One hundred forty-five years ago, on March 30, 1867, Russia sold Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the US. Since then many Russians have been wondering why their government made such a decision. Sergei Sayenko attempts to answer the question.
By Sergei Sayenko
Let us first have a look at the history. Discovered in 1732 by a Russian expedition led by Mikhail Gvozdyov and Ivan Fedorov, Alaska remained the only North American land owned by Russia. The development of Alaska`s territory was supervised by private investors and not the government. Before 1867 Alaska had been owned by the special state-sponsored Russian-American Company. After serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861, to compensate landowners Emperor Alexander II had to borrow £15 million from the Rothschilds. But Russia had no money to pay off the debt. And then Alexander`s younger brother Konstantin suggested selling something Russia did not need much.
In the early 19th century Russia earned money form selling furs produced in Alaska. But by the middle of the 19th century it became clear that the money raised in that remote and geopolitically volatile region failed to cover the expenses. That is why Russia decided to sell Alaska. In late March of 1867 Russia’s envoy to the US, Eduard Stoeckl, and the US Secretary of State William Henry Seward signed a deal on the Alaska purchase.
The territory of more than 1.5 million square km was sold for $7.2 million ($120 million in today’s dollars). The sum was transferred to the Rothschilds. On October 18, 1867, an official ceremony took place to proclaim Alaska a part of the US. On the same day the US authorities introduced the Gregorian calendar in Alaska, where local residents went to sleep on October 6 and woke up 12 days later.
Since then the purchase of Alaska has been surrounded by numerous rumors and myths. Some say that the US did not pay Russia in full; others insist that Alaska was not sold but was leased for 99 years. There is also a belief that the purchase treaty had been repeatedly violated, so it can be contested these days. The purchase of Alaska once inspired a popular Russian pop-rock band Lyube to compose a humorous song called ‘Don’t be a fool, America, give us Alaska back’. The song reflects Russia’s worries about Alaska, although the text has some historical inaccuracies.
It must be mentioned, however, that at the time when the deal was signed, many Russians regretted that Alaska was no longer theirs. Even in the US there were people who saw no point in buying land in such a remote region. Many Americans were not happy with the way the then President Andrew Johnson was handling major domestic issues, besides they knew very little about Alaska. But everything changed thirty years later when the Klondike Gold Rush began.
In the 20th century large oil and gas fields worth hundreds of millions of dollars were discovered in Alaska. Since then the region has turned into an actively developing US state with the highest per-capita GDP in the nation. Probably, this is why Alaska remains a thorny issue for many Russians, with some people even suggesting taking the territory back. But one can hardly imagine Russia launching a war against the US over Alaska.