UAF professor recalls harrowing trip to post-Soviet Russia

UAF photo by JR Ancheta
Michael Koskey attends the Alaska Native Studies Conference at UAF’s Murie Building auditorium in April 2017.

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In fall 1998, a 29-year-old University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student stumbled out of a Siberian forest, bruised and bleeding from his neck. Breathless, he approached an airport police officer, telling him of the robbery and the beating he had just endured.

“And what do you expect me to do about this?” was the officer’s only response.

At a loss, and still losing blood, Michael Koskey turned and made his way back to a hotel.

“It was in Siberia during the post-Soviet collapse. I was doing field work at a time when Russian society had come to a standstill, especially out there on the edge,” Koskey said. The “edge” he referred to was the Chukotka region in the northeastern corner of Russia, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. As a UAF anthropology doctoral student, Koskey first went to Chukotka in 1997 to study the political and economic viability of reindeer herding. He later used the information collected on this trip to write his dissertation.

Koskey, who is now a UAF professor of indigenous studies and the head of the College of Liberal Arts’ Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, recalls the episode as one of several harrowing experiences he had while conducting his doctoral research in post-Soviet Russia.

“The whole story has become something of a joke, about what it takes to get a Ph.D. around here,” Koskey said. “Talk about trial by fire.”

The reindeer population in Siberia had began to collapse. During the Soviet era, Moscow subsidized the herds, which created massive numbers of reindeer. The herders had no way to feed them without help from Moscow. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, they made a hard choice: Rather than let the reindeer starve they killed the majority of the herd and harvested the meat.

Michael Koskey photo
UAF Professor Michael Koskey did his doctoral research in Russia’s Chukotka region during the post-Soviet period of the late 1990s.

“Things were tough,” Koskey said. “People had been working without pay for years. The local governments in some areas were shared between the legitimate government and the mafia — and that was typical in Russia at the time. People were malnourished — you could almost even call it starving. I’d go into the store and there would be a few pieces of old reindeer meat, and maybe a can of olives from Spain from 1967.”

Perhaps it isn’t surprising some turned to crime to fight off hunger, and Koskey was ambushed in the woods near the town of Sokol.

“I was beat down, with knives to my neck until they cut me.” Koskey said. “Half of my research money was stolen, about $1,800 worth.” He had hidden the rest in his boots, where his attackers didn’t think to look.

The attack was just one chapter of Koskey’s long, challenging journey.

Shortly after his ordeal, Koskey began his journey to Lavrentiia, a town on the coast of the Bering Strait, a mere 85 miles from the western shores of Alaska. But authorities were suspicious of the outsider — as soon as his plane touched down the border guards rushed in. Koskey was whisked away to a police station, his research confiscated. After about three hours of waiting, Koskey’s passport, visa and research were returned. He was pushed out into the pitch-black streets at 50 below zero.

Eventually Koskey traveled to Lorino, a reindeer herding collective. He hitched a ride on a mail truck to Lorino with half a dozen other people, who thought he may have been Chinese because of his clothing. When he explained he was American, they laughed and said that they had forgotten: everything in America is made in China. One of the women from the mail truck offered him a spare apartment, where he stayed until he left Lorino.

Michael Koskey photo
A view of the Chukotka Region during Michael Koskey’s visit to the region.

“Whenever I was down, it seems like someone was there to help me up again,” Koskey said. “They would never leave anyone behind.”

While the people of Chukotka showed Koskey kindness, the government of the region seemed determined to create problems for him.

In Lorino, a local government agent accused Koskey of being a spy. The agent demanded Koskey come to his office the next morning, where he grilled him over his military past for about three hours. (Koskey fought in the Gulf War.) A few days later, the armed guards confiscated all his research in the middle of the night. It was missing for days but was eventually returned in full.

After finishing his research in Lorino, Koskey caught a mail truck back to Lavrentiia, where a local contact, Yelena, was waiting for him. As he waited to board the plane going home, Koskey was approached by two border guards, who asked him to come with them.

The men led a panicked Koskey out onto the tarmac, past the plane he had thought would take him south, and toward a military helicopter. They boarded the helicopter, where three or four more border guards sat. “Don’t worry,” one of them said. “Sit down, we just want to talk to you because you’re American, we never see Americans here!” They shared a beer, then escorted Koskey back to his plane, saying a warm farewell and shaking his hand. Shortly afterward, he arrived home safely.

Koskey thought he was done. He came back to the states and presented his findings, telling of the high levels of government corruption and the poverty of average citizens. He also worked with people in Nome to support relief efforts, sending food, clothes and other supplies across the sea to the people of Chukotka. A year after his expedition, the FBI knocked on his door.

The two agents informed Koskey that Russia’s government had accused him of money laundering. “I told them ‘Look, you are being played … and as the FBI, I think you should be upset about that,” he said. The agents agreed and the investigation was dropped.

“Mike Koskey had the misfortune of experiencing many of the negative aspects of 1990s Russia,” said Peter Schweitzer, one of Koskey’s mentors involved with the research assignment. “What impressed me and others, however, was the fact that he didn’t give up and turn around but continued his research and went further into the field.”

“In the long run, it’s something I learned quite a great deal from, much more than I thought I would, and it’s something I can use in my own teaching,” Koskey said. “I work with master’s and Ph.D. students, and I can tell them from my direct experiences ‘Here’s what you need to look for, here’s what can happen.’”

Koskey completed his Ph.D. in 2003, basing his dissertation on research he collected on his journey. “UAF was behind me the whole way in Russia,” he said. “To get my Ph.D. from UAF … I’m proud of that.”