Alaska’s Little Diomede Island Keeps ‘Eyes and Ears’ on Russia

  • Life in Diomede, Alaska, is unlike anywhere else in the United States.
  • Just 2.4 miles from Russia’s Big Diomede Island, the city of 83 people can see the border from the shore.
  • “We’re safe, as long as we sleep good at night,” a resident told Insider. “We keep the eyes and ears.”

Geopolitical relations between Russia and the United States are often seen through the lens of geography, with both countries projecting power across multiple time zones on opposite sides of the Earth.

As the world’s two biggest nuclear powers — and with Russia putting its stations on high alert in response to Western sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine — fears of an armed conflict evoke images of long range missile strikes and proxy wars in far flung regions, or for Baby Boomers, “duck-and-cover” drills at school.

Yet in the middle of the Bering Strait, there are Americans who can literally see Russia from their homes.

“We’re the back door of the country — or the front door, rather,” Edward Soolook, a 55-year-old lifelong resident of Diomede, told Insider in a phone interview.

Russian troops stationed on Big Diomede Island, situated 2.4 miles away, will yell in English at any boats venturing too close to their shoreline. They’ve even been known to fire off the occasional warning shot, Soolook said — adding he’s never personally heard a warning shot.

“We’re safe, as long as we sleep good at night,” Soolook told Insider, noting that Soolook told Insider that life on the island hasn’t changed since Russia invaded Ukraine. “We keep the eyes and ears.”

The city of Diomede, Alaska, on Little Diomede Island, has a population of 83 people, according to the 2020 census.

Big Diomede Island features a similarly barren landscape to Little Diomede Island but also a small Russian military base and a crashed Soviet Lisunov Li-2 aircraft from 1972.

Big Diomede is in a timezone 21 hours ahead of Little Diomede, but both islands have clear views of each other, and the Alaskan city faces directly across toward the cliffs of the bigger island.

Frontier of the frontier

Little Diomede remains unknown to most Americans. But that’s changed a bit in the past several weeks.

In the burgeoning subgenre of Google Maps-themed TikTok videos, for example, a post by map_nerd about the islands already has more than 1.6 million likes on the social media app.

Virtual travel to Little Diomede remains the best route there. Unless you charter or commandeer a boat when the ocean isn’t frozen, there’s only one way to get to Diomede — helicopter.

Pathfinder Aviation offers helicopter trips to and from Diomede from Nome, on Alaska’s western coast. These include emergency flights, which the company says are available 24-hours-a-day. A representative for Pathfinder declined to comment for this story.

Bering Air, which also declined to comment for this story, ceased flights to Diomede after a storm broke up the frozen landing strip in 2018. “We hope to resume service in the future!” the company says on its website.

The 2018 is rather, in the history of the islands and has remained ever since to Alaska Magazine.

“Climate change is real, and it is demanding that we the people must learn to live around new seasons, weather, ice conditions, and even the loss of our culture,” Opik Okinga, Diomede’s environmental coordinator, told the magazine. “Soon, we won’t see the manners we practice, the practices that our ancestors gave us to survive.”

For more than 3,000 years, the Ingalikmiut people have navigated the islands and surrounding ice sheets, conquering the conditions and rocky surfaces to live off of the fish and other natural resources in the Bering Strait.

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