MOSCOW – In the age of the internet, instant messaging, and smartphones, a handwritten note still has the power to amaze — with an assist from technology.
That seems to be the lesson after an Alaskan man discovered a message in a bottle from a Soviet sailor written 50 years ago.
Tyler Ivanoff, 36, of the village of Shishmaref, Alaska, was picking berries and gathering driftwood for a fire for his family when he stumbled across a green bottle along the state’s western shore earlier this month.
“I noticed that the bottle had a note in it. It was sealed really well,” Ivanoff told VOA. “And when I opened the bottle and took out the message, I recognized that it was Russian handwriting.”
Naturally, he turned to social media for help.
“I found a message in a bottle today,” wrote Ivanoff to his Facebook account. “Any friends that are Russian translators out there?”
The internet hive mind quickly went to work, with Ivanoff’s post garnering 1,500 shares.
Back in the USSR
“Heartfelt greetings!” began the letter, dated June 20, 1969.
The sender, Captain Anatoly Botsanenko, explained he was from the fleet of the Far Eastern Company shipping vessel Sulak, and provided an address in the Russian city of Vladivostok for a response.
“I wish you good health, long life, and happy sailing,” concluded Botsanenko.
“It was a simple message but it was really pleasant,” Ivanoff told VOA.
“And the day before I found the bottle, there was a really high storm surge,” he added, while pondering his luck.
“So maybe that pushed it around from a different location. You never know how long it was floating around at sea or stuck in some driftwood or lodged in a rock.”
Missing Russian captain
As news of Ivanoff’s discovery spread online, the hunt began in Russia for Captain Botsanenko.
Attempts to track him down in Vladivostok led to dead ends — the Sulak ship had been sold for scrap in Russia’s economically troubled 1990s and the Far Eastern Company dissolved along with the country it belonged to.
However, reporters from Russia’s state Channel 1 soon managed to find Botsanenko in Simferopol — the de facto capital city of Russian-annexed Crimea.
“It’s such a joy,” said Botsanenko later in comments to Russia’s RIA-NOVOSTI. “It’s amazing, that exactly 50 years later this message was found.”
At the time he sent the message, Botsanenko was the youngest captain of the Soviet fishing fleet in the East, just 36 years old.
“It was an enormous ship,” Botsanenko, now 86, told RIA-NOVOSTI. “At that time, we were well-known in the Sea of Okhotsk for our record-breaking catches.”
“And then someone suggested we write a message in a bottle and let it out to sea. What if one day someone finds it and remembers us, or we meet somewhere,” he said.
“The bottle went quite a distance,” Botsanenko said. “No less than 2,000 miles.”
Russian Alaska — American Alaska
This wasn’t Ivanoff’s first foray into Russian culture.
As a member of Alaska’s Yupik tribe — a subsistence hunting group native to the territory — Ivanoff witnessed visits by Siberian Yupiks demonstrating shared dancing traditions after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Then there’s that last name — Ivanoff — a reminder of the Russian Empire’s one-time reach into Alaska before its sale to the United States in 1867.
“Half of my village has the last name Ivanoff,” he said.
“All this old pre-revolutionary Russian heritage is still very alive in Alaska,” said Professor Dmitriy Oparin, a specialist in indigenous cultures at Moscow State University.
Growing up in Alaska, Ivanoff had even taken Russian lessons in high school, and later, in college “to get out of requirements for art class.”
“Russia can seem as far away as the moon,” Ivanoff said. “But it’s actually not that far away.”
With attention from global media, the obvious question is, what to do with the bottle?
“Given how difficult finances are here out in rural Alaska, I was thinking of possibly selling it,” Ivanoff said.
“But I’d really like to hang onto it,” he added. “It feels like it’s a piece of history.”