from the now retired head of Institute of Social and Economic Research. Getting designated a “visiting scholar in public policy” didn’t come with an office or salary but gave me UAA library privileges which saved hundreds in research costs. For weeks in the UAA library, I downloaded every news clipping, academic report, and thesis I could find about Alaska-Russia interactions the past half-century.

I cashed in airline miles to visit Reagan Library archives in Los Angeles, the National Archives in Washington, and Alaska Airlines’ historic records in Seattle. Seminars through 49 Writers were invaluable in helping me organize the overwhelming amount of documents and interviews.

After about a year of research, I started writing what I thought would be an informative history hopefully interesting to a relative handful of Alaskans. And then a couple of guys named Putin and Trump began trading compliments.

Read about how international politics changed the scope of my project mid-stream in the next installment.

David Ramseur is a visiting scholar in public policy at the University of Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. He served as press secretary, communications director, chief of staff, and foreign policy advisor to Alaska Governors Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles and to Anchorage mayor and US Senator Mark Begich. He has visited the Soviet Union and Russia more than a dozen times starting with the Alaska Airlines’ Friendship Flight in 1988.

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