Connected Across Two Oceans: Potential of Cooperation Between Russian and U.S. Regions
article published in San Francisco Examiner
Even though Moscow and Washington are far away from each other geographically and the feeling of a deteriorating political crisis in the relations keeps growing, our countries are destined to be the closest neighbors. Only two and a half miles separate the Big Diomede (Chukotka) and the Little Diomede (Alaska) islands in the Bering Sea which are the easternmost point of Russia and the westernmost point of the U.S. In the winter, one can make it sometimes on foot from one island to another.
The affinity of our peoples is also rooted in the common history. The city of Sitka – known as Novo-Arkhangelsk and located near the capital of Alaska – used to be the administrative center of the Russian America until 1867. Many place names of the most northern American state also speak to the Russian influence – the Shishmaref Inlet; the Baranof, Andreanof, Chirikof, Sarichef, Pribilof, Shumagin islands; the Shelikof Straight and the Wrangell Mountains.
Take the Alaska-Siberian air road that was active during World War II. The Soviet military pilots used this route from Fairbanks (Alaska) to the USSR to fly U.S. Lend-Lease aircraft (about eight thousand), deliver diplomatic pouches and transport Embassy staff.
There are even more things that unite the two countries: they share cultural and ethnic legacy of the peoples inhabiting Alaska and, for instance, Chukotka. Russia and the United States have common tasks of preserving the northern identity and protecting the ecosystem of the Arctic region. And of course, both aim to pursue economic development of unique resources of the North. Against this background, worthy of note is the long-standing constructive coast guard cooperation between our countries in Kamchatka and Alaska.
Other regions share a common history, too. For example, Fort Ross – a former Russian trading post of 1812-1841 – has survived to this day as an ethnographic monument in California. Every year the self-titled park welcomes thousands of American school children, students, historians and ordinary people. On the territory of this museum-reserve there is also the Holy Trinity Chapel – the first Orthodox facility in the United States built in 1824 – which is still operational. Currently, the Russian Geographical Society helps restoring the chapel.
Today, the largest state in the American West maintains stable ties with the Vologda, Novgorod, Tyumen, Pskov regions and St. Petersburg as part of efforts to protect the common cultural and historical heritage,
The memory of the Russian presence is still alive in Hawaii. In 1816, sailors of the Imperial Russian Navy laid three fortifications on Kauai Island – the Fort Elizabeth, Fort Alexander and Fort Barclay. They worked closely with the indigenous people and established trade relations. Nowadays Russian compatriots and local authorities preserve these monuments and develop their tourist potential.
Today Russians live in almost every American state. According to various estimates, the number of Russian speakers in America ranges from 3.5 to 5 million people.
A shared history and close humanitarian ties lie behind the continued interest of the Russians and the Americans in cooperation. This is particularly felt away from Washington, D.C. –in areas wh ere our bilateral relations are not yet spoiled by the toxic atmosphere of Russophobia.
Commercial interest is one of the driving forces that push the constituent entities of the Russian Federation to engage in direct dialogue with the U.S. states and vice versa. Many U.S. companies choose to do business outside Moscow and the Moscow region. The footprint of American enterprises can be seen in the Ural –in the Sverdlovsk and Tyumen regions, above all. Yet another illustration of that was the virtual Texas-Ural conversation held this summer with the participation of entrepreneurs and local authorities. The topic of the discussion was the prospects for expanding business cooperation.
American investments helped launch factories in the Belgorod, Vologda, Lipetsk, Novgorod, Rostov and other regions. Businesses from the United States come to Siberia and the Far East. Ties between the Republic of Tatarstan and California as well as Minnesota are growing stronger, especially in the high-tech sector.
Russian business is also building up its presence in American regions. Russian metallurgic factories successfully operate in Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Our oil and gas and oilfield service companies are represented in Texas and New York.
University exchanges were developing successfully before the pandemic. Here is an example – joint research projects of the University of Alaska and Kamchatka State Technical University and the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology of the Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. There are also well-established ties between the University of California and the State University of Tyumen. The latter is holding consultations on cooperation with Yaroslav-the-Wise Novgorod State University.
Stanford University in California runs the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum. Contacts and student exchanges are maintained with the SKOLKOVO Institute of Science and Technology, Higher School of Economics, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Tyumen State University and Far Eastern Federal University.
Sister city relations are also witnessing a new rise. U.S. Sister Cities International is playing an active role in this field. On September 18, the association organized a round table with the Union of Russian Cities to discuss inter-municipal cooperation. Then, on October 13, a seminar was held for mayors from different regions to exchange views on the prospects for cooperation with Russian partners.
There is a persistent interest in such work, no matter how the situation at the federal level develops. This February a delegation from Albany (New York) visited its sister city Tula. A year earlier a youth hockey team from this New York municipality took part in an international hockey tournament in Novomoskovsk. There is an active dialogue between Moscow and Chicago and Los Angeles, including on the development of the smart city concept. The Russian capital is also actively cooperating with the Houston City Council.
There are constant contacts between Magadan and Anchorage, Yakutsk and Fairbanks, Yekaterinburg and San Jose, Novorossiysk and Gainesville, Vladivostok and Juneau.
The Leningrad region and Maryland are the only pair of sister regions at the moment, but they have been enjoying friendly relations for almost quarter of a century.
In early September the city of Duluth (Minnesota) offered a warm welcome for Russian travelers, who are making an around-the-world journey on a ship built in Petrozavodsk – Duluth’s sister city. In 2021 Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Tagil will host the first international music festival of sister cities “Jazz Train to Chattanooga”. The event is scheduled to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Nizhny Tagil and Chattanooga (Tennessee).
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic Russia and the United States managed to organize joint commemorative ceremonies to the mark the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II. A monument to Russian and American military pilots “To the Heroes of ALSIB” was inaugurated in Magadan on May 9, 2020. This event was attended by representatives of the sister city of Anchorage (Alaska). Ethan Berkowitz, the mayor of the city, sent a warm video address on the occasion of the opening of this memorial.
The same day another outstanding event took place. In Egvenikot in Chukotka and Fairbanks in Alaska wreathes were simultaneously laid to the monuments in honor of the heroes of ALSIB. The event was attended by representatives of local authorities of both cities, including Mayor of Fairbanks Jim Matherly.
There are 77 pairs of Russian and American sister cities. We hope that all of them will revive their close ties.
It would be great if every state in the U.S. could find a partner among the constituent entities of Russia and outline specific plans and mutually beneficial projects. Such cooperation could help build a stronger foundation for inter-state communication between the two countries.
We are sure that all the necessary conditions for this are in place. For many years two major forums successfully facilitate communication between regions. The first initiative is Dialogue Fort Ross that will hold its next session online from November 30 to December 4. The second platform is the Russian-American Pacific Partnership that plans to convene its next meeting in 2021.
Of course, the potential of ties between the two countries at the level of cities and regions is yet to be reached. Much remains to be done to diversify them and translate the dialogue into concrete projects. Still, the fact that such social, humanitarian and economic contacts find their way– despite the general unfavorable climate of the relations – is encouraging.
Our common task is to cultivate these shoots of cooperation in every possible way. They help strengthen mutual understanding between the Russians and the Americans and could be a “safety net” for preventing bilateral contradictions from going too far. We must not forget that the interaction between Moscow and Washington still has a major impact on key global processes and well-being of the entire planet.
Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the U.S.