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Rufina Shaishnikoff
Rufina Shaishnikoff
Rufina Shaishnikoff talks about renovating the Russian Orthodox church in Unalaska. She also talks about the Amchitka nuclear test blast and its effects on wildlife populations in Unalaska.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2009-16-02

Project: Unalaska Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Apr 26, 1996
Narrator(s): Rufina Shaishnikoff
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

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Renovating the Russian Orthodox church in Unalaska

Hearing angels singing from the bell tower

Hunting and fishing before the Amchitka nuclear test blast

The day of the Amchitka blast in Unalaska

Aftermath of the Amchitka blast in Unalaska

Effects of the Amchitka blast on the wildlife population

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RUFINA SHAISHNIKOFF THOMPSON: I hope I can remember this story the same way I told it the first time. This will be the second time I'm remembering this true story.

Last year in 1995 we started taking the cathedral apart and restoring it. And the more lumber we took off the more amazed the workers were at what they found underneath and couldn't figure out why the building was still standing.

It should not have been standing. They couldn't really see what was holding it up. I guess, maybe it was angels. Anyway, my husband was real privileged to be the one to raise up the bell tower and actually take it off its foundation.

So he, kind of, really kept a close eye on that bell tower and did go down and check on it at night and see how his baby was doing. After they had raised up the bell tower and took all the stuff out from underneath it was just hanging there.

With no first story under it or foundation. You could walk under the bell tower and look up and see the bells hanging down.

And one night after it had been hanging there for a couple of weeks, he went down with my daughter about 11 o'clock at night because he had seen some lights on under the church, I think.

And, he didn't like to leave lights on at night there for safety reasons. So he took her down and went under the building, the cathedral to go and turn the lights off.

And of course, he turned the breaker switches off outside the building, too. As he was standing there with my daughter, 7 years old, he looked around because he knew he could hear me in my car somewhere nearby playing Orthodox liturgical music because I always play church music in my car.

And if you've ever heard Orthodox music it sounds like angels singing. Anyway, it's just beautiful music written hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

So he looked around and he didn't see me and asked Cyri if he'd seen mom's car somewhere cause he hears her somewhere. Looked around and didn't see me. So Cyri, my daughter, said, "Dad, listen! I hear the angels."

She heard angels singing, too. So they looked up and they both heard the angels singing somewhere around the bell tower there. And they both agreed that that was what it was cause I wasn't anywhere nearby. I was at home.

I guess the angels, they didn't see the angels, they could hear them. We assumed the angels might be hiding in the scaffolding because they didn't see them. I think that's my story.

RUFINA SHAISHNIKOFF THOMPSON: Well, I did want to remember. You asked if someone would remember Amchitka before and after.

There are some things that I remember about before Amchitka but I don't know if anybody else even knows what Amchitka's about, out there. Are there any Amchitka stories?

Anyway, back in the '70's, the government used to do a lot of nuclear testing out here. And it was scary at times because we didn't know how big those tests were.

But we heard they were pretty big and didn't know what kind of damage they might be doing to us. Anyway before Amchitka, I remember the guys would go out salmon fishing. Emil was one of them and they'd come in at night, every summer, Walter used to fish salmon, too.

The boats would be loaded with salmon. My mom was a salmon fisherman, yeah. And sometimes the boats would be so full of salmon they would sink.

You'd have to drag them in. And every summer, summer after summer, they'd fish and the salmon were always there. Lots of seals. Plenty of seals.

In fact, I went on one of the last seal hunts in 1971, before the Amchitka blast. And that summer we went over to the Baby Islands and got 61 seals.

I remember 61 because we brought, named the last one 61 and brought it home and it lived with us in our cabana. (Laughter)

And also that year we asked the government if, how many sea lions we could take off Cape Morgan and they said, well, I think they told us we could take 500 seals that year.

Sea lions I mean, off of Cape Morgan. We didn't get anywhere near that many cause we didn't need them. But that was 10% of the population. I think they figured there were 5,000 sea lions there that year.

This is all before Amchitka. Lots of salmon, lots of sea lions, lots of seals.

And in 1972 of November, was when they had the big Amchitka blast and everybody in Unalaska was kind of making a party of it.

A big excuse to go up to Pyramid and take all their tidal wave stuff up. Filled the cars up with lots of food and beer and they were prepared to spend the night up there.

In case, because we didn't know what was going to happen when this nuclear test detonated. Anyway, finally they did do the, push the button and we waited and nothing happened. And pretty soon the wind began to blow a little bit. It was real steady.

It wasn't gusty and swirly like it is, like we know it. But the wind began to blow steadily, stronger and stronger and stronger. And we were getting scared and scareder and finally in to the night the wind was blowing 200 miles an hour.

Houses were, roofs were coming off and buildings were falling down and I slept under Piama’s bed that night. Under the bed. That's how scared I was.

And I remember some buildings would just be lifted up and carried. Big buildings and Quonset huts were just imploding or exploding. Just puff. Dismantle.

Ray Hudson: There was a huge tank from Captains Bay on the dock. One of those giant, giant things. It just vanished.

Rufina Shaishnikoff Thompson: There were things that just disappeared and you didn't see any sign of them.

But there was a lot of lumber laying around the next day because they did send a delegation from the governor's office or National Disaster Relief out here. I remember the next day strewn with pieces of gray wood everywhere.

But the next morning when we woke up it was so warm. And this is November. Very warm and flat calm. There wasn't a breath of wind. It was very eerie. Quiet.

You didn't hear a bird chirp or, of course, it was November but it just seemed so quiet that day. And there was almost, I felt like tiptoeing around because we were a little bit uneasy.

Anyway, that was the day of the Amchitka, after the Amchitka blast. So I went to work at the clinic that year in November, after the blast.

And that year, later on, there were, I remember 13 miscarriages in Unalaska, that year after the blast. People began to get bald spots on their head.

And people that year, also later on, people got sores on their bodies. But it wasn't really related to the blast. Nobody really connected it, I don't think.

You know, thought, I don't know what they thought was going on. But we were always so assured by the government that it was very safe, everything was so far under ground. And the wind, oh that was just a regular November storm, not related to the blast at all.

People were walking around with these sores and scabs all over their bodies. And I, you know, I suspected what it might have been but, of course, you can't prove those kind of things.

And that next, the following summer there was no salmon, no more salmon and I don't think they fished salmon ever after that.

And, not like they did before because I think that's part of the reason why the guys didn't become eligible for limited entry permits. That's my theory. And there were no sea lions that year either.

That was the last seal hunt we went on. It was in 1971. So I had a stockpile of seal skins and never did get any more after that. In fact, I'm still picking away at them.

Every once in a while I'll pull one out and make something. But, that's the best I can remember of the Amchitka incident.