Skip to main content

The Cold War's Leftover Frosts

The Cold War's end brought special joy to Alaskans. At long last, we can talk freely with our neighbors on the other side of the Bering Strait, visit them, get involved in shared concerns. Commercial ventures beckon; rubles turn up in every store in Nome. People-to-people exchanges thrive; my neighbors just returned from a visit in Siberia. Research opportunities abound; as I write, my spouse is in Moscow, helping plan an expedition into the Arctic Ocean north of the former Soviet Union. All in all, there's so much traffic back and forth, you'd think the Bering Land Bridge was dry ground again.

However, sometimes the new traffic encounters rough going. Business people admit that rubles don't buy much. Travellers speak of heart-warming but stomach-upsetting festivities. And some scientists have run afoul of the KGB.

Sydney Levitus is director of the U.S. World Data Center for Oceanography, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Levitus is both prominent and practiced in the bureaucratic side of science, not the sort of person to encounter official hassles abroad.

He expected no hassles this time. Levitus was in Russia during July 1992, supervising an exchange program in which both Russian and U.S. scientists are participating. The two nations will share information gathered from coastal waters on such things as salinity and temperature, with the aim of building up the global database on ocean currents.

Carrying his laptop computer and a set of diskettes containing water data provided by Russian colleagues, Levitus was ready to board a plane at Murmansk airport when he was halted by people identifying themselves as security agents. They searched his brief- case, confiscated his computer and diskettes, then let him depart.

Levitus assumed he'd encountered mere bureaucratic confusion until friends sent him clippings from Russian newspapers. They bore surprising headlines: "Fool Levitus is Caught while Spying" and "Is Syd Going To Do His Time?" The articles made clear that Levitus the Director had been branded Syd the Spy. The subject of these slurs finds the whole thing both absurd and troubling---troubling because it threatens a carefully worked-out and potentially valuable scientific accord. For now, the data exchange is officially closed. So are the computers U.S. scientists gave their Russian counterparts as part of the agreement. Security police sealed the computers.

More recently, a team of U.S. geophysicists also found they were not welcome in former Soviet territory. A few days after the geophysics group arrived at their seismic station in Kazakhstan, officials from the KGB and the immigration service accused them of not having the proper paperwork. The officials confiscated the Americans' visas and gave them 48 hours to leave the country. The U.S. team had set out an array of 480 seismic sensors, but they had to depart before they could record a single tremor.

No one knows what went wrong in either case. Speculation ranges from the practical to the paranoid. The paperwork is indeed complicated, and maybe something serious was wrong with it---possibly cause for official alarm, especially since both places are in regions once militarily sensitive. The old Soviet Union has come apart, and rural officials have reason to doubt projects foisted on them by Moscow---think of how Alaskans suspect things bearing the blessing of Washington, D.C. Even rivalry between different scientific organizations within Russia may be at work, since hard currency is vital to Russian research now.

The scientists' misadventures have received little press coverage, even in scientific journals. Nobody wants much fuss, and the scientists involved just want to see their projects running again. The general pattern is that scientific cooperation with the Rus- sians is going well; these aberrations are no cause for alarm. Still, I'll be glad when my husband is safely back from Moscow...