John Quincy Adams in Russia: Part II

Adams’ First Meeting with Alexander I

Adams was a brilliant intellectual whose father, John Adams, one of America’s founders, insisted that his son be studious. As a result of his father’s strict discipline and his mother’s encouragement, he developed an amazing appetite for learning. His travel diaries were famous and his memoirs were published in nine volumes. His journal entries from his time in Russia are to be found in Chapter VII of his memoirs, a chapter of 495 pages. From the first day he arrived in St. Petersburg, he was studying the Russian alphabet and making notes about stoves, kitchens, double windows and “the construction of houses generally.”

Shortly after he arrived in 1809, Adams was granted an audience with Alexander I. After an hour wait at the Imperial Palace, Adams was ushered into the Emperor’s office where Alexander greeted him in French and welcomed him to his new position as the American Minister in Russia. After presenting his credentials, Adams told Alexander I of his President’s respect for his Majesty’s person and character and the desire of the American government to strengthen friendship and commerce between the two nations.

Alexander I responded warmly to Adams’ remarks and said it would give him great pleasure to build good relations with America. He then described the difficult political situation in Europe and the possibility of war involving France and England and possibly other European powers. Adams made it clear that America did not want to get involved in these conflicts, but did want to strengthen and expand its commercial relations with Russia. He also emphasized the desire of his government to support Alexander’s commitment to “liberal principles” about which the Russian tsar had spoken so strongly.

Alexander said he did not see any reason for a conflict of interest between the two countries and that increased commerce would be beneficial to both. Adams noted that in the middle of their conversation, Alexander took him by the arm and walked to a window overlooking the Neva River, “a movement seemingly intended to avoid being overheard.” After answering questions about several cities in America and the differences in architecture and weather, Adams recorded Alexander’s comments that “a republican form of government whose principles and conduct were just and wise was as respectable as any other.” These were beliefs that his grandmother, Catherine the Great, would never have supported.

The Routine of an Ambassador’s Life in St. Petersburg

Within a month of his arrival, Adams began to see the pattern of activities he was expected to maintain as a diplomat in the Russian capital. He recorded in his journal that he and his family rarely were up before 9 a.m., sometimes 10 a.m. After breakfast, they either received guests or visited others until 3 p.m. At 4 p.m. a meal was served and then the evening activities began with either guests at their house until 11 p.m. or parties with other officials that seldom broke up before 4 or 5 a.m. “It is a life of such irregularity and dissipation as I cannot and will not continue to lead.”

Several months later, when taking a walk along the river, he met Alexander I, who was also