Between Alaska and Russia
Allan Engstrom, born and raised in Juneau: a commercial fisherman, an expert in Alaska's Russian heritage and a father of two Russian-American children.
Having spent many years in Russia and being absolutely fluent in Russian, Allan gives some about the insights of the country he calls his 'second homeland'.
- How long have you lived in Alaska and why are you still here?
- I was born Juneau, Alaska, Sept. 28, 1969. My great grandfather came to Alaska during the Gold Rush, he started out in Wrangell, Alaska, he opened a general store. My grandfather started as a fish buyer in the 1930s and became a politician, a state senator. He was Chairman of the Republican party of Alaska from 1936 to 1956. My grandmother was of the first female elected representatives in the territorial legislature. So I have roots that go back four generations in Alaska and, having been born and raised here, there is no question where I would live. This is my home. This is why I am still here.

- Alaska is…
- Alaska is my homeland, my country. When I travel, in Russia or elsewhere in the world, people asking me: where are you from? I do not say I am from America. I always say: I am from Alaska. These are different things for me. Alaska is my homeland, America is different. Sometimes people ask: is that Canada? Or is that America? They don't know. They've heard of Alaska something. It often happens in Russia, by the way. So I am not an American citizen first, I am a citizen of Alaska, although I am an American, I have an American passport, first and foremost, I am an Alaskan.

What is the spirit of Alaska in terms of values people live?
- Alaska, again, is a part of this whole idea, that it is being an its own country, its own place. Alaskans are much different from the people in the Lower 48 states, like California. Alaskans, I would say, as a Northern people, in my experience, not only 48 years in Alaska but of my 25-year experience on and off to Russia, Alaskans and Russians… There are many differences but in many ways they are very similar people. First of all, we hate arrogance. I gave a knife to a friend in Pelican, a beautiful $150 knife and I asked him: 'What is your opinion of this knife?' He used it to kill a deer. His name is Jay Erikson. He said: it was dull. He told me the truth! Normally, if it would have been somebody else, I might have been offended but this is a brother, a fellow Alaskan, who said the truth. If you ask a true Alaskan for his opinion, he usually gives you his opinion, whether you like it or not. Now in many other states that I've traveled in the United States, there is a smile on their faces, there is politeness. Just emptiness, no soul. And that is one thing I felt in Russia as well as Alaska: people of the North have, what I call, 'deep soul. Maybe it is because we have such long cold winters… Friendship is very important, too, in Alaska. Chris Howard probably saved my life or tried to… (laughing). And in Russia there is, probably, nothing more important than friendship. A great thing you can tell somebody in Russia: you are my brother. When we're out fishing, we call each other 'brother'. I've always thought: one Russian friend, or an Alaskan friend, especially meaning a Tlingkit friend, is worth 10 American friends in the 'Lower 48'. Many American friends that I've had, they can smile at you, ask you how are you doing but as soon as you pass them they forget about you. Friendship in Alaska to me is one of the defining aspects of this state that makes it great.
I am not an American citizen first, I am a citizen of Alaska.
- Since time immemorial the Native peoples of Alaska have lived here. Then the Russians came. Then Alaska became a part of the United States. In the end, who has the most claim?
- Well, it is a question that has almost been made moot. People that have been here forever have a claim like no other, which is the Tlinkits, the Aleuts, the Athabaskans, this is a land where they have been for thousands of years. Russians, I would say, they left incredible cultural traces behind, there is the reminance of the Russian culture in Alaska but they have no claim now in Alaska. Americans… we control the state now, it is an American state and that's not gonna change but I personally respect and honor the Native peoples of Alaska, even as a fourth generation Alaskan I consider myself a newcomer, compared to some Natives who had been around here for 10,000 years.
- The First Peoples of Alaska, including Inupiaq, Tlingit, Athabaskans, Yupik, Alutiiq and others, how large is their role in modern Alaska today?
- One of the great things about Alaska is that the Natives in Alaska today are able to play a much stronger role than they have been in other Natives in other states. That is because in the history of America they've created a system of reservations which I consider is like apartheid: they were prisoners on their own land. In Alaska there was an incredible movement in the 1970s in the Congress, it is called the ANCSA, Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Senator Ted Stevens played a role in this, the Uncle Ted as we used to call him here. Instead of creating reservations in Alaska and making them prisoners on their own land, they created 12 Alaska Native regional corporations and made every Native in Alaska a shareholder in these corporations and there were given land and an opportunity to develop. One of the richest corporations is the Arctic Slope regional corporation which controls the land where oil was discovered in the 1970s. Alaska has been unique in the way they've been empowering Natives. There are still many problems among the local Native population, for example, there are some villages that are dry where you cannot buy alcohol because it is a problem there with high rates of suicide. And those problems still exist. But Alaska as a state in America is unique in how we try to empower the Native population.

