The following article by Jess Frost describes the background and establishment of the Valery Chkalov Cultural Exchange Committee.
Chkalov/Vancouver: A Story of People-to-People DiplomacyIt should not be forgotten that this first ever flight across the top of the world could have ended in disaster, as did their colleague Levanevsky’s polar flight attempt later that same year. He and his crew were never found.
Baidukov writes the following about their landing in Vancouver:
“Hey, guys! Get a move on! General Marshall is waiting for us!” shouted Valery. Belyakov and Baidukov, navigator and co-pilot, looked at one another. “I didn’t expect anything like this,” Belyakov said, smiling.
“I didn’t understand Valery,” responded Baidukov. “Is it a general or a marshal that’s meeting us?”
“I don’t think there are any marshals in the United States,” Belyakov answered.
Copilot Baidukov’s confusion was understandable. They had just flown non-stop for 63 hours and 16 minutes in the cold, cramped cockpit of their ANT-25. Much had been endured: The high altitude caused nosebleeds, magnetic storms made the compass spin, clouds hid the sun for positioning, cyclones, head winds, and near fatal icing forced a change in course, the engine overheated, drinking water froze, radio contact was lost for 12 hours.
It was June 20, 1937. They were headed for San Francisco, but the icing, headwinds, and change of course depleted their fuel supply and forced them to land miles short of their destination on a small, rain-soaked field in Vancouver, USA - with only 10 gallons of fuel remaining!
Little did they know they would be met and hosted in this small town by the soon to be famous general and future U.S. Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall. Perhaps more surprising to these Russian heroes was the stream of cars headed across the Oregon-Washington Interstate Bridge to greet them.
The three adventurers had intended to land at Portland’s Swan Island, but “the thousands of people waving their hands and hats frightened them off,” Baidukov was later to write. Chkalov had read that the French had torn Lindbergh’s plane apart for souvenirs and he was afraid it would happen here.
World attention had been focused on the flight for several days. Baidukov describes the following scene in his book, Chkalov.
“As soon as the chief pilot appeared on the balcony[of General Marshall’s home], the huge crowd came alive: hats flew into the air; applause broke out; one could hear the powerful outbursts:
“Hurray Russian fliers! Hurray …’
“America’s largest broadcaster, the National Broadcasting Corporation, had prepared everything for a program, which would have an audience of more than 12 million Americans.”
The three Russian fliers went on a triumphal tour of America, which culminated in a New York ticker-tape parade and a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House. They turned out to be as skilled at diplomacy as they were at flying.
Unfortunately, the coming tensions of World War II soon erased Vancouver’s memory of the Chkalov crew’s courageous transpolar flight. It took détente (a period of relaxed U.S.-Soviet relations – “razryadka napryazhonosti”), an embarrassing question and two enterprising Americans to revive Vancouver’s memory 37 years later.
Détente brought the Soviet fishing trawler Posyet into Portland for supplies in the spring of 1974. Dick Bowne, a Clark County Public Utility District engineer, and Peter Belov, consultant to Columbia Machine, Inc. of Vancouver, invited two of the ship’s officers to Bowne’s home in Vancouver for the evening.
While crossing the Columbia River Bridge, which separates Portland, Oregon, from Vancouver, Washington, the officers asked to see “the monument” at Pearson Airfield, where Chkalov landed. The embarrassed Bowne and Belov had to explain that Vancouver had forgotten its role in the history of the world’s first transpolar flight and the three famous Russian heroes.
Though strangers before they met on the Posyet, Bowne and Belov resolved then and there to do something to commemorate the event. Perhaps “a small marker” would be both possible and appropriate.
The Chkalov Transpolar Flight CommitteeBelov took the idea to his employers at Columbia Machine, which had been working on a Russian marketing attempt. Owner Fred Neth had relatives still living in Russia, and Norm Small, international sales representative for the company, had been a World War II fighter pilot. They volunteered company support.
From there the plan took off. The Chkalov Transpolar flight Committee consisted of: President Norman Small, vice President Alan Cole, and members Dick Bowne, Peter Belov, Fred Neth, Ken Puttkamer, Mayor Lloyd Stromgren, Steve Small, Steve Smut, Dick Osborne, Danny Greco, Thomas Taylor, and Jess Frost.
Alan Cole (owner of Portland’s Premier Gear Co.) became committee president in 1977 and contributed immensely to its considerable diplomatic and cultural accomplishments in succeeding years. As the Cold War and U.S.-Soviet relations worsened, Alan and the committee were able to keep the focus on the three brave pilots and their fantastic flight and out of the ideological struggle.
It was a human, person-to-person effort, appreciated on both sides of the Iron Curtain and contributed significantly to melting the icy atmosphere of the Cold War. Soviet citizens, thanks to the prominent nationwide Soviet press coverage of the committee’s efforts, perhaps knew Vancouver, USA, better than Vancouver, Canada.
On October 17, 1995, Alan Cole was awarded the Russian Federation Order of Friendship “For meritorious service in developing cooperation between American and Russian civic service organizations …” President Boris Yeltsin signed the accompanying certificate.
