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Happy Alaska Day (and an Alaska Fact You Never Thought You’d Hear)

Today is Alaska Day, the anniversary of the formal transfer of the Territory of Alaska from Russia to the United States. In some Alaskan towns, schools and businesses will close early and there will be parades and reenactments of the flag raising that sealed the transfer deal.

If you can’t make it up there for the festivities, let’s celebrate right here by talking about something that’s been the butt of countless jokes over the last 4+ years: Sarah Palin’s assertion that you can see Russia from Alaska. She’s actually right. Feast your eyes upon the Diomede Islands.

Google Maps

On the left is Big Diomede, which belongs to Russia. On the right is Little Diomede, which is part of Alaska. At their closest, the islands are just a little less than two and a half miles apart. On a clear day, you can stand at sea level on one island and can see clear across to the other. (And according to local legend, you can also shout from one to the other—residents reportedly used to share the day’s news by screaming across the water.)

Both islands are named after the Russian Saint Diomede and were discovered by Europeans in 1728 on the saint’s feast day. During the Cold War, the short distance between the islands became known as the Ice Curtain, though the border was hardly tense. The native population of Big Diomede Island was relocated by the Russian government to mainland Russia shortly after World War II and Little Diomede had only a small Inupiat Inuit population. In 1987, open-water swimmer Lynne Cox swam from the little island to the big one and received kind words from both Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, helping to ease tension between the superpowers just a little bit.

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