Back To The Cold War? A Seattleite’s Anxious Return To Russia

Aug 28, 2014

During the Cold War, thousands of Soviet and U.S. fishermen worked together on the high seas of the Pacific Ocean, trawling by day and sharing Russian bread, vodka and off-color jokes in the evenings, while their governments maintained a posture of pure hostility toward each other.

From 1978 to 1990, those fishermen accounted for some 1.5 million tons of fish caught and processed at sea off the coasts of Oregon, Washington and Alaska. At the time it was the largest fishing operation in U.S. waters.

In early July, American organizers of those operations traveled to the Russian Far East, where they lived and worked three decades ago at the height of the Cold War. This is that story.

As white-haired, 79-year-old Anatoly Kolesnichenko, sporting a military-style jacket bedecked with medals and epaulettes, led us to a room full of senior Russian fishing captains and executives, I felt nervous. 

We had asked to meet with Russians who back then had worked with our Soviet-American joint fishing venture, called Marine Resources Company.

Soviet and US fishermen celebrate good fishing on board a Soviet vessel (1983).
Soviet and US fishermen celebrate good fishing on board a Soviet vessel (1983).
Credit Courtesy Tony Allison

Six of us had flown to the Russian Far East from Seattle to do this, in part because we believed the example of our partnership during the Cold War remains relevant. 

We hoped the Russians would welcome us. But during previous months, things had turned ugly between the U.S. and Russia over events in Ukraine. Members of our group felt strongly that Russia was in the wrong, and supported sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Russia. 

But we also knew that most Russians were angered by the sanctions, and anti-Americanism was on the rise. At one point we considered canceling the trip, and commentators in both countries spoke of a return to the Cold War.

Of course, much had changed in Russia since then, and for a while it was unclear whether our former Russian colleagues could even be found for us to meet. 

The chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s had caused many residents of the Russian Far East, a vast area on the edge of Siberia bordering China, to leave for more prosperous locations in European Russia or abroad.

The Russian fishing industry was privatized and inundated by foreigners, including Americans, looking for financial opportunities presented by Russia's new openness and its raw version of capitalism. Stocks of high-value species such as king crab were overfished and illegally exported. Select Russian individuals amassed fortunes.

And bitterness and regret found expression in the increasingly nationalistic and anti-Western policies of Vladimir Putin.

Tony Allison narrates a slideshow with images from the joint fishing venture in the 1970s and 80s.
Tony Allison narrates a slideshow with images from the joint fishing venture in the 1970s and 80s.
Credit Courtesy Tony Allison

Still, we felt that this time when thousands of U.S. and Soviet fishermen worked together off the Northwest coast deserved to be recalled. 

In 2012 we staged exhibits of the Company's history at the Whatcom County Museum in Bellingham, the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle and the new Maritime Museum in Newport, Oregon, which remains on display.

As we showed these exhibits to American audiences, we considered bringing the story to Russia, too. In particular we wanted to show the exhibit in Nakhodka, the home port of most of the Soviet fishing vessels that fished in the joint venture, and where many Company employees, both U.S. and Russian, had worked and lived during the Cold War. 

Shipping the exhibit to Russia, however, would be complicated and expensive, so we created a slideshow. The biggest challenge would be to locate those who had worked with the Company some 25 to 35 years ago, especially given that the average longevity of Russians is much shorter than that of Americans.

Just before leaving Seattle, we learned that some 25 elderly Russians who had worked in the joint venture had been located. Now they were gathered in the cafeteria of the largest fishing company in Nakhodka, called BAMR, waiting for us. 

An American catcher boat approaches a Soviet processing vessel (1979).
An American catcher boat approaches a Soviet processing vessel (1979).
Credit Courtesy Tony Allison

Anatoly Kolesnichenko, who had headed that fishing venture between 1979 and 1981, when I had been stationed in Nakhodka as the Company office co-director, was not only alive  but remains BAMR's titular head, counseling younger managers, representing BAMR at city functions, and receiving delegations such as ours. 

As Anatoly, dignified and somber, shuffled ahead of us into the cafeteria, 25 elderly Russians rose as one and began applauding. Many wore captain’s uniforms, with epaulettes indicating their senior rank. The applause continued as we recognized former colleagues and shipmates and embraced. 