In a follow up telegram, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin congratulated “Our dear friends – the founders of the Chkalov Transpolar Flight Committee … for your many years of civic activity … directed at strengthening the friendship … between the Russian and American peoples.” He went on to note that, “This served as a beginning of the melding of the American and Russian peoples.”
Ninety-seven local companies donated money, labor and materials to complete the Chkalov monument by June 20, 1975, in time to play a role in Vancouver’s 150th birthday party that summer.
The “small marker” had turned into a $75,000 ($200,000 in today’s dollars) monument of considerable proportions, when measured by Vancouver, and indeed by U.S., standards. The State of Washington donated land along the edge of Pearson Field and beside Highway 14 for the development of a park to complement the monument. Birch trees, flowers and shrubbery were added to give it a “Russian touch” in an attractive setting.
As a result of Highway 14 improvements, the monument was moved in 1996 to its present location closer to the spot where the ANT-25 came to rest in 1937 and next to the Pearson Air Museum. It lost its beautiful park, but its location is perhaps more historically relevant. The museum itself contains an outstanding exhibit of the 1937 flight history and memorabilia.
Videotape with historic shots of the plane’s Moscow departure and the story of the flight are constantly on display. A large scale-model of the ANT-25 can also be seen there.
Many gifts were brought from Russia and placed in the Marshall House for Vancouver and its tourists to enjoy. A huge bust of Valery Chkalov and an English translation of Georgy Baidukov’s book Chkalov, signed by both President Jimmy Carter and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, attract much attention.
The 1975 DedicationCitizen contribution to the monument was exceptional, and the Russian response to this contribution exceeded all expectations. Among the many gifts to come were three bronze plaques of the ANT-25 and the Soviet Press’s 1937 account of the flight, which were presented to the committee and compose the centerpiece of the monument.
In addition, the Russians sent their finest airliner, an IL-62M, to follow Chkalov’s route over the pole and to carry Belyakov and Baidukov once more to Vancouver. Valery Chkalov’s children, Igor, Valeria and Olga, were also present, as were the families of Baidukov and Belyakov.
Ambassador and Mrs. Anatoly Dobrynin from Washington, D.C., Consul General and Mrs. Alexander Zinchuk from San Francisco, plus 11 other diplomatic dignitaries, represented the Soviet Union.
The Governor, later U.S. Senator, Dan Evans, headed the Washington State delegation, which was made up of state senators and representatives. Sol Polansky, deputy director of the Office of Soviet Affairs, represented Washington, D.C. and Mayor and Mrs. James Gallagher represented the city of Vancouver.
A new street, Chkalov Drive, was also dedicated on June 20th. It was located on a barren, rural field in 1975. Promises to the Russians that it would grow into one of the busiest of Vancouver’s urban centers were received by the Russians, and some Chkalov Committee members, with a considerable degree of skepticism.
Such high-level attention to its efforts was beyond the wildest dreams of our Chkalov Committee. Finally, the committee and its contributors were flown to San Francisco in the IL-62M for an elaborate reception at the Soviet Consulate.
The Chkalov delegation then repeated the 1937 itinerary by flying to Washington, D.C. to be greeted at the White House by President Gerald Ford.
The Years SinceDelegations from Vancouver have traveled to Moscow and delegations from Moscow have traveled to Vancouver many times to commemorate the 1937 flight and the construction of the monument.;
In addition, ambassadors, diplomats, cosmonauts and goodwill groups have stopped by to pay tribute to the monument and what it represents in U.S.-Russian relations. One of the most memorable early visits was that of Russian Cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Valery Kubasov, who, in 1975, traded capsules with American astronauts in the Apollo-Soyuz mission.
Large delegations were exchanged on the flight’s 50th and 60th anniversaries. In 1997, an Aeroflot Ilyushin-96 was chartered to take almost 100 Vancouverites to Russia for a marvelous commemorative program in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
On November 18, 1999, The Valery P. Chkalov Cultural Exchange Committee was incorporated and received tax exempt status to continue the work of the Transpolar Flight Committee.
Its first exchange included the 2000 visit by Gherman Titov, the second man to orbit the earth (the first to do it 24 times). He gave an eloquent presentation to the city council describing the beauty of the earth from space, and a heartfelt plea for Russian-American cooperation to protect this “vulnerable, tiny, cosmic spec we call home.”
In 2002, General Nikolai Moskvitelev, Russian Air Defense Commander from 1977-1987, led the Russian delegation. As Kelly Adams of the Columbian reported, “With his shock of white hair and perfect posture, Moskvitelev moved with the regal bearing of a visiting head of state.”
Kelly continues, “He placed his hand on his heart and bent forward in a reverential bow to the crowd” and told them, “I present myself to you with special humility.” He then surprised and impressed us all by getting down on his knees, leaning over and kissing the ground under the monument’s arch in honor of his country’s famous hero. The moment was captured by Columbian photographer Troy Wayrynen in a unique photo of this former Russian Air Force Chief honoring Valery Chkalov’s achievement in bringing our two countries closer together in peace.
