Russian America: How Russia colonised the West?
On March 30th 1867 the Russian Empire sold its remaining territories in North America to the United States. Exactly 150 years ago Russians had decided to leave the American soil for good and the story of “Russian America” ended. While the “Alaska Purchase” caused a lot of controversies on both sides back in the 19th century, it was largely forgotten during the Cold War, and resurfaces only occasionally, usually in rather curious contexts.
The history of Russia’s American conquest
Russian colonisation eastward dates back to mid-17th century, when Ivan the Terrible granted the Stroganov family permission to conquer the Khanate of Kazan, one of the many successors of the Golden Horde. Conquests followed throughout the century and by 1647, Russians reached the western borders of the Pacific Ocean– the Sea of Okhotsk. This achievement laid the ground for the first expeditions across the ocean. Throughout the 18th century several of them were organised. The most recognisable ones were commanded by a Danish sailor, Vitus Bering, whose achievements were of highest significance, as he proved the idea of Asia and America being connected by land to be false. Despite the scope of the missions, however, no permanent settlements on the American soil were established at the time.
It was not until the end of the century, that an adventurer, merchant and sailor, Grigory Shelikhov, reached Kodiak islands in 1784 and founded an outpost which later became a departure point for further colonisation of the new land. Shelikhov is sometimes referred to as a “Russian Columbus”. After establishing the Russian rule in the new land, he founded the Russian American Company (later referred to as RAK), which played a crucial role in further relations between the empire and its colony. RAK was headquartered in Irkutsk, Shelikhov’s hometown.
The fact that the birthplace of this influential organisation was in Siberia is not a coincidence. Given the fact that serfdom, a curse of the European part of the empire, never actually functioned in the Far East and North, it encouraged many resourceful settlers to move eastwards and establish new towns. By doing so they were creating an estate of merchants, sailors and burghers. Although the headquarters was soon moved to St. Petersburg, the role of Siberian towns and their citizens in Russian economy and trade remained very strong.
The capital of Russian America (as the colony was officially called) was established in New Arkhangelsk (today’s Sitka) and became known as the “Paris of the Pacific Ocean”. Its citizens included Russians and native inhabitants of these lands – the Aleut and Tlingit tribes. Although the relations between these two groups were generally peaceful, there were incidents of conflict. Several Tlingit warriors did not accept the Russian rule and seized New Arkhangelsk in 1802. They slaughtered the inhabitants and took over control of the city’s infrastructure. Russians took it back only two years later with the help of the Aleuts. The events of 1804 are known as the “Battle of Sitka” and were the biggest military conflict between Russians and Alaskan Natives in the history of Russian America.
Russian settlements in North America grew in time, reaching territories outside of Alaska. They covered the lands of today’s states of Washington, Oregon and California. Russians could have gone as far as Hawaii. They had been trading with the local rulers since the end of the 18th century and after the Hawaiian Kingdom was established, Russians were supporting different parties on the island. As a result they managed to build three forts in the area. In 1815, the high chief Kaumuali’i offered the kingdom to become a Russian protectorate, and requested Russia’s support in his struggle against the legitimate king, Kamehameha I. Tsar Alexander I rejected the proposal and Hawaii remained independent.
In 1812 Russians established their southernmost settlement – Fort Ross, in close proximity to the Spanish colonies. This caused a great concern of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, who decided to establish new northernmost settlements. The story of Russian-Spanish relations of that time was brought to the wider public by the rock opera Juno and Avos which gained popularity in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It was also promoted abroad as “Russian Pocahontas”. The opera tells the story of Concepción Argüello, a 15-year-old daughter of José Darío Argüello, the colonial governor of Spanish California and Nikolay Rezanov, a Russian nobleman, ambassador to Japan and one of RAK’s owners. The couple fell in love at the Russian-Spanish frontier in California. In order to marry a Catholic girl, Rezanov needed a permission from the Tsar. He decided to sail to his motherland through Alaska, but he got ill on the way and died in Kranoyarsk in 1807, never reaching the empire’s capital. When Concepción had heard the news she took the vow of silence and joined the monastery, where she remained until her death. While the story is based on historical accounts, the opera took a predictably more melodramatic course.