- Alaska and the 'Lower 48': do people do things differently there?
- Alaska is a completely different land, I don't even consider it America. It is totally different from the 'Lower 48': everything from the way of life to the outlook. In my opinion Alaska is the most unique state in the United States. And maybe in second place it might be Hawaii. First of all, the territory. It is huge and there is great diversity here. Alaska is twice as big as Texas, the biggest state from the 'Lower 48' in terms of territory. And people definitely do things differently here: there are small communities with a hundred of people in the wintertime. They're living basically a subsistence lifestyle, fishing and hunting. But it is not to say that Alaska isn't integrated in the United States. I can order things off Amazon when I am in a small town in Pelican in Southeast Alaska and have it delivered for free. It is part of the U.S. So Alaska has all the benefits of membership in the United States. And I think that what makes Alaska such an exotic destination for tourists that come up in the summertime from the 'Lower 48': it is so different from their homes there, the nature here is so overwhelming. If you go out to the Glacier Bay or any of these spots... Sometimes Americans like to say that bears walk out in the streets in Russia. But bears do walk out in the streets right here in Alaska! As a matter of fact, I walked out of my door and there was a black bear eating out my trash! Such things happen all the time here, there are many stories like that.
- Do reality TV shows genuinely portray Alaska or they distort it?
- The reason there is a proliferation of reality shows is that Alaska legislature gave a tax break and brought in all these film production companies. This was done just in recent years. There are certain reality shows which, I think, are committed to portraying lifestyle on Alaska. The 'Deadliest Catch' is one of them. Obviously, they are scripted but these guys are out there at sea. They are out there risking their lives trying to catch crab. There are some reality shows that are so… disgusting in their distortion of the Alaskan lifestyle I would almost consider them pornographic: and that is the 'Bush People of Alaska'! The 'Bush People of Alaska' were a family from Texas. They've come up to Alaska, they're pretending to live in the bush and in Hoonah there were pretending to build a house when they all were staying in a local lodge there eating pizza every night! They created a fraud trying to receive a Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). Their every program is a disgusting depiction of the Alaskan cliché. I wish they would make up a 'Bush People of Texas' where they belong. And I had the experience to witness first-hand them shooting that program in Pelican. It actually does a disservice to Alaska because it portrays all of Alaskans as dumbass hillbillys, that we're not. It is contrived, it is not reality. I got into an argument with one of the producers down in Pelican and the producer was saying: 'Allan, this is reality TV!' And I said: 'There is nothing f.cking real about it! It is not reality TV'.
- Where, in your opinion, is the most beautiful place in Alaska? Why did you pick that place and why is it so special to you?
- The most beautiful town, if it comes to towns, in Alaska, I consider, is Sitka which was the Russian capital of Alaska. It is an easy town to walk around, it has a beautiful view of the Mount Edgecumbe volcano, a beautiful view of the horizon and the sea. There so many beautiful places in Alaska, such as Lituya Bay, west of Cape Spencer, there is a glacier that comes down to the water. First time I went out there I felt like a tourist in Alaska and I was only out there for the first time 3 years ago. I felt like a tourist in my own state! It was so overwhelmingly beautiful that even having lived 48 years in Alaska there are still places that can take my breath away… Another one is Surge Bay where Russians were lost in 1741. I am going in there every night when I am fishing at anchor at night. And that bay has a spiritual feeling there…
The most beautiful town, if it comes to towns, in Alaska, I consider, is Sitka which was the Russian capital of Alaska. It is an easy town to walk around, it has a beautiful view of the Mount Edgecumbe volcano, a beautiful view of the horizon and the sea.
- What are you favorite Alaskan foods? Do you have a special recipe?
