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What Happened to Russian America?
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the treaty to sell Alaska. This event so surprised the public at the time that it caught spurred discussions and remained in the papers for almost a year. And the deal had no shortage of critics on either side.
Selling Alaska: Fact and Fiction
U.S. journalists directed all kinds of criticisms toward the government for the sale and came up with ironic names for these snowy regions. There were also quite a few critics in Russia, though they still showed respect for the monarch’s wishes. The official news agency informed the public of the sale as if in passing, and then tried to show that it was an “entirely rational measure” and professed that “this deal has further secured the friendship” between the two countries. Only rarely did stories appear in the free press about a “cruel joke,” an incommensurate payment, or even about the improper renunciation of a land that, though far away, was still Russian. And in their diaries certain high dignitaries wrote about their disagreement with the tsar’s decision.
View of New Arkhangelsk, 1837
But this all changed in time. In America the strong passions around the sale quickly subsided, and Americans focused on populating the “Last Frontier,” turning it into the 49th state. And now every last Monday of March Alaskans celebrate Seward’s Day, named after the Secretary of State who made Alaska part of America. By contrast, a century later Russians remembered what had happened and began to lament this wasted profit, to propagate unbelievable stories, and even to dream of fixing this historic mistake.
There’s no point in recounting the myths about the “mistake” of selling Alaska: everyone in Russia knows them. And there’s even less sense in debunking these myths. After all, one only has to look at the dates to understand that the blame belongs not to Catherine the Great but to her great-grandson, the reformer Alexander II. Anyone who would like to confirm that there was no “copyist’s mistake” that transformed a supposed 99-year rent agreement into a sale can easily find online the text of the treaty to cede (sic!) Russian America. It’s also just as easy to confirm that Russia received the money due for this purchase: it’s enough to look at an image of the 7.2 million-dollar check.
Common sense also suggests that the U.S.—which was in need of new land—didn’t have an interest in deceiving its partners. Finally, Alaska was neither their first nor their last purchase. Back in 1802 the Americans acquired the truly massive Louisiana territory from France; in 1848 they bought the great desert expanses from Texas to California from Mexico; and in 1917 they acquired the small Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, which had belonged to Denmark up until that point.
Too Expensive and Too Far Away
The myths about Alaska are of little interest for the additional reason that they make it harder to understand the real question: Why was this land sold? We could appeal to specialists for help in answering this question. But so many of them have appeared lately that it’s not easy to determine whom to trust. Too many of them write stirring prose about a plot against Russia consolidated within in the tsar’s circle or about a debt to the Rothschild family that had to be paid in land…
There were more than enough objective reasons for Russia to “cede” Alaska. This territory was massive, but also very far away from Siberia and the Russian coast. It would require great sums of money, as well as much time and energy, to deliver the necessary supplies to this land. There were not many Russians living there, no more than a thousand persons, and the native Aleut were often hostile and sometimes actually went to war. There was also danger from whale hunters and poachers, who were little different from pirates, as well as from ill-tempered Brits, whose omnipresent navy could strike at any moment.
Substantial military support would have been required to defend these scattered and sparsely populated settlements, and this would have cost a fair amount of money. But the Russian-American Company, founded back during the reign of Paul I and already a half-century into the project of acquiring land, experienced financial difficulties in the mid-19th century and could no longer cover expenses on its own. At the same time, the government, which had previously generously helped this company, was itself in need of funds as a result of the Crimean War and the onset of the Great Reforms and saved money on everything. What’s more, they were presented with an opportunity to receive a good sum for an unpopulated territory. In a word, everything came together against Russian America—it was too far away, too defenseless, and too expensive.
