Alaska and Russia are intimately connected by land and history but are also distant — separated by water, language, war and politics.

Ridiculed by Congress and the press as Seward’s “ice box” and President Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden,” the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia was controversial at the time.

The U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia for less than two cents an acre. Opponents to the purchase called it “Seward’s Icebox,” Seward’s Folly,” and “Polar Bear Garden.”

Today, ice, ambition, oil and commerce continue to define the complex relationship between Alaska and Russia. Talk abounds of Russia claiming for itself both Alaska and Crimea; of a bold Russian-led transcontinental railway project linking Siberia with North America; of traversing the Bering Strait through what could become the world’s longest tunnel.

Alaska and Russia’s northern regions share more than propaganda; they are known for record cold, fur, ice cream, huskies, and the hardiest and most adaptable of people.

Objects in the exhibition include the historic treaty and the purchase check, as well as Balto, the Siberian husky who led his team on the final leg of the 1925 serum run to Nome. Balto and his story is contrasted with the story of Laika, the Soviet space dog.

Archival and contemporary photographs combine with nesting dolls, cartoons, feature-length films, and Cold War propaganda to take viewers on a journey between Alaska and Russia since the purchase — exploring stereotypes, language, storytelling, boundaries and crossings.

Below are a few of the events currently on the calendar that complement the Polar Bear Garden exhibition.

Performing Arts

Visiting Polar Lab artists-in-residence Mivos Quartet, a string quartet based out of New York, will perform compositions from contemporary Circumpolar North composers from Russia, Iceland, Denmark, Scotland and Finland in several concerts:

  • March 3 (First Friday), 6 to 8 p.m., they will perform behind the glass walls of the Atwood Resource Library as their music is broadcast outdoors in the museum common. Free
  • March 10 (Polar Nights), 7 and 8 p.m., the group will provide live string accompaniment to a show in the Thomas Planetarium. Local artist Ryan Anderson creates visual displays to accompany Hans Abrahamsen’s crystalline String Quartet No. 4 (2012). In addition, full-dome imagery and a montage of photographs will accompany Robert Honstein’s Arctic (2013). $15, includes Polar Nights admission. Museum members receive a 10 percent discount.
  • March 11 (Wells Fargo Free Day), 1 to 3 p.m., the group will perform string pieces from contemporary Russian and other Circumpolar North composers in the Polar Bear Garden exhibition.
  • In addition to the concerts above, there will be several pop-up concerts at the museum during their residency.

Guest Speakers

David Ramseur – Melting the Ice Curtain
7 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 31
Russia and U.S. relations is a daily media topic. Hear author and University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research visiting scholar David Ramseur share his current work on the thawing relations between the Russian Far East and Alaska during the 1980s and 1990s. His book on this subject, Melting the Ice Curtain, is slated to be released June 2017. Included with admission, which is discounted on Polar Night Fridays through April.

U.S. and Russia: A Perspective by Leon Aron
7 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 21
Leon Aron, PhD, a resident scholar of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, will discuss contemporary U.S. and Russian relations and Vladimir Putin. Aron, whose work focuses on the economic, cultural and social aspects of post-Soviet Russia and its relationship to the world, is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN and others. Presented in collaboration with the World Affairs Council. Included with admission, which is discounted on Polar Night Fridays through April.


First Friday: The Flying Saucer
7 p.m. Friday, March 3
1950 65 minutes
This film has rarely been screened in Alaska. Directed by Mikel Conrad, this film has rarely been screened in Alaska. Amid newspaper reports of flying saucer sightings all over the country, intelligence officer Hank Thorn summons wealthy playboy Mike Trent to Washington, D.C. Hank explains that the vehicles appear to have been designed to carry atomic
weapons, and that America must capture this technology before the Russians do. He tells Mike that according to an undercover agent in Juneau, Alaska, Russian military officers are searching for the saucer near the Taku glacier. Digital copy provided by The Wade Williams Collection. Free; part of the host of First Friday museum events.

Celluloid Wednesdays: Russian Classic Cinema
7 p.m. Wednesday, March 8
STRIKE! By Sergei
Eisenstien, 1925 1 hour 30 minutes
Live piano accompaniment by Homer-based pianist Johnny B.

Russian auteur Sergei Eisenstein's first full-length feature, set just before the 1905 Bolshevik Revolution, depicts a workers' strike against oppressive factory bosses. When a worker is accused of stealing a piece of machinery, he commits suicide, causing fellow employees to revolt against the Czarist regime controlling the factory. As the strike drags on and government officials grow more desperate to end it, their methods of dealing with the rebellious workers become grislier. Celluloid Wednesdays is a midweek film series that offers audiences the chance to view celluloid film prints – historic narratives, documentaries, education, ethnographic, and experimental films – on the big screen. Presented in partnership with the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association (AMIPA). Free.

Celluloid Wednesday: Bride of the Monster
7 p.m. March 29
70 minutes 1956
Because of Hollywood’s anti-trust lawsuits from the late 1940s and early 1950s, many Hollywood writers and directors had to find inexpensive ways to make films, creating the B-movie genre. B movie titles from the 50s often had a sub plot of Cold War paranoia, which helped create a decade of low production quality sci-fi cinema. Ed Wood (often cited as Hollywood’s worst director from the 1950s), wrote and directed of The Bride of the Monster. Wood casted Bela Lugosi (Hollywood’s original Dracula from the silent era of cinema) as a mad doctor who is conducting experiments to turn people into super-beings through the use of atomic power. Print provided by the Wade Williams Collection. Free.


Art Lab Open Studio: Mapmaking
6 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 3

Be inspired by the Polar Bear Garden exhibition and explore your world. Drop in to creatively play with mapmaking and orienteering. Free.

Alaska Map Quest
7 to 8 p.m., Friday, March 3

Learn true facts about Alaska industry, animals and landmarks, and discover which outside myths about the region prevail today in this all-ages game using a historical map from the museum's collection. Free.

Art Lab: Poster Printing with Anchorage Community Works
6 to 8 p.m., Friday, March 31

Try screen-printing a poster inspired by the Polar Bear Garden: The Place Between Alaska and Russia exhibition to take home. Anchorage Community Works artists discuss their design and demonstrate a portable printing press. Included with admission, which is discounted on Polar Night Fridays through April.

Family Art Class: Pet Portraits
2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 25

Inspired by the animals in the exhibition Polar Bear Garden: The Place Between Alaska and Russia, learn basic drawing techniques for your favorite four-legged friends. Bring a photo of a pet and create a pet portrait for your family. Appropriate for all skill levels, ages 5 and older. All supplies are provided. $10, members receive a 10 percent discount.



Alaska Historical Commission
Jan and Jeri van den Top
Nicholas and Rebecca Van Wyck



Click an image to Enlarge

This exhibition is a part of the Anchorage Museum's Polar Lab.