- Alaska is a land most famous for fish and berries. So my choice is seafood, and our king salmon is unparalleled anywhere in the world. When we go to the 'Lower 48', I don't eat fish. When I go to Russia, I don't eat fish, I don't eat salmon. When I go to Russia I see humpback salmon that is frozen and six-month old in a market in Moscow. We don't keep humpback, it is a junk fish! Because we have so many others: silver salmon, king salmon, sockeye, so many other types of good salmon. As commercial fishermen we don't keep humpback salmon. I have many special recipes for fish: for halibut, for salmon and also for berries. My dad made the best raspberry jam, he won a Blue Ribbon at the state fair in Anchorage one year. Unfortunately, he passed away and nobody's making that raspberry jam anymore… Alaskans are not arrogant but they are only arrogant when it comes to the fish. In fact, it is not arrogance, it is confidence. We are so confident that our fish is best in the world. And it is not just our fish is the best it is also, I believe, our fishing industry is regulated to create the best product anywhere. It is the biologists, not politics like in other places around the world, playing the fundamental role in fishery management. We were told this year that we couldn't catch the king salmon because there weren't enough of them. So they shut the whole king salmon fishing down. It is one of the strengths of Alaska as a state that they can do that and not worry about poachers, not worry about the guys with nets, like in Russia where, I know, it is a horrible problem.
- What do you know about the Russian America or Russian heritage in Alaska?
- Well, I wrote a book with my father: for the last 20 years I've been involved in the history of Alaska and Russian America. This book that I wrote was about the first Russian chief manager of the Russian-American company, Alexander Baranov. He was the first governor of Alaska: that's how we call him here because he really, truly was the first governor of Alaska although he was a Russian. He was much better than a lot of American governors that followed. He defined the state more than any other man. For example, the present boundaries of Alaska were defined by those early Russian explorers. And without the Russians Alaska would have been taken over by the British through Canada. He kept the place. I am sure that he would be rolling in his grave knowing that it is part of America now… So we're all in a great debt to all those early Russians. During the Cold War there was a tendency for American propaganda, the way even we talked of Alaska's history, that the Russians were bad. They enslaved the Aleuts in the Aleutians, they killed them, they lined them up to see how far the musket bullet would go through them. That was true but that was one story. We didn't learn about how many Russians married Native women or how many Natives took the Russian faith. Or how many Natives still have Russian names. If you pick up a phone book in Kodiak or in Unalaska, you'll see a whole list of Russian names: Ivanoff, Soboleff and so on. The cultural influence that is left from the Russians, you see it on a map, too. We have here Chichagof island, Baranof island, Yakobi island, the Wrangell mountains and the town of Wrangell, from where my great-grandfather came.
- This year is the 150th anniversary of Alaska purchase by the United States: are you aware of this event?
- I am very well aware. Having studied Russian history I knew the event was coming up. There is not any big celebrations here other than, maybe at academia, there are conferences now to celebrate it. Maybe in Sitka they will have a celebration in October on Alaska day… Juneau never celebrates the transfer of Alaska or Alaska day other than it is a day-off.
- How do you feel towards Russia as a country?
- I feel a very strong connection to Russia. I think, having lived and spent time in Russia over a 25-year period of time, it started in 1989, I have an understanding of Russia that not many Americans or even Alaskans would have. I have two children back in Russia, my blood flows in Russia. I consider Russia my second homeland though I am a foreigner there. In Moscow or in Tot'ma I feel much more at home than in New York or Washington, D.C.
- America and Russia: are we enemies? Or are we not?
- I came of age at a very interesting time: I was a student at the Washington, D.C., at Georgetown University from 1987 to 1991. It was the end of the Cold War and, looking back at talking with Russians friends, I'd say we were 'the children of Gorbachev'. The first time that I went to the Soviet Union was in 1989. We flew from New York to Belgium and we got on al Aeroflot flight with big letters on the wings: CCCP. And it was a bit frightening: I though I was going on board the plane of the enemy. This is because we've grown up thinking that Russians can kill us anytime in the nuclear war, that they were aggressors. Even just a few years ago Ronald Reagan called Russia an 'evil empire'. So I looked through the window and the hair on my back stood up: CCCP! But then, once I got to Russia, I was in Kalinin, now Tver, and met normal, average Russia people and I thought: how the hell we could have ever be enemies with these people when they are so much similar with ourselves? And I felt even stronger about that coming from Alaska because I felt the tremendous connection with the Russian people, especially with the older people in Russia. When I was in Kalinin, the 'dezhurnaya', the woman-on-duty on our floor in the hotel was the old lady, a babushka. She was a wonderful lady and she invited me home once for lunch. She had a very small one-room apartment, her name was Olga Alexandrovna and she was 74 at the time and lived with her daughter who was 40 then. She told me her story one time and it was the only time I saw her cry. She was born in the Ukraine and there was 'golodomor', a great famine. She struggled with that horrible famine there and then some time later they moved to Tver. And then, two years later, the Germans came, killed her father in the bombing and her mother and her were forced to leave and go out into the countryside and live off roots as the Germans occupied Tver. Horrible time, horrible war! And she always had a smile, she always, so to speak, had a song to sing. So she looked at me as we were sitting in her small apartment and said: 'Allan, look at what I have. I have a bed. I have a television. I have a refrigerator. After everything I have been to, what else do I need?' And she gave everything she had. Everything she put on table. Well, that's the Russian hospitality that I fell in love with and never forget that. I may not have much but I'll give you the shirt off my back because you are my guest!
