- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

Critics derided it as "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox" or even (at the New York Herald Tribune) "Walrus-sia".

Alaska turned out to be "Seward's masterpiece" and was a direct result of the Civil War, which was a high point of Russian cooperation with the United States in the past, at least. The story recalls the old diplomatic dictum: "No nation has permanent friends or permanent enemies, just permanent interests."

In 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had served through the Civil War under President Abraham Lincoln and remained under President Andrew Johnson, negotiated the purchase of Alaska from czarist Russia for $7.2 million. The sale rivaled the Louisiana Purchase in size and eventually in importance to national defense. Consider the alternative Josef Stalin in Juneau. It might have given a new meaning to the phrase "cold war."

The background of the sale is as interesting as the results. The treaty that made it possible can be linked to earlier diplomatic contacts between the two nations, especially during the early 1860s a story told by Norman E. Saul in his book, "Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867."

Russian policy as a whole was positive toward the United States throughout the middle of the 19th century. Behind it was not altruism, of course, but self-interest. Still, relations between the United States and Russia were as warm as their relations with England and France were frosty.

Russia had long been at odds with England and France it had recently warred with them in the Crimea from 1854 to 1856 and was worried about their support for uprisings in Russian-held Poland. As the Civil War approached and England and France indicated their favoritism toward the Confederacy, Russia looked on the United States as an ally, based in part on the classic rule that "the enemy of my enemies is my friend."

As Mr. Saul notes, Russians and Americans also saw their nations as having "parallel histories," a notion first advanced in Alexis de Tocqueville's book "Democracy in America" (1835-1840), in which he compared the two as latecomers but hard workers in catching up to the leading Western European nations. Many mid-19th-century observers repeated the mantra: The future belonged to the "young," vigorous, burly nations of America and Russia.

An irritant in their relations had also decreased, Mr. Saul writes. Traditionally, many Americans had been wary of close relations with the Russian autocracy, because of its long history of repression. But if there ever was a "Glasnost before Gorbachev," the early years of Alexander II's reign (1855-1881) surely qualify. The czar pushed for liberalization of laws governing the press and enforced pragmatic administrative reforms as well.

Most notably, Alexander II became the "Czar Liberator" when he forced through a decree emancipating the serfs. The action became effective in 1862. Many international observers saw a parallel to the American abolitionist movement (and later Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation). When the Civil War began, favoring the Union suited Russia because it fit its desire for a better international image.

During the first two years of the Civil War, Russia officially adhered to strict neutrality, but it tilted toward the Union. In late summer 1862, after several Union defeats, longtime Russian Ambassador Baron Edouard de Stoeckel played a key role in helping Seward dodge pressure from France and Britain to hold armistice talks with the Confederacy. Seward considered this de facto recognition of Southern independence. Stoeckel agreed and wouldn't endorse the plan, and England and France backed off.

Symbolic gestures by the Russian navy also helped the Union, at least in providing a boost to morale. In 1863, the czar dispatched two naval squadrons (with combat frigates), one to New York City and the other to San Francisco. Union crowds, who knew the international significance of the move, rapturously cheered their arrival at Battery Park and Fisherman's Wharf.

Some historians speculate the Russians wanted to get their ships out of potentially ice-bound ports because of tensions over Poland. If so, Russia found a way that brought it considerable good will, as well. For the signal of support for the Union this sent, Mr. Saul notes, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles commented, "God bless the Russians." The New York squadron made it to Alexandria by November 1863.

Diplomatic letters reveal cordiality between the nations. As Cassius Clay, Lincoln's first ambassador, wrote from St. Petersburg in July 1861, "In Russia, we have a friend: the time is coming when she will be a powerful one for us. The emancipation move is the beginning of a new era and her strength. I am well received here: all the Russian Journals are for us."

In June 1862, the new ambassador (and ex-Secretary of War) Simon Cameron wrote to Seward, "The whole Court is at present out of the city, and all the high officials will remain absent, for some months. The Emperor came to town only to receive me . The interview was a long one, and his majesty was more than cordial. He asked me many questions shewing his interest in our affairs, and when I thanked him, in your name, for his prompt sympathy in our cause, the expression of his eyes, and his subsequent remarks, shewed me very clearly that he was particularly well pleased."

In February 1863, after leaving the post, Cameron wrote that he hoped "in the future which lies beyond the present strife however other sovereignties may regard or oppose us we will recognize in the Emperor of Russia our constant supporter and steadfast ally."

The cordiality was felt in Washington. Seward wrote to the president, "The Emperor of Russia has written a most generous and magnanimous letter in which he expresses himself with his whole heart and soul in favor of the cause of the Union. He has directed his Minister here, Mr. Stoekel [sic] to read the letter to you and to me and is desirous that it should afterwards be published in the newspapers."

Lincoln's assassination also elicited Russian sympathy, "Distant Friends" details. Letters of condolence came to the U.S. Embassy in St. Petersburg from throughout Russia. In 1866, it was America's turn to express support after Alexander escaped assassination. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox took a message from Congress to the czar on board the ironclad USS Miantonomoh, the first such vessel to make a trans-Atlantic crossing. The toasting in St. Petersburg and Moscow exceeded even generous Russian standards.

By then it was clear to Russia and Stoeckel in particular, who could take the pulse of Washington that a reunited America wanted to be a Pacific power. From the Russian view, far worse than "Manifest Destiny" was English influence on Alaska via British Columbia through the Hudson's Bay Company since the late 1500s, an ongoing enterprise. If we have to "lose" Alaska, Russians asked, to whom should we lose it? Only one nation fit the bill.

Although not a total failure, Russia's Alaskan colony was not working out. Game was rare and grains hard to grow. Earlier, the Russians tried to supply Alaska with a subcolony at Fort Russ (now Fort Ross) north of San Francisco, where a stockade and Orthodox chapel still stand above precipitous cliffs over the Pacific. They left California in 1841, and the main colony seemed next. Conservative journals argued against giving up any Russian territory, Mr. Saul writes, but liberal pragmatists such as the czar's brother, Grand Duke Constantine, feared losing Alaska without any compensation. In a secret meeting of the czar, Constantine, Stoeckel (back temporarily) and other officials in December 1866, it was resolved that Alaska should be offered to the United States.

Seward was eager. With the Civil War over, he wanted to make up for lost time in the imperial land grab under way in Africa and Oceania. He longed for the Virgin Islands, but they had just been hit by a nasty hurricane. Stoeckel contacted him and began secret negotiations early in 1867. By late March, he and Seward inked the treaty at the latter's Washington home. The immediate beneficiaries seem to have been newspapers, which had a field day mocking the sale. The Senate dithered awhile before ratifying it. Overseas, England fumed.

Aside from Mr. Saul's book, there are several Web sites about the American-Russian friendship, including one at the Library of Congress, led by Russian scholar and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who has placed a digital exhibit on the Web at https://frontiers.loc.gov.

A postscript: Assassins finally killed Alexander II in 1881. His son Alexander III reversed all moves toward liberalization. His crackdown went beyond Marxist radicalism; intellectuals and artists were harassed, and persecution of Jews intensified. America again benefited. The Civil War had made it a beacon of liberty for many Russians; after 1881, it became their destination. From Russia came the best minds of many generations. Alaska was the grand prize, but this brain drain was icing on the cake.

Tom O'Brien is a writer and editor in Washington.


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