The “Arctic Cross” Project: a journey into Orthodox Alaska

by Paul Anel          February 10, 2012

In this exclusive interview for Land of Compassion, filmmaker Dmitry Trakovsky (Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky) shares some of the amazing discoveries he made as he embarked on a voyage down the murky waters of the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers of southwestern Alaska, to the native homeland of the Yup’ik people. Prepare yourself for a few surprises, watch the trailer of this feature-length documentary project, and support it on Kickstarter!



LoC: How did it all start? Is there something that first prompted you to think: “This is going to be my next movie !”

DT: I finished my previous film, Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky, in early 2009. From that point on, I began asking myself what would come next. One year passed… then another. Nothing was grabbing my attention. In fact, I wondered whether I would ever shoot anything again. Then, in early 2011, a few things pointed me towards Alaska. First, I experienced this inexplicable desire to go north. I wanted to travel as far north as possible to observe how people live in the severe cold, isolated from the rest of the world. I listened to an exceptional radio documentary (or “oral tone poem”) by Glenn Gould called The Idea of North, which explores this theme.

At the same time I began learning more about the history of Russian colonialism in North America. It is a little-known fact that the Russians owned Alaska for over a century, and that they occupied parts of California and even Hawaii as well. I got this silly idea for a movie: could I find a single person in Alaska who might still speak the Russian language that has been passed along from generation to generation? Even though that idea was short-lived, as a side-project I will continue to search for that fluent speaker!

In June, I travelled to Northern California and visited Fort Ross, an impressive compound built by the Russian-American Company in 1812. Can you believe that there’s a beautiful, intact Russian settlement just an hour north of San Francisco? How bizarre! The next step, naturally, was to go to Alaska to begin researching the subject. I contacted Bishop Benjamin Peterson—bishop of the West Coast and Alaska—and told him of my intent to begin such a project. His response blew me away. Without hesitation, he invited me to join him on a trip to Alaska less than a week after I sent that email. I quickly booked a ticket and before I knew it I was on beautiful Kodiak Island. I was there during the annual Saint Herman Pilgrimage to Spruce Island, so it was an ideal time to make contact with that exceptional world.

While I was there, I discovered many themes that I now hope to incorporate into the film. Some of them are sensitive and, as an outsider, I will try not to cross any boundaries that I am not supposed to. However, the spark that began this endeavor remains the same: it’s a mental image, a guess almost, of the aesthetic and spiritual qualities that this film might possess. That’s what I am searching for and that’s what inspired me to say, “This is going to be my next movie!”


LoC: When you visited the Alaskan Orthodox community, what struck you the most?

DT: I visited Kodiak Island, where the indigenous people are Alutiiqs. However, the Saint Herman Pilgrimage brought people from many different cultures to the region while I was there. Among them were a few families from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta who are Yup’ik. There are a few things that really stunned me about these cultures. The Alutiiqs, for example, have lived continuously in their region for over 7,000 years! I was shocked one of my interviewees was one of only 24 remaining speakers of a particular dialect of the Alutiiq language. I was also saddened to learn that some Alaskan languages, such as Eyak, have been lost forever in recent years. On the other hand, I was amazed to discover that Central Yup’ik is still spoken by about 10,000 people out of a population of about 25,000 Yup’ik people. The day before I left Alaska, a Yup’ik native Alaskan gave me a stack of letters from him grandfather, who was a priest. They were written in perfect pre-revolutionary Russian (even though many were from the mid-1950’s). My parents and I spent a few days translating these correspondences. It was a great experience! 


Father Michael Nicolai, a Yupik Native Alaskan, poses for a picture with his family following his ordination as a priest

LoC: To my knowledge, this is the only successful merging of a Native American culture with western culture. Any idea as to how such phaenomenon happened?

DT: This is a tricky and sensitive question that is better answered by a specialist on the subject. My personal impression from my trip was that Russians aren’t reviled as former imperialists, and that, in many areas, the Orthodox Church has become an inseparable part of Native Alaskan culture. Even though it was imported relatively recently, it is now their institution. A reason for this willing incorporation of Russian Orthodoxy might be that missionaries actually helped to shield the natives from the maltreatment of Russian fur traders, who had come to Alaska earlier. Saint Herman of Alaska was one of those who arrived in the area and went to great lengths to convert the natives, thus instantly making them Russian citizens and legally protecting them from slavery.


LoC: Being yourself, like the Yup’ik, both American and Russian Orthodox, is this project also a personal journey?

DT: This project definitely has a personal aspect to it. Alaska is this fascinating story where the two superpowers of the 20th Century, the United States and the USSR, actually have a shared history. The religion, culture, and aesthetic of the Russian Orthodox Church have been there for hundreds of years. It’s a seemingly paradoxical situation that might help to illuminate the oxymoronic “Russian-American” identity.


LoC: Is there one thing in particular that you think we (= “western people”) should learn from the Yup’ik?

I will ask this question to the Yup’ik elders when I go to the region on the first shooting trip!


LoC: If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, what step will it enable you to take?

DT: If the campaign is successful, I will pack my bags, rent a camera and some good lenses, and fly to Bethel, Alaska to start shooting the film. The more money I raise, the more time I will be able to spend in the region. I hope that I will have the opportunity to live there for an extended period of time in order to experiment with aesthetic possibilities, shoot a lot of material, and so that I can make deeper friendships with locals. After that, I hope to return a few more times during different seasons.


To support Dmitry’s “Arctic Cross” Project on Kickstarter: 

A pilgrim asks for a blessing from a priest on Spruce Island.