Now, American propaganda and the security services doing all that is in their power to make us enemies again. And I think part of it is that America needs enemies in the world. The American government cannot exist without enemies. So the spirit of Russia… the people that survived and beat the Nazis: I've always felt attracted to talk to 'babushkas' and 'dedushkas', the older people, people of that generation, to hear their stories.
- If you had an opportunity to meet and talk to an ordinary Russian, what would you say?
- Oh, I've had many opportunities to meet ordinary Russians! When I meet Russians I always say: I am from Alaska. And people react in many different ways. I got into a taxi once and there was a 'muzhik' (dude) driving it. He asked: 'Where are you from, brother?' And I answered, in Russian, of course: 'I am from Alaska'. He asked then: 'Did you recently come to Russia?' And I said: 'In 1989'. So he started thinking and asked: 'So who sold Alaska? Putin or that bastard Yeltsin?' He didn't know at all about who sold Alaska and when! And I almost answered: 'No, it was Gorbachev!' (laughing). I've had so many fascinating encounters with Russians over the years. It is just such an interesting country and in my experience it is because the Russians really have heart and soul, there is 'Russkaya dusha' (Russian soul) everywhere I have been to: Veliky Ustiug, Magadan, Kamchatka… And I don't feel it in the 'Lower 48'. It is just emptiness there. So if you ask what an Alaskan spirit is, it is similar to the Russian spirit: family goes first, then friends.
- What is your version of the American dream?
- I would call it the Alaskan dream. In Alaska it is not about just making money, of course. Well, you have to make money to live. But in Alaska my version of the American dream is marching to the beat of your own drum, i.e. doing what you want to do and being happy doing that. I am able to do it now: I fish in the summertime. Not because I have to but because I can. So right now I would say I consider I am living the Alaskan dream. For 20 years I've owned an art gallery in Juneau and I hated every minute of it but it just paid the bills. I wish I would have become a commercial fisherman earlier. And now I am a lot older and I don't need to be a commercial fisherman but I do it because I love it. So the Alaskan dream I would say is being able to do what you want to do with nobody screwing with you in the process (laughing). And in town of Pelican there is not even a police officer. The Alaskans don't want to be bothered be it the federal government or any other bureaucracy. We are law-abiding citizens but the last thing we want is some guy telling us what to do!
The Alaskans don't want to be bothered be it the federal government or any other bureaucracy. We are law-abiding citizens but the last thing we want is some guy telling us what to do!
- What a great single Alaskan person of past or present would you like to talk to?
- It is Russian, Alexander Baranov. I wrote a book about him and the true history of Russians in Alaska. The book that my son and daughter in Russia would one day be proud to read when they come. I think he, without a doubt, was a single greatest Alaskan because he defined the boundaries of our state. Without Alexander Baranov and the Russians Alaska would not exist today in its present form. So I actually use that one instead of Ted Stevens.
- What will Alaska be like in 2034, 17 years from now?
- That is a tough question. What was Alaska like 17 years ago? What was Juneau like 50 years ago? Yes, there are changes that have been made but you came to Juneau 50 years ago and just came back today you would still be able to find you way walking around town. What would Alaska be in 17 years from now? I think, other than technological changes, the land will still be there. If you go pass Cape Spencer you will still get to the Lituya Bay. If you go outside of Yakobi island you'll still get to Surge Bay. I am sure White Sulphur hot springs would still be bubbling from the land. There is a question will the climate change hurt the fish somehow? It is a possibility that it could have impacts on the fish. Maybe we'll be catching tuna off Yakobi instead of king salmon? I hope not. But this land will still be here 17 years from now. The resources, the trees will still be here. I may not but Alaska will most certainly, still be here.
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