First Russian woman
in the Last Great race
Anna Bondarenko, from Chugiak, a school teacher and an adventurer, is the one and only Russian woman to successfully complete the legendary Iditarod sled dog race.
Anna shares why she loves Alaska so much, what is so different living in Alaska compared to Russia, and what famous Alaskan she would like to meet.
- How long have you lived in Alaska and why are you still here?
- The first time I came to Alaska was in 1989. I've lived here since 1992 when I came here for the third time and decided to stay. I have been living in Alaska for 25 years already. That makes up a quarter of a century. Everything I got is here: my family, my life. This is my place on Earth.
- Alaska is…
- homeland. I consider it my homeland. Russia? I remember back in my middle school, 6th grade, I was sitting on the bench and staring at the stars. At that moment I had a vision: I would be living somewhere far-far away, in another land. And this dream came true!
- What is the spirit of Alaska in terms of values people live?
- Freedom! What I hated in Russia was Babbittry. You couldn't leave your house without putting makeup on for everyone to gossip about you! Here in Alaska you're just what you are. You dress the way you like. Such things set you free: it doesn't matter how you look, it doesn't matter at all. Though here, too, we've got both Americans and Russians who care much about it. But in Russia you just can't escape it. If you don't pay attention to it you just get out of step. So before coming to Alaska I just couldn't imagine how all these things had been bringing me down. When I came to America I just set my mind free. To dress up nicely, yes. Still, it is not a goal in itself. In Russia it is. What did you put on? What makeup is on you? It's all extrinsic...
I consider Alaska my homeland. This is my place on Earth.
- 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?
- Officially, de jure and politically it is white Americans power. They established the law, and they have the claim, but from the human point of view the natural claim belongs to the Native people of Alaska.
- The First Peoples of Alaska, including Inupiaq, Tlingit, Athabaskans, Yupik, Alutiiq and others, how large is their role in modern Alaska today?
- I enjoy watching the Native people reestablishing their rights. They're taking back their voice. They're getting more and more confident in their own culture and their lifestyle. Still, they've got to fight for it. It is great to see their younger generation starting to feel more confident in themselves and being proud of what they are. They don't want to be a part of the white man's culture, they're trying to find their own. For instance, Nickolai Byron, a teenager from a small Aleutian village, has his own YouTube music channel. He sings his songs and plays his drum. And he's already got his fan base, his audience, especially younger Native people. This is the new generation. They are rediscovering their identity: what are we? It is their tradition that dates back millennia... So now for the younger generation it is cool to be a Native Alaskan, it is a new trend.
- Alaska and the 'Lower 48': do people do things differently there?
- Of course, there are differences if you compare lifestyle or a degree of independence. It is much more organized down there in the 'Lower 48': all those manicured lawns though we've got it here, too, in some places. There's much more of an independence spirit present in Alaska. You choose your own lifestyle. You do what you want to do. You are what you want to be. Though here in Anchorage we've got neighborhoods where all houses are painted the same color and all lawns are manicured the same. Still, this is not typical for Alaska.
- Do reality TV shows genuinely portray Alaska or do they distort it?
- All these TV series are being produced to attract viewers' attention. They are sensational. If everything is like real life nobody would be interested in watching it. So it is all over-dramatized. On the other hand, I wouldn't say that these TV series much exaggerate Alaskan life, like for example 'The Deadliest Catch'. Statistically, to catch crab in the Bering Sea is truly a very dangerous job. But like in any other show, it doesn't really reflect reality. It is larger than life, just like any art should be. I once visited Spain and there was only one English-speaking channel available to me, and an Alaska reality TV show was on the air. I did watch one episode. There was a character walking in showshoes through the snow. This is such a typical thing here! For some people it might be very unusual but for us there's nothing new. It looked funny to me.
- 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?
- It is more than just one place to me. Everywhere I go in Alaska is beautiful. Each spot has its unique touch. I like hiking in the mountains as well as walking along the ocean shore. You just walk out of your backyard and, like a miracle, any place in Alaska seems to be so amazing! Here in Chugiak I love walking along the Cook Inlet shore. I especially like it in wintertime with all those ice rocks all over the place… It is strikingly beautiful! Everything here is on a grand scale. Everything is so magestic! It doesn't matter if you go hiking up in the mountains or in the forest or along the ocean shore. Even within Anchorage city limits you just step on a hiking trail, and it seems you are walking in the deep forest. You can get lost. You can even face a moose or a bear. Everything in Alaska is really big! I was once in Oregon visiting my friends. They told me we've got a beautiful place over here, so let's see it. Yes, it was pretty nice. We climbed a small mountain. To me it was like a playground (laughing). Alaska's beauty and grandeur just make you feel great, it enriches you.
Everything here is on a grand scale. Everything is so magestic! It doesn't matter if you go hiking up in the mountains or in the forest or along the ocean shore.
- What are you favorite Alaskan foods? Do you have a special recipe?
- Salmon. Especially fresh caught and instantly smoked. It doesn't have to be king salmon necessarily, just any salmon goes well for me. Though we've got some food-picky folks here in Alaska: I like this and don't like that. Anyway, salmon is the best meal for me!
- What do you know about the Russian America or Russian heritage in Alaska?
