By MARK THIESSEN Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Two Russian Indigenous Siberians were so scared of having to fight the war in Ukraine, they chanced everything to take a small boat across the treacherous Bering Sea to reach American soil, Alaska’s senior U.S. senator said after talking with the two.
The two, identified as males by a resident, landed earlier this month near Gambell, on Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, where they asked for asylum.
“They feared for their lives because of Russia, who is targeting minority populations, for conscription into service in Ukraine,” Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Saturday during a candidate forum at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage.
“It is very clear to me that these individuals were in fear, so much in fear of their own government that they risked their lives and took a 15-foot skiff across those open waters,” Murkowski said when answering a question about Arctic policy.
“It is clear that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is focused on a military conquest at the expense of his own people,” Murkowski said. “He’s got one hand on Ukraine and he’s got the other on the Arctic, so we have to be eyes wide open on the Arctic.”
Murkowski said she met with the two Siberians recently but didn’t provide more details about exactly when or where the meeting took place or where their asylum process stood. She was not available after the forum for follow-up questions.
Murkowski’s office on Oct. 6 announced their request for asylum, saying the men reportedly fled one of the coastal communities on Russia’s east coast.
A village elder in Gambell, 87-year-old Bruce Boolowon, is believed to be the last living Alaska National Guard member who helped rescue 11 U.S. Navy men who were in a plane that was shot down by Russian MIGs over the Bering Sea in 1955. The plane crash-landed on St. Lawrence Island.
Gambell, an Alaska Native community of about 600 people, is about 36 miles (58 kilometers) from Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula in Siberia.
Even though one of the Russians spoke English pretty well, two Russian-born women from Gambell were brought in to translate. Both women married local men and became naturalized U.S. citizens, said Boolowon, who is Siberian Yupik.
Russians landing in Gambell during the Cold War was commonplace, but the visits were not nefarious, Boolowon said. Since St. Lawrence Island is so close to Russia, people routinely traveled back and forth to visit relatives.
But these two men seeking asylum were unknown to the people of Gambell.
“They were foreigners and didn’t have any passports, so they put them in jail,” he told The Associated Press last week.
The two men spent the night in the jailhouse, but townspeople in Gambell brought them food, both Alaska Native dishes and items bought at a grocery store.
“They were pretty full; they ate a lot,” Boolowon said.
“The next day, a Coast Guard C-130 with some officials came and picked them up,” he said, adding that was the last he heard about the Russians.
Since then, officials have been tight-lipped.
“The individuals were transported to Anchorage for inspection, which includes a screening and vetting process, and then subsequently processed in accordance with applicable U.S. immigration laws under the Immigration and Nationality Act,” was all a Department of Homeland Security spokesman said in an email this past week when asked for an update on the asylum process and if and where the men were being held.
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Anchorage, said it’s very unlikely information about the Russians will ever be released.
“The U.S. government is supposed to keep all of this confidential, so I don’t know why they would be telling anybody anything,” she told the AP.
Instead, it would be up to the two Russians to publicize their situation, which could put their families in Russia at risk. “I don’t know why they would want to do that,” Stock said.
Thousands of Russian men fled the country after Putin in September announced a mobilization to call up about 300,000 men with past military experience to bolster forces in Ukraine.
Messages sent last week and again on Saturday to the Russian consular office in San Francisco were not returned.