The Story Behind the Sale of Alaska

PHOTO by Antartis / Depositphotos
The skeleton in America’s closet, or why Russia sold Alaska to the US

150 years ago, the contract for Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States was signed in Washington D.C. Debates as to why this sale occurred and how we should regard it have been raging ever since. Alexander Petrov, a doctor of Historical Science, decided to get to the bottom of things during the discussion organised by the Egor Gaidar Fund and the Free Historical Society. Lenta.ru publishes excerpts from his speech.

Alexander Petrov:

150 years ago, Alaska was sold to the USA. Since then we’ve gone through a period of reevaluation of this decision; various points of view were voiced in both countries, which were sometimes polar opposites of one another. So it’s clear, the events of those years continue to agitate the collective conscious.

Why? There are a few different elements. First of all, an enormous area of land was sold, which currently has a key position in the Asia-Pacific region, primarily due to the extraction of oil and other hydrocarbons. It should be noted that Russia and the US were not the only countries involved in the deal, as other nations and their agents also participated one way or another, including England, France, and Spain.

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"Negotiating the Alaska Purchase," Emanuel Leutze

Negotiation of the sale took place between December of 1866 and March of 1867, then the money (which was used to build regional railways in Ryazan) was transferred afterwards. Dividends from shares of the Russian-American Company, which was responsible for these territories, were paid up until 1880.

At the roots of this organisation, founded in 1799, were merchants from the Vologda and Irkutsk Governorates. They ran the company privately, at their own risk. There’s a popular Russian song which contains the refrain “Catherine, you were wrong.” Indeed, the merchants Shelekhov and Golikov believed Catherine II made a mistake in refusing to award a monopoly to the company.

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A $7,2-million bill that Russia got for Alaska

However, her successor, Paul I essentially assured the status of the monopoly company, and granted it monopoly rights and privileges in 1799. The merchants also pushed for an official flag and to move the headquarters from Irkutsk to Saint Petersburg. To summarise, it started off as a private enterprise, but in later years, members of the Navy were often appointed to positions of power within the company instead of merchants.

The transfer of Alaska began with the famous letter from Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich of Russia (the brother of Emperor Alexander II) to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Gorchakov, in which he insisted that the territory had to be sold to the US. He then dismissed all objections and stood his ground. The deal went through without the knowledge of the Russian-American company.

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Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich

Afterwards the approval of the Governing Senate and the Emperor of Russia was little more than a formality. It sounds surprising, but it’s a fact – Konstantin Nikolayevich’s letter was written exactly ten years to the day before the sale of Alaska.

Throughout history, Russia and the United States have had more partnerships than animosity. After all, there is good reason why historian Norman Saul wrote a book on Russo-American history under the title ‘Distant Friends’. After the sale of Alaska, relations between Russia and the US were quite amicable, bordering on friendly. I would not call their relations regarding Alaska a rivalry.

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A map of territories of northwest Alaska which were handed to US by the Russian Empire in 1867

I would not call the position of Konstantin Nikolayevich criminal either, rather, poorly-timed and difficult to understand. A crime is when someone breaks specific rules, laws and existing norms of the time. Legally, the deal was conducted above board. But how the deal was signed is another story and it is, indeed, questionable.

So what was the alternative? To allow the Russian-American Company to operate in the region as it was already doing, grant it the right to settle the region with residents of Siberia and Central Russia and develop huge swathes of the territory as part of the ongoing Emancipation reform. The question is – would there have been enough drive and incentive to make it happen?