Flag of the Russian-American Company
Incidentally, it wasn’t really as sad a situation as it appears at a first glance. The Russian-American Company was in a difficult financial state, but not a critical one. Its expenses were a little greater than its income but the reason was a decline in the market in previous years, and certainly not a matter of poor leadership. What’s more, the company contributed 180 thousand rubles to the state treasury in tariffs each year, and it spent 250 thousand from its own funds on supporting the colonies. Incidentally, all of this made its way into the reports of the strict auditors who carefully reviewed the company’s activities in 1862. As for the threat of war, it was only felt during periods of international conflict. But here’s the surprising thing: Even during the Crimean War, when Russia was literally besieged from all sides, the British and French navies didn’t even think of encroaching on Alaska. Apparently, it was too distant not only for Russian ships, but for others as well. Finally, one shouldn’t exaggerate the burden that Alaska put on the government. In 1866 the empire’s total expenses were just over 400 million rubles, and against this backdrop, the 200 thousand tearfully requested by the Russian-American Company was hardly a significant sum. Incidentally, the 11 million rubles received for the sale was also just a drop in the bucket and couldn’t fix the state’s finances. And nonetheless…
And nonetheless, they sold Alaska. Subjective factors played a decisive role in this sale, primarily the insistence of a single person: the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich. As the younger brother of Alexander II, he didn’t spend his time idly but took on important affairs of state. He headed the Committee for Abolishing Serfdom, fought for reforms in the army and navy, advocated for court reforms and helped see them through, and was generally seen as the chief liberal in the county. But in addition he was also a General Admiral in the years 1855-1881 and oversaw the Board of the Admiralty with total devotion.
It was precisely in this role as the head of the Naval Ministry that he ordered the Foreign Minister Gorchakov to sell Alaska to the Americans in 1857. The Grand Duke mentioned that it was impossible to defend these possessions, and their upkeep was costing the treasury quite a sum, which could be used to support the diminished Russian navy. Clearly, Konstantin Nikolaevich acted as a bureaucrat who wanted to escape culpability while also procuring money for his office’s needs. At the same time, his opinion wasn’t without a basis: the defense of Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky in 1854 was remembered well—despite the heroism of the Russian soldiers and sailors, this city had to be surrendered. And the general idea of selling Alaska had already been in the air for a long time.
A Conspiracy of Bureaucrats or a Pragmatic Decision?
However strange it might sound, this idea came to Russians inadvertently from the Americans themselves. For the first half of the 19th century they were actively buying up land in North America, going all the way to the Pacific Ocean. At the time, they were ready to pay good money for these rugged lands, and they were on friendly terms with Russia. So it’s not surprising that the Governor General of East Siberia, Nikolai Murav’ev-Amursky made a proposal to Nikolai I in 1853 to sell “defenseless” lands to the United States. In 1854, when the threat of war had become quite real, a fictitious treaty was quickly made out, according to which Alaska would be rented to the Americans for three years. As later events showed, this diplomatic trick wasn’t necessary, but this precedent in itself determined Russia’s actions going forward.
Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich
It’s a whole other matter that Konstantin Nikolaevich engaged in all kinds of gimmicks, including dishonest ones, to get rid of Alaska. The periodical of the naval office started to regularly print material concerning the alleged harsh treatment of indigenous peoples by the Russian-American Company, and subsequently there appeared rumors about the company’s imminent bankruptcy. A number of “experts” started writing about the necessity of strengthening Russia’s tie with the U.S. and so…they had to sell off “defenseless” Russian America, although no threat to it existed at the time. But most importantly, Konstantin Nikolaevich was able to get together a group initiative advocating for the sale. It included the Naval Minister Nikolay Krabbe, Ambassador to the US Eduard de Stoeckl, and even the renowned Finance Minister Michael Reutern who had previously spent a successful ten years in the naval ministry. They also skillfully stirred up emotions around Alaska. On 28 December they participated in a secret meeting with the Grand Duke that decided the fate of Russian America. At this meeting, only Gorchakov and Alexander II doubted the advisability of this sale, though they didn’t invite opponents of this measure.
Specialists have noted that there were other “interesting” moments in the story of selling Alaska. For instance, 11 million of the 11,362,481 rubles and 94 kopecks that Russia received went to purchasing from abroad equipment for Russian railroads. That is to say, although the money didn’t go into the treasury, it went to a useful endeavor and wasn’t pocketed by someone. After the deal was made, however, the stocks suddenly skyrocketed for the privately owned Moscow-Ryazan railroad, which was owned by several participants in the meeting on 28 December 1866. Meanwhile, high-ranking dignitaries were not especially concerned with the interests of the Russian-American Company. 1.5 million rubles were set aside to compensate certain expenses and to pay for the transportation of Russian citizens to the continent. Even so, the company lost more than 4 million rubles, which was affected not only the directors but also the investors. By the way, there were some, especially among the entrepreneurs and officers, who regretted the fact that in a blink of an eye the sale had erased every effort to transform Alaska into a true Russian land.