- They cane from overseas and killed all the poor sea otters... Killed lots of Natives and then left... Devasted the whole place... Took everything away... This is one side of the story. Every conquest of such kind has one big theme: the colonizers come, invade and go. On the other hand, there is always a place for personal relations. I am sure that the Russians had good relations with the Natives, too. As a school teacher I work with Native kids as well, I have plenty of such students. In their culture there are so many Russian words and names... You just can't make people adopt it by force. There should have been a different, non-violent way for such cultural transition. I mean, one thing is at the governmental level and all the politics. Another thing is at the ground level with people communicating directly, even during war time. Even enemies might help each other sometimes. That's human nature! Many Russian men married local women. It is reflected in the Native culture. I think that on a personal level it wasn't all negative. But in general, it is really hard to say... This is the history of our civilization. It takes a conquest for us to develop, unfortunately. And then the blending of cultures takes place. It is a natural way for us humans. I can't say that the Russian heritage has brought only positive things to Alaska. But it's part of the story.
- This year is the 150th anniversary of Alaska purchase by the United States: are you aware of this event?
- Russians and Americans struck a deal over land that didn't belong to either of them. From the Native people's point of view, the people who lived here have been robbed. I understand their point of view. Historically, Alaska became a headache for Russia. It didn't make a profit anymore. So the best option was to sell it. Moreover, it wasn't seen as a good deal for America. It was laughable. We bought an ice box for big money! The tragedy is that this land didn't belong either to Russia or to the United States.
- How do you feel towards Russia as a country?
- It is my nostalgic past. I don't believe in that country. Corruption is everywhere. It is all crippled inside. I don't see how it can be changed for the better. The young generation brings a glimmer of hope. But they are suppressed quickly. The whole system is such that I just don't see a way to break it down or change it. If you're a good man with great qualities you very quickly face the reality that there is no way to change the whole thing. In order to survive you have to be like everybody else. I am not talking about some big ideas. I'm just talking about everyday life. It is all about corruption there. No action can be taken in a good, normal way. Everything is so broken down there that there's no hope it can be ever changed.
- America and Russia: are we enemies? Or are we not?
- Trump and Putin... I really don't care if they can be friends or not. The most important thing is not to involve ordinary people in their clashes! Both of them have big egos, so they just rival one another. It is now the same, compared to what has been in the past. It's just like the Cold War. When I first visited Alaska in 1989 I was part of the first group of Russians to come here. So I realized that people are the same everywhere. We share the same hopes, dreams, smiles.. On a personal level we, Russians and Americans, share a lot in common.. All these wars and conflicts are made by politicians. They make money out of it: fooling people to fight each other. If you're not popular as a leader, war is your best option. So this is what I think about Trump-Putin relations... I can't invite my friend from Russia to Alaska because of that! I hoped she would come and then – bang! – the Russian-American relations worsened. So now she has a visa problem. I mean, the relations between our countries influence ordinary people. This is sad.
- If you had an opportunity to meet and talk to an ordinary Russian, what would you say?
- …the more you know, the less you fear. If you want to escape fear of the unknown, the best thing is to talk to each other, to communicate. People always share something in common. So I would say to 'Ivan': come here, my friend, and judge by yourself!
- What is your version of the American dream?
- The stereotype is that anyone can become a millionaire, just like Trump. This is nuts. If he wasn't born in a rich family he wouldn't make it, taking into account his abilities and personal qualities, because he is an idiot (laughing). He was born rich already. This is why the classic American dream is getting less and less real. Still, I believe that in America there are more possibilities to succeed than anywhere else, including Russia. I was born to a poor family in Russia, raised in a village by my grandma. If I had a better starting position my life could have been different. But even in America this dream is suppressed, just like in Russia. I work with special needs children at school. What are they thinking about? Food! Clothes! Some of their parents are imprisoned. Some of the children are immigrants. Some are homeless. These kids are vulnerable! What kind of starting positions have they got? They would spend all summer at their shabby apartments. They can't go anywhere. They can't visit Disneyland to have fun and get to know something new.
On personal level we, Russians and Americans, share a lot in common.
- What a great single Alaskan person of past or present would you like to talk to?
- I have no idols or figures from the past, but I like very much Steven Haycock. He is one of Alaska's best history experts. He was my history teacher at the University of Alaska Anchorage. It was my first year in America, I couldn't speak English at all. I took a very ambitious class, 'The History of Alaska', it required 5 textbooks, and I passed that course! Some Americans didn't make it but I did! I loved listening to him, it was my way of learning English. He tought a very interesting class, and he was a very smart person. I liked his lectures, and I loved reading his articles. So if I had chance to talk to somebody about Alaska I would choose Steven Haycocks.
- What will Alaska be like in 2034, 17 years from now?
- I hope the glaciers won't melt away... I hope we can turn back time and not let it happen. I remember, back in 1992, I was at Point-Worontzoff park in Anchorage, and I saw beluga whales there, hundreds of them! It is not like that anymore... And it all happened during my lifetime! I am just afraid to think what might happened to Alaska in 17 years with a president like Trump! The only thing he cares about is money. But I see the climate change, and I don't want my Alaska to fade away.
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