Koskey reflects on Post-Soviet ‘trial by fire’
In the fall of 1998, a 29-year-old Micheal Koskey stumbled out of the 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. Still losing blood, Koskey turned and made his way back through the woods.
“It was in Siberia during the post-soviet collapse,” Koskey said. “I was doing field work at a time when Russian society had come to a standstill, especially out there on the edge.”
The “edge” he referred to was the Chukotka region, situated in the northeastern corner of Russia, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. Koskey went to Russia to gather information for his graduate work, making one trip to Yakutsk in 1997 and another to Chukotka in 1998. He was studying the political and economic viability of reindeer herding as a Ph.D. student in the College of Liberal Arts’ Anthropology department.
Koskey was conducting research in the area shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed.
“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.”
A professor had warned Koskey of the corruption, cautioning him not to claim more than $500 upon entering the country, or he would be robbed. He followed the advice, but it did little good: shortly after his arrival in Sokol, Koskey was attacked.
Half of Koskey’s research funding, about $1,800 worth, was stolen by his assailants. He had hidden the rest in his boots, where they hadn’t thought to look. After his run in with the officer at the airport Koskey went back his hotel to stop the bleeding. The cuts caused no lasting damage. He later said he carried no resentment towards his attackers.
“It was a very rough situation,” Koskey said. “Their main economy, reindeer herding, had collapsed. So, needless to say, people were hungry, they were dis-empowered—and the natives were dis-empowered even more so… People were malnourished. You could see their joints and bones. 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.”
After leaving Sokol and working in the local archives in Anadyr’, Koskey began his journey to the town of Lavrentiia, a town situated on the coast of the Bering Strait, a mere 85 miles from the most eastern shores of Alaska.
“The Soviets would often build airports in inaccessible places because… being Soviets, [they] were paranoid not only of the outside world, but of their own people,” Koskey said
Koskey made it to the airport safely. But when his plane touched down in Lavrentiia the Border Guards (the rough equivalent of the United States’ National Guard) rushed in, looking for Koskey. He was taken to a car by armed guards and whisked away to a police station, and his research confiscated. After about three hours of waiting, Koskey’s passport, visa, and research was returned and he was told to leave.
“So I walk out to what’s probably 45 or 50 below zero, pitch black with hardly any street lights, howling wind, with nowhere to go,” Koskey recalled.
Much to his surprise, things soon took a turn for the better. He happened upon a friendly woman, who knew where his contact lived. She gladly gave Koskey directions to the building, telling him his contact was out of town, but his contact’s wife, Yelena, was home.
“As hard and as dangerous as things were there she was very trusting.” Koskey said. “It probably wouldn’t have happened in the US. People there seemed more likely to help each other than to work against each other in times of stress.”
A few minutes after Koskey arrived at Yelena’s house there was a pounding on the door.
“She walked over to the peep hole and she said ‘Michael, it’s the Border Guards, here, come here, come here!’ and she hid me in a closet behind some coats. So they came in, she made them tea, and they sat down and talked.”
Koskey waited in the closet until Yelena got them to leave. He spoke highly of Yelena, calling her a “bright light in a time of darkness.”
Eventually Koskey began looking for transport to Lorino, a reindeer herding collective west of Lavrentiia. Public transportation was nonexistent, so it wasn’t uncommon for people to travel via mail trucks: the drivers would let hop-ons ride in the back for free. Koskey “caught a mail truck” out to Lorino with half a dozen other people.
While in Lorino, Koskey was invited to a local diner, where events took another turn. A local FSB agent accused Koskey of being a spy, and demanded he come to the office the next morning, where he drilled the Desert Storm veteran over his military history for about three hours.
“Behind him in his office were pictures of Marx and Lenin, even though this was six years after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Koskey said.
Koskey finished his research and caught a mail truck back to Lavrentiia. After a few days he was ready to leave, but as he waited to board the plane, Koskey noticed Yelena talking to two border guards. After a moment she walked over and said “Michael, these men would like to talk to you.” The guards asked Koskey to come with them.
“You have no choice when you’re a foreigner in a place like this,” Koskey said. “I just kept thinking no, I was so close to going home.”
The men led a panicked Koskey out onto the tarmac, past the plane he had thought would take him south, and towards a military helicopter where three or four more 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 talked about the British band The Prodigy (whom the Border Guards mistook as an American band), and shared a beer. Then they escorted Koskey back to his plane, saying a warm farewell and shaking his hand.
The day before Koskey left Russia the local police requested to talk to him. The officers asked if he had been robbed, and drove him to the police station. The letter written for Koskey by the former deputy running the archives had found its way to someone important after all. Once again Koskey climbed into the back of a jeep between two armed guards—this time, voluntarily.
“When we got to the police station they said ‘Why don’t you please look through these books of pictures.’ They were mug shots basically, so I open the book up and start looking.”
The book only held pictures of Native men.
“I said ‘Their skin was white, like mine…’ The guy picks up another book and drops it in front of me and tells me ‘look at these’ in a very intimidating way,” Koskey said. “I looked through it, it was all native guys.”
Koskey again told the officer the men who robbed him were white, but to no avail, and eventually realized the officer himself was quite possibly one of the people who had robbed him.
“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.” Schweitzer added he hopes no student has to go through an ordeal like Koskey did.
Koskey returned to the United States and presented his findings, publicly describing the government corruption and poverty of average citizens in Russia. 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 return the FBI knocked on Koskey’s door. The agents informed him the Russian government had accused him of money laundering. When Koskey was questioned the year before he had told the Sokol Police $1,800 had been stolen, forgetting he had claimed only $500 when entering the country. Though the Sokol Police knew travelers wouldn’t claim the full amount they were traveling with, once Koskey started speaking out against the Russian government they decided to inform the FBI in an attempt to damage his credibility.
The Russians hadn’t specified the amount of money missing, knowing the FBI wouldn’t investigate any anomaly under $25,000. Koskey backed up his financial claims with records from the National Science Foundation and UAF.
“I told them ‘Look, you are being played by the FSB, and as the FBI, I think you should be upset about that,'” he said.
The agents agreed and the investigation was dropped. Following their accusations, the Russian government banned Koskey from entering the country. The ban has since been lifted, but Koskey has yet to return.
“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.” He is now a professor, and the head of UAF’s Department of Cross-Cultural Studies.
“It was quite the experience.” Koskey said. “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.”