On March 30, 1867, when the Treaty of Cession was signed, formalising the sale of Russian America to the United States, the public on both sides of the Atlantic greeted the news with surprise. The global, frenzied taking stock of redistributed powers that followed the purchase, and 150 years in US-Russia relations since then, have greatly shaped today’s geopolitics. As the US’ Chairmanship of the Arctic Council ends, the timing coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase, what can we learn from the excitement and agitation of long ago? The nebulous tale of the Alaska Purchase is one of intrigue, espionage, perceptions and implied meanings. Mix in a good dose of myth-spinning —a sunken ship laden with gold, and a treaty that really wasn’t— and the story begins to mirror much of the diplomatic wrangling dominating the news today.
A Fictitious Sale and Unintended Good Intentions
The earliest conversations about the sale of Russian America occurred during the Crimean War. Russian leaders reportedly grew concerned about their colony being seized by Great Britain or by the US at a time when Russia was preoccupied elsewhere. Not yet wanting to part with it, but wanting to discourage potential British expansion, in 1854, an agent for the Russian American Company hatched a plan to execute a fictitious sale to a group of San Francisco merchants1. While this plan was never realized, it brought up the idea of a sale as a possibility for the very first time. Because US-Russia relations were quite friendly—based on a shared distrust of Great Britain, who was the greatest Naval power at the time—tentative probing in Russia on a sale continued in the early 1860s. With the start of the US Civil War, the issue was no longer salient on the American side. Nevertheless, the war itself proved to be an important milestone in the Alaska Purchase in other ways.
In the fall of 1863, the Russian fleet came to visit in a gesture that was greeted with warm sentiments in America, grounded in an enthusiasm that shaped relations for many years to come. Though this gesture on the Russian side was more military strategy than a friendly diplomatic move, having to do with Poland’s move for independence and positioning of Russian ships to disrupt British and French marine commerce, decades later, it was still influential in shaping US public opinion. This was due to the fact that the timing of the visit coincided with desperate times for Lincoln’s Union during the war, who feared British and French intervention in support of the South. Popular perception of Russia’s gesture was that it was a show of support for the North side, and a not-so-concealed warning of intervention to the Confederate States. With the fleet’s stay stretching into the spring of 1865, it certainly had such a (most likely unintended) effect1. In any case, perceptions matter, and even decades later, a 1901 Chicago Tribune editorial declared Russia “our traditional friend,” while advocating for diplomatic solutions to ongoing tariff disagreements, citing the fleet’s visit and the sale of Alaska as irrefutable proof for enduring good intentions.
What is certain is that around the time the Civil War ended in 1865, US-Russia relations were on an all-time high. British colonies just up north were weighing the options of a Canadian Confederation or annexation to the US, and probable British pushback to either plan. The atmosphere put everyone on edge; Russia feared British takeover of Russian America, and Great Britain suspected a keen US interest in British Columbia, while the US was still reeling from the grave aftermath of a drawn-out domestic war and quite uneasy about the state of flux among neighboring British colonies.
In a move that has perplexed generations since, but most often framed as hastened securing of profit before an inevitable takeover, Tsar Alexander II authorized the sale in December 1866. Russian Minister to the US, Eduard Stoeckl began negotiations with US Secretary of State William Seward. President Andrew Johnson’s Cabinet approved the specifics, but outside of this circle, no one knew about the ongoing negotiations. Charles Sumner, Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, became a staunch supporter and the engine behind the Treaty, gaining the approval of the Senate. Things moved fast after the March 1867 Treaty ratification, and in October of 1867, the handover took place in Sitka, the former official capital of Russian America. Payment of $7.2 million was approved by the House in July of 1868. Though not originally in the crosshairs of 19th century US expansionism, the new Alaska Territory was a welcome and substantial strategic acquisition for the nation.
A much-neglected side of this nation-state politics is the plight of Alaska Natives who inhabited this land for millennia. Having endured the influx of outside ambitions, explorers, settlers, and invaders, their story is of extreme endurance. Alaska Native tribes would have to wait a century following the 1867 Treaty of Cession to receive recognition of their rights to the lands that were traded between Russia and the US
Neither a Sucked Orange, Nor Anyone’s Folly
As expected, the Alaska Purchase created tensions in an already hair-trigger atmosphere, not so much for its intrinsic value as for the fact that this deal signaled a “bad alliance” between Russia and the US Europe was a rapidly changing landscape with nationalism on the rise. The sudden announcement that Russian America was ceded to the US foreshadowed a potential takeover of British North America; this was, of course, not to be. However, the Alaska Purchase did in fact speed up the process of Canadian Confederation after 1867.
American public opinion was either in favor of or neutral regarding the acquisition. Many papers praised the potential for resources and facilitating trade with Asia. In popular accounts since, the aftermath of the Treaty has evolved into the myth known as “Seward’s Folly,” a belief that Secretary of State William Seward was initially widely ridiculed for advocating and facilitating the purchase. This is not so according to historians who researched major news outlets of the times2. While there were a few editorials in opposition (a more memorable one likened the deal to a “sucked orange“), overall public opinion was surprised, but not quite so critical.