The big sale
Fort Ross was eventually sold to the US in 1841, as the colony was becoming increasingly challenging to upkeep. The costs of transferring the goods and people to and from the heart of the empire, the European part of Russia, were higher than the income from selling colonial goods, the most precious of which was fur. Clearly, no one had expected back then that one day massive amounts of gold and oil would be discovered in the Alaskan land. The whole remaining part of the colony was thus sold to the Americans in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars.
Back then, the news was taken with enthusiasm in Russia and with mixed feelings in the US. Russia was enlarging its empire through new conquests in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Besides, due to the weakening of Turkey, Russia’s role in South-Eastern Europe was also getting stronger (despite the defeat in the Crimean War). Russians also feared that Alaska would be taken away from them by the British and they did not want to let that happen. Tsar Alexander II needed money to run all his foreign campaigns, therefore, a sale of a land that was expensive and not prosperous seemed like a good move. Especially as it was sold to the Americans who were considered friends and allies against the British Empire.
Meanwhile, however, the US House of Representatives voted against the purchase which caused a delay in the payment. Some members were furious with President Andrew Johnson’s decision to buy the land. 7.2 million (which is around 123 million dollars today) seemed like a huge amount of money that was spent on a useless empty space – a “polar bear garden”, as it was referred to. At the same time, there were many who praised the transaction as another step in the American development.
The story could have finished here, if not for the good old irredentism on the part of Russian conspiracy circles. In the Russian political discourse there is a curious theory which has surprisingly many followers among “the true Russian patriots”. According to them, Alaska was not sold, but only rented for 90 years. Therefore, it should have been given back to Russia in 1957.
The Russian patriotic discourse sees Russian colonisationsation as peaceful, focused on bringing good, development and enlightenment. This is of course in contrast with the imperialism of other European empires, whose colonisation was brutal, greedy, and deprived of respect to the natives. It fits into a narrative that Russia’s unique civilization is morally superior to the rotten Western one. One of the most popular pieces expressing this view was published in 2005 by Sergei Kremlev and under the title: “Russian America: Discover and sell!” (Russkaya Amerika: otkryt’ i prodat’).
The question of the Russian rule over Alaska comes back once in a while on various occasions. For example, in 2005 Steven Pearlstein, an American journalist, published an article titled: “Alaska Would Be More at Home in Russia”. He joked that the Alaskan “corporate culture” of nepotism and economic problems would fit better in the Russian reality than the American one. Although it was a joke, some took it seriously. Alexander Dugin, one of the founding fathers of Eurasian civilization doctrine, stated that the sale should be re-discussed.
In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, the biggest enthusiasts of Russia “reclaiming its territories” started raising the issue of Alaska. The internet was full of jokes and memes. It was also full of articles and posts promoting the petition of Alaska’s secession from the US and its return to Russia. The petition was launched on the White House website allegedly by the citizens of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. Much of the media coverage that followed was sensational, with headlines such as: “America has panicked! Alaska wants to follow Crimea and join Russia” taking over the internet. Although the mobilisation was serious and the petition reached over 42,000 signatures, it was taken down from the website because it did not reach the required 100,000 votes in time. “The panic” was over but one can only wonder if this is the end.
Today the Russian-American border runs through the Diomede Islands. Big Diomede belongs to Russia and Little Diomede to the US. The distance between them is 3.8 km. But apart from the territorial border there is also one marked by time and date. The International Date Line lies exactly between the two islands and therefore, there is 21 hours difference between them. For that reason Big Diomede is sometimes called “Tomorrow Island” and Little Diomede – “Yesterday Island”. And while there is no border passage, there have been instances of border rules violations. An acknowledged Russian writer, Victor Erofeev, took a flight to the American island and decided to get to the Russian side by boat. He got arrested for trespassing and sent back to the US. In the meantime he noticed that the natives living on the Russian island were dressed in traditional Russian winter clothes, whereas the natives on the American side were wearing American summer clothes, even though they lived in the same climate zone. It seemed, therefore, that the authorities on each island got to decide which season was in force, Erofeev concluded. And this is what is left from Russian America.
Kacper Dziekan is a European Projects specialist at the European Solidarity Centre and a PhD student at the history department of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.