Russia sold Alaska for seven million dollars
Alaska was sold. This piece of news arrived in St.Petersburg 136 years ago. It arrived as a piece of wireless information – that-era technical wonder. The sales agreement was signed on March 30th, 1867. The document was then singed by the Russian Tsar Alexander II in May. In June the sides exchanged ratification certificates, and the Russian flag was officially lowered in Alaska in November. There was no rush back in those days. Documents would travel for months, news would arrive weeks late.
When the news about selling Alaska became known in Russia, people refused to believe it. Newspapers would write that it was nothing but a mean, disgusting joke upon the Russian society. The reaction was rather indignant and emotional, until the government made its point of view public. Needless to mention that people continued talking about Alaska even after the government announced its sale officially. As a matter of fact, the dispute is not over even today. So many tragic things have happened in the Russian history, although Alaska is still an issue for professors, students, taxi drivers, and the like. A lot of Russian people often say the following sentence: “What if Alaska remained a part of Russia?” Everyone has a personal attitude to this problem, as if Alaska was a chance that was taken away from Russian people.
The roots of Russians’ attitude to the Russian America (this is what Alaska used to be called) can be found not in geography or economy, but in the science of culture. Alaska became a symbol of the Russian national mindset. It is the symbol of the Russian extremity, it is also an expression of Russian ideas that opposed each other both in the past and in present.
There was a need to reach Alaska before selling it. This is an amazing phenomenon that we have to face here – Russian people’s uncontrollable desire to move eastwards. It is not possible to explain such a wish. Russian Cossacks, merchants, runaway peasants acted on their personal initiative. History books say that all of them escaped to another continent because of the Russian serfdom, doing their best to find new riches – furs, basically. It is worth mentioning that one-fourth of the Russian income was obtained with the help of fur sales – that-era analogue to petrodollar. If it was really so, what was the point of going so very far away? It was possible to settle somewhere in the Ural region of Russia, where there was no oppression. It seems that it was not possible for Russians to stop from learning something new. Even the Pacific Ocean did not stop them.
Russian people founded their settlements in Alaska, in California and on Aleutian Islands. Such a grand leap to the East resulted in the establishment of the transcontinental empire, which united Europe, Asia, America, and even a part of Oceania. Such a vast territory is simply breathtaking. This is an indication of the energy, of the spirit that Russian people are known for in the world.
However, there was a downside to that too. This side can be seen almost in everything that touches upon the Russian eastward expansion. On the one hand, there was the courage and devotion to Russia’s interests. On the other hand, there was the oppression of aborigines, destructive fur business, robbery, and so on. Russian America is the extreme expression of the Russian policy too. Even after Russia became one of the richest base of raw materials in the world, officials kept on talking about huge potential opportunities that the country was unable to realize. When the news about the sale of Alaska became public, newspaper complained of the loss of the future wealth, which should have justified all previous losses.
Russian America has wonderful history, which is full of bright personas and breathtaking events. Russian merchant Grigory Shelikhov, for example, set up a fur business company on the islands of the Pacific Ocean and in Alaska. When Shelikhov died, the company was transformed into the Russian-American organization, which became the virtual owner of the land across the ocean. Grigory Shelikhov’s son-in-law, Nikolay Rezanov became the company’s director after Shelikhov’s death. Nikolay’s tragic love to San Francisco governor’s daughter became the plot of “Juno and Avos” rock opera.
Nikolay Rezanov was the leader of the round-the-world expedition in the very beginning of the 19th century. The major goal of the expedition was to provide links between the mother country and its colonies, as well as to provide food supplies to the latter. It was necessary to establish trading relations with Japan for that, Although Rezanov’s negotiations with the Japan emperor did not lead to any success. Russian America suffered from hunger back in those days. Rezanov had to go to San Francisco with a hope to set up some contacts with Spanish settlers. At the same time, Rezanov issued a secret order to lieutenant Nikolay Khvostov to board the Juno ship and to retrieve the Russian sovereignty over the island of Sakhalin. This was a way to make Japan cooperate with Russia.
The history of the Russian America is beautiful, although so much blood was shed in the clashes with Indians, so many vessels sank in the Pacific Ocean. In the middle of the 19th century Russia was not able to restrain the expansion of the American and English capital to the north of America. The Russian army was incapable of doing that.
The new direction of Russia’s development appeared after the defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856). As Alexander Gorchakov, that-time Foreign Minister, said: “Russia concentrates.” The country turned its foreign political ambition down. Selling Alaska was inevitable within the framework of that political course. The Russian-American company returned no profit, so there was a need to save it. The company owed 725 thousand rubles to the Russian finance ministry by the year 1866. As the Russian government believed, they were supposed to pay major attention to the development of the Primorye region of the country (the Far East). Alaska was sold soon after that.
Russia received seven million two hundred thousand dollars for the deal. One hundred thousand of that money was paid to American senators and newspaper editors as bribes. Even after Alaska was sold, the American press kept on criticizing the government for acquiring the “polar bear zoo.” The criticism lasted until the world-famous gold fever in Alaska. The fever had nothing in common with Russia anymore.
The settlement of Fort-Ross in California was the farthest point that Russians reached in their Western development. The settlement was sold in 1841. A part of its residents moved over to Alaska, while another part stayed in San Francisco. Some others moved further to the east, on the Indian territory, the would-be state of Oklahoma. As American historians believe, a lot of Americans can be their descendants, especially those American people, who have Indian blood running in their veins.
Translated by Dmitry Sudakov