Tamara Dregval, the Telex operator during those 15 years, who had worked closely with eight different Americans (including me), shed tears as she hugged us. 

Following more embraces and hand-shaking, the reminiscences began. The Russians produced their own photos and told stories of encounters at sea and in West Coast ports where their vessels would call at the end of operations each year.

We recalled people, ships and fishing adventures and snacked on cookies and tea. Then it was time for me to give the slideshow. During the 40-minute presentation, the room was mostly quiet, except when a Russian would pipe up with the name of a boat or a person that I could not remember or had misidentified.

Group portrait from July 2014.
Group portrait from July 2014.
Credit Courtesy Tony Allison

Our trip included many other encounters with Russians.  In Nakhodka we spent several evenings eating and drinking in the cramped, music-filled apartment of Georgii, a local photographer several of us have known for many years.

In the early mornings, I dragged myself out of the hotel to run in the hills, or go to a gym, with Sasha, the now 55-year-old friend who was captain of the city basketball team I played on when I lived in Nakhodka. Sasha, who retains his vibrant athleticism, has had a successful career as a gym teacher and coach, and his wife operates a small retail business.

In Vladivostok, the regional capital (and formerly closed naval port), we toured the spectacular new suspension bridges that now dominate the city's skyline and dined on seafood and borsch with former colleagues in the city's fine restaurants.

The turmoil in Ukraine occasionally entered into our conversations. The Russians I spoke to, including some with extensive experience in the West, were virtually unanimous in their support of Russia's position, including the takeover of Crimea, which they view as historically part of Russia. 

They were critical of the U.S., and even more of the current Ukrainian government, which they see as an anti-Russian tool of the U.S. and NATO. In general they view the problems in Ukraine as the result of encroachment by the West into an area that has always been Russia-oriented in its politics and culture, and has served as a buffer between Russia and the West.

Watching Russian television in my hotel room, I saw constant reporting about Ukraine that focused mostly on refugees fleeing to Russia after becoming "victims of violent policies" carried out by the government in Kiev. 

The coverage paralleled the views I had heard from Russian colleagues and friends. One friend told me that most Russian journalists now self-censor their reports, especially those connected with Ukraine. And yet, my overall impression of Russia was different from what I had anticipated based on media reports in the U.S. 

Granted, in the Russian Far East we were several thousand miles from the troubles in the Ukraine, about as far away as one could be and still be in Russia. The public mood on the streets, in stores, in restaurants - even in TV programs not devoted to the Ukraine or to other major political issues - was relaxed and civil, not militaristic, strait-jacketed, or jingoistic, as it had been in Soviet times. 

In Vladivostok, recently erected monuments include a statue of the American movie star Yul Brynner (who spent his early childhood there before emigrating); of Eleanor Pray, an American woman who lived in Vladivostok from 1894 to 1930 and wrote volumes of letters describing, and often criticizing, life in the city.

An American crewman rides the catch over to a Soviet processing vessel (1983).
An American crewman rides the catch over to a Soviet processing vessel (1983).
Credit Courtesy Tony Allison

There is also Vladimir Vyssotsky, a much-idolized semi-dissident folk singer from the Soviet era, clutching his guitar as his gritty voice booms from nearby speakers, and an unnamed "distant-water" sailor from the 1970s or 1980s posing cockily on a downtown street corner in jeans, holding a Led Zeppelin album evidently acquired in an overseas port call. 

While such monuments can certainly coexist with the chauvinistic nationalism championed by Putin, they do not exactly reek of militarism, and even less of a return to a Soviet mentality.

My stay in the Russian Far East left me with deep concerns about widespread anti-Western opinions held by Russians, especially in regard to Ukraine. 

Yet I also returned home with a sense that Americans as individuals are not widely shunned or scape-goated, that old friendships endure, and that memories of joint enterprise are still valued by both sides. 

Tony Allison, who holds a master's degree in International Studies from University of Washington, served in Nakhodka and in Moscow for Marine Resources Company, and was the company's general manager from 1990 to 2001. He currently teaches high school history in Seattle, and is working on a memoir about the joint venture and the Cold War and the legacies of those years.