The passage of time tends to increase the clarity of perspectives over historic events. Instead, this story has evolved into new ones on the Russian side, into two hypotheses as to why the purchase isn’t legally binding. One myth claims the payment was never received, and the other contests the language of the document itself. The former conjures up the tragic journey of a ship called Orkney, loaded with gold that sank before it reached Saint Petersburg, while the latter hangs hope of Russia’s rights on the missing phrase “from here to eternity,” signaling that really, the deal was only a lease. While these claims are nothing more than colorful stories, they prove that the sale of Russian America by Alexander II still perplexes, and perhaps frustrates some.
The US as an Arctic Nation
Since Alaska became the 49th US state in 1959, it has adopted a unique and fiercely independent, yet distinctly American identity; it is at once a melting pot of cultures, a resource colony, a defense command site, and tourist destination in a vast land of incredible beauty and wilderness. The popular imagery of Alaskans’ rugged individualism, however, is in juxtaposition with the rather dependent nature of the state. Alaska ranks at the top each year in terms of per capita federal spending, and because its state government relies nearly exclusively on revenues from oil extraction, it is vulnerable to volatile market conditions and political pressures from oil companies. Economically and otherwise, Alaska is not a typical US state. So what exactly does Alaska mean to the US? Has it been a good purchase?
The answer is in the eye of the beholder. A strictly cash flow-focused analysis of Alaska’s impact on the federal treasury since the Treaty seems to indicate that all else excluded, the purchase was not a good deal. While there are, of course, countless counterarguments to show that states, and most large-scale public infrastructure investments, rarely stand up to such scrutiny, perhaps a most important point missed by such calculus is the savings on what wasn’t. The geopolitical externalities from a Russian Alaska, had it remained in place into the 21st century, would likely be tipping the scales in favor of the purchase. Another point to be made is on the utility of Alaska in gaining US admission into Arctic regional diplomacy. It has been a vital arena for continued US-Russia collaboration even during otherwise contentious times. Yet, arguably, US Arcticness has not reached its full potential.
Owing perhaps to Alaska’s discontiguous location and low population density, it remains little more than a curiosity in the American collective imagination. Despite the two-year US Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, between 2015-2017, Americans haven’t fully processed or begun to relate to their Arctic identity as a nation. Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Chanda Meek, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, points to a tendency of regionalism in US identities. “The East Coast, the Midwest, and the West Coast share historic connections that help frame their own identity and relationships within their Americanness. Alaska is not a part of the West Coast identity, and Americans —unlike Canadians— aren’t culturally tied to their northern selves.” Perhaps even more influential are the special interests that play a role in how Americans view their Arctic state, continues Prof. Meek: “There are usually special interests behind the different facets of identities attributed to Alaska. Be it the military, oil and gas companies, or environmentalists, each has tried unsuccessfully to frame what Alaska should mean to the US: a defense outpost, a cache of resources, or crown jewel of nature. It is up to Alaskans to articulate clearly what there is to gain from a US Arctic identity.”
According to Dr. Meek’s colleague, Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Brandon Boylan, there has been recent progress in leveraging Alaska’s Arcticness and addressing international challenges through the Arctic Council. However, as the Arctic attracts more attention, and its strategic importance increases, international relations may become trickier: “The Arctic has largely been a zone of peace and cooperation. But the security stakes have traditionally been low, with environmental issues and research mostly dominating the agenda. With climate change reshaping transportation and development opportunities, sources of competition and conflict between states could arise. A further concern is how local indigenous communities and national governments will interact in this new context.”
Alaska by 2067: The Next 50 Years
Alaska’s economy is in a dire situation, currently running on a 2017 fiscal deficit of around $3 billion. While this figure is slightly down from 2016 numbers, the oil economy is unravelling, leaving few options for a quick rebound. Many Alaskans hope that the US will capitalize on its Arctic outpost and invest in infrastructure for transportation such as deep water ports and ice breakers, and in basic infrastructure in Alaska Native villages where water and sewer systems are still an issue. Prof. Meek suggests that there is a delicate political tango involved in the management of state and federal relations: “It is the job of Alaska Senators to bring in federal funds, while maintaining independence so that we can make our own decisions.” With the current economic woes then, Alaska and the US must reconcile their mutual interests and desired spheres of influence to pursue a shared Arctic agenda beyond the US Chairmanship in the Arctic Council. At a time when the Council is evolving into an institution with ever-increasing influence over regional governance, and even non-Arctic governments vie to get involved, US Arcticness is a national asset.
In the ever-changing relationship between the US and Russia, the future depends largely on whether Russia needs the US as friend or foe. While in the Arctic context there is likely to be continued cooperation, the larger narrative between the two nations depends on domestic pressures to frame each other one way or another.
The author would like to thank Professors Chanda Meek and Brandon Boylan (University of Alaska Fairbanks) for their comments. In this article, the historic account of the Alaska Purchase is largely based on the following sources:
1 Farrow, L. A. (2016). Seward’s Folly: A New Look at the Alaska Purchase. University of Alaska Press.
2 Welch, E.R. American Public Opinion and the Purchase of Russian America. (Dec. 1958). The American Slavic and East European Review. Vol.17, No.4. pp.481-494.