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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: How a Vancouver monument helped thaw the Cold War

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: April 13, 2024, 6:07am
2 Photos
A monument to the first transpolar flight stands at Pearson Field Airport in Vancouver, where a Soviet crew landed successfully in 1937.
A monument to the first transpolar flight stands at Pearson Field Airport in Vancouver, where a Soviet crew landed successfully in 1937. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

When the Cold War ended in 1991, few considered the thaw had started in Vancouver 16 years earlier. In 1975, Russian delegates came to Pearson Field to dedicate the monument to the 1937 Chkalov Transpolar landing.

If not for Peter Belov, the local son of a Russian immigrant, it may not have happened. In 1974, he invited two Russian officers visiting the area to see a typical Vancouver home. The officers knew Vancouver’s name, mentioned that their comrades had landed here in 1937, and wanted to see the landing site and monument. But there wasn’t one.

In the late 1930s, locals had talked about honoring the crew of the 1937 transpolar flight, the first of its kind. News of the plans even appeared in the Russian newspapers. So the Russian officers remembered, even expected, a monument. But the plan had been abandoned.

A monument would come — 38 years late. First, Belov took his idea to Columbia Machine. The company was receptive to his plan and the project was soon underway. Alexander Zinchuk, Russian counsel general in San Francisco, was excited, especially because it was a grassroots effort. Two Russian newspapers, Pravda and Irvestia, checked on the idea’s progress, reporting on it often.

But local residents showed little interest. The nation was riding out a recession. Fifteen percent of Clark County’s workers faced unemployment. The lumber business was dying. The winding down of the Vietnam War and President Richard Nixon’s involvement in Watergate ate at America’s consciousness. A monument to Russian flyers wasn’t on local minds.

In the spring of 1975, the memorial was just a pile of sand, reported The Columbian. Persisting, Belov told everyone who listened that the monument would be a noteworthy symbol of détente, a term used to describe the improving relationship between the U.S. and the USSR. Belov bounced around the Northwest, taking his message to businesses. He convinced Richard Bowne, Clark Public Utility District administrator, who got behind the movement. Bowne’s slow methodology balanced Belov’s frenzy, which almost cost Belov any role in the plan. But the two collected funds and worked together.

Belov explained the Soviets saw aviation as an institution and made flyers national heroes. The transpolar crew — Valery Chkalov, Georgi Baldukov and Aleksandr Belyakov — were the seventh, eighth and ninth to gain aviator hero status. A city was named after Chkalov. Russian schoolchildren read about the 1937 flight.

The Chkalov Transpolar Flight monument was the first in the United States to memorialize a Soviet achievement. Initially, it stood on the north side of state Highway 14. When the highway was widened in the 1980s, the memorial was relocated to its current site on the north side of Pearson Field Airport on East Fifth Street between the airport office and the Pearson Air Museum.

A Columbian editorial about the monument’s dedication on June 20, 1975, said Vancouverites and the Soviet visitors “laid the basis for much friendship and understanding.” When the 1937 co-pilot, Gen. Georgi Baldukov, spoke about friendship between the nations and their peoples, the niece of Valery Chkalov, Irina Bastorini, translated. Chkalov’s son, Igor, also attended.

Columbian freelance contributor