Forget fake news, Russia’s influence on the Pacific Northwest goes back generations

This illustrated booklet published by the Tacoma Civil Defense Committee in 1955 gives citizens advice on what to do before, during and after an atomic attack.
This illustrated booklet published by the Tacoma Civil Defense Committee in 1955 gives citizens advice on what to do before, during and after an atomic attack. Courtesy

Russia is the mother of fake news.

That could be the association the current generation of Americans coming of age will forever have with the country ruled by Vladimir Putin.

That’s just the latest iteration of Russia’s relationship with America. Earlier American generations looked at the eastern giant as the country of Glasnost, the Cold War and World War II allies.

An exhibit at the Washington State History Museum lays bare the seldom easy relationship between Russia and America and how it has played out in the Northwest.

“Glasnost & Goodwill: Citizen Diplomacy in the Northwest” rolls back the Iron Curtain to reveal both the big picture and person-to-person diplomacy.

Former Seattle SuperSonics executive Bob Walsh and museum director Jennifer Kilmer first conceptualized the show in 2014. Walsh died earlier this year but curator Gwen Whiting said he had a big part in bringing the show to life, reflective of his long interest in organizing cross-cultural events, including the 1990 Goodwill Games.

“Bob had done an enormous amount of things during the cold war to connect people in Seattle and Washington with the folks in the Soviet Union,” Whiting said.

Whiting tracked down artifacts, photos and videos, concentrating on the era from the 1930s through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“One of the things that really surprised me was how far back our relationship with the Soviet Union went,” she said.

In 1896, Tacoma businessman Clinton P. Ferry traveled to Russia for the coronation of Czar Nicholas II. A coronation cup that Ferry returned with is on display. Ferry liked to call himself the “Duke of Tacoma.”

Most of the exhibit occurs well into the 20th century.

It opens with the Cold War and the inescapable fact that the Soviet Union and the United States had enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other several times over.

“Many folks, younger than I am, didn’t even know what the Cold War was,” she said. “There was this 45-year-long conflict and what kind of ramifications it had on this state.”

Not all of those effects were negative. “But it also had this side effect of folks growing up living in fear,” she said.

Bomb shelters were added to schools, while children were taught how to “duck and cover” should nuclear war break out.

A U.S. government map shows areas in Washington that would likely be on the Soviet Union’s target list. Tacoma is in an area labeled “Zone of Complete Destruction.”

Another map shows fallout shelters in the very same area. The irony is inescapable.

“There’s a lot of contradictory information,” Whiting said.

Instructions on how to build fallout shelters change through the decades. In the 1950s they are practically underground villas. By the 1970s plans had switched to hastily thrown together “expedient” shelters.

On April 26, 1954 Spokane became the first city in America to evacuate for a nuclear attack.

Bombers flew over Spokane and dropped leaflets that read, “This could have been an H-bomb.”

“The civilians were supposed to evacuate and go into shelter,” Whiting said of Operation Walkout.

While Americans were preparing for nuclear war, so were the Soviets with similar instructions, preparations and propaganda. Those are on display as well.

The rest of the exhibit takes a less dire tone, examining points in history when America and Russia were friends, and sometimes frenemies.

In June 1937, three Russians made a 5,670-mile nonstop polar flight from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington, in a Tupolev ANT-25 experimental aircraft.

It would be one of the first “handshakes” between the two nations in air and space. Rivalries and cooperation between the two nations have practically spanned the era of flight.

In many of those events, airplane and spacecraft manufacturer Boeing has been a major player. Even today, American astronauts ride in Russian rockets to the international space station built in part by in part by Boeing.

Ordinary citizens conducted their own brands of business and tourist diplomacy during both the Cold War and Glasnost.

In 1970, Alaska Airlines launched regular air service to Siberia. Flight attendants wore Cossack-like uniforms and served what was billed as authentic Russian meals. The flights lasted three years.

Washington residents could visit a little bit of Russia without leaving the state in 1974. At one and a half acres, the Soviet Union had the biggest pavilion at Expo 74 in Spokane.

There are some curious oddities in the show. A vodka bottle shaped like an artillery shell — because it was made using decommissioned armaments equipment — was brought back by former Secretary of State Ralph Munro.

The exhibit wraps up with athletic achievements.

In 1990, a climb of Mount Everest was organized by Port Townsend-based mountaineer Jim Whittaker between China, Russia and the U.S. An oxygen tank used on the expedition still had O2 in it when the museum obtained it.

A substantial amount of space is given to the 1990 Goodwill Games. The games were held in Tacoma and other parts of Washington. Some give it credit for helping to crack the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

“It’s amazing what a touchstone the Goodwill Games has been for people coming through here,” said Mary Mikel Stump, the museum’s director of audience engagement.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

“Glasnost & Goodwill: Citizen Diplomacy in the Northwest’

What: The new show looks at the decades-long relationship between Russia and the Pacific Northwest (through Jan. 21).

When: Open 10 AM - 5 PM, Tuesday - Sunday, and 10 AM - 8 PM every Third Thursday.

Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

Tickets: Adults $14; seniors, students, military $11; Children free.

Information: 253-272-3500, washingtonhistory.org/