In 2004, a Vancouver delegation was invited to Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, and Chkalovsk to celebrate Chkalov’s 100th birthday, February 2nd. Our delegation was treated royally and shown on Russian national television in a huge celebration in the Rossia Hotel near Red Square, and as we placed flowers by Valery Chkalov’s remains in the Kremlin Wall.
We then traveled to Nizhny Novgorod, the oblast where he was born and raised. There we were received by Governor Khodyrev and toured their Kremlin on the banks of the Volga. We placed flowers again on the huge statue of Valery Chkalov overlooking the river. The next day we were sent in a chartered bus with police escort along snow-covered roads on an hour and a half trip to the village of Chkalovsk, Valery’s birthplace. Here we saw the actual plane he, Georgy Baidukov and Alexander Belyakov flew to Vancouver.
Our respect for these adventurers grew immensely on seeing the narrow, sparse cabin and primitive equipment they had to rely on to cover the unknown expanses of snow and ice separating our two continents and peoples.
On returning to Vancouver, we hosted our new Russian friends with a Mayor’s reception at the Marshall House, a rededication of the Chkalov Monument, and an evening dinner at the Pearson Air Museum. Also included in their stay was a trip to Olympia to be received by Governor Gary Lock and Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.
For the 70th anniversary in 2007, delegations were again exchanged with goodwill and friendships enhanced.
On November 9, 2009, The Chkalov Cultural Exchange Committee celebrated its 10th anniversary as a registered, non-profit organization dedicated to the dream articulated so eloquently by Valery Chkalov with his two-river metaphor on June 21, 1937.
A successful “CCEC Birthday Party” was organized, which was well attended by community leaders. I discussed our history with the help of pictures from the committee’s many exchanges, which were displayed by computer on a large screen. The commentary, memories, and good feelings generated by these exchanges were shared and received with good humor and warmth by the many attendees.
A major purpose of the “Birthday Party” was to inform community leaders of our plans for the future. In June 2010, CCEC will honor the remaining members of the Transpolar Flight Committee and commemorate the 35th anniversary of the dedication of the Chkalov Monument. CCEC is also planning a major effort to involve these leaders and the community in recognizing the 75th anniversary of the flight in 2012. We hope to work closely with our Russian friends to make this anniversary one of the best in memory.
Vancouver’s new mayor, Tim Leavitt, as well as the Washington State Senators and Representatives in attendance, were inspired by our history and eager to help us continue and enlarge our efforts to improve Russian/American relations and friendship.
The Meaning of the MonumentThe original intent of the monument was to honor three brave pioneers, who were first to fly across the North Pole in a dangerous 63 hour, 16 minute flight. It is now tied to larger considerations of Russian/American relations.
The Chkalov monument will forever remind us that human qualities of courage, cooperation and friendship transcend those of narrow nationalism. No one has said it better than Valery Chkalov, son of a half-deaf boilermaker from a tiny village on the Volga River. From the balcony of the Marshall House on June 21, 1937, 18 months before he was to die in that fatal plane crash, Valery gave us the hope encompassed in the two-river metaphor.
He closed by saying, “We bring the great American people wishes of happiness and well being from our great people on the red wigs of the ANT-25, having overcome all obstacles of which nature is capable.”
The obstacle of understanding Russia for Americans, however, still must be overcome. From the American comedian-philosopher Will Rogers’ declaration that, “Whatever you say about Russia, it’s true.” To Gen. Nathan F. Twining, Chief of Staff of the USAF, on returning from Russia on July 4, 1956, that, “Nobody is an expert on Russia. There are just varying degrees of ignorance,” to Winston Churchill’s exasperated, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” it is clear that Russia presents Americans with a challenge to understanding.
It is clear that Valery Chkalov, Georgy Baidukov and Alexander Belyakov were first to present America with a bridge to that understanding by bringing “… the great American people wishes of happiness and well being … on the red wings of the ANT-25 …” and connecting our two peoples.
In taking Chkalov’s two-river metaphor as its mission statement, The Valery P. Chkalov Cultural Exchange Committee hopes to continue the great tradition of friendly people-to-people exchanges initiated by “our” courageous Russian pilots. We are certain the people of Vancouver and this metropolitan area will continue to show first class hospitality to Russians, who travel to this side of the world to pay their respects to us and to their heroes, who have over the years become symbolic citizens of our community.
Jess V. Frost, Founder
I would just like to add a word of tribute to Igor Chkalov, son of Valery. Igor was as an example of the effectiveness of Russians and Americans getting together. He was a good Communist in 1975 - a fervent patriot - and yet, after visiting Vancouver, he became an assertive, effective activist in support of trusting Americans and improving our relations. Igor was a bigger than life personality, who contributed greatly to continued productive Vancouver/Russian relations.
I miss him greatly, as a friend, a colleague, and someone who sincerely wished, as I do, that Russia and America could be friends and work to “decorate this ocean of human life.”