Like many Alaskans, I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of former First Lady Bella Hammond. To her many qualities, I would add one more: pioneer in helping end the Cold War.
In 1986, Juneau musician and peace advocate Dixie Belcher dreamed up the preposterous idea that a rag-tag group of Alaska performers could dance and sing their way across the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in hopes of reducing tensions between the world’s superpowers.
Meeting resistance in Alaska and at the highest levels in Moscow, Belcher recruited an unlikely ally — her former Juneau hiking partner, Bella Hammond. Rarely comfortable in a high-profile political role, Hammond overcame “anti-commie” opposition in the Legislature to extract $63,000. She then joined the trip with her husband, Gov. Jay Hammond, along with the 67 performers, crossing the USSR’s 11 time zones twice over three weeks.
Dubbed “Alaska’s gift to the Soviet Union,” the Alaskans were received as rock stars, each performance welcomed with multiple standing ovations. More significantly, their media attention helped persuade Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to green-light numerous initiatives to ease tensions across the Bering Strait, including regular air service, visa-free travel for long-separated Alaska and Russia Natives and a dozen Alaska-Russia sister cities.
When I interviewed Bella about that era for my book, “Melting the Ice Curtain,” she recalled the experience with great fondness, especially the interactions between Native peoples from both countries.
Thanks, Mrs. Hammond, for your contributions to help make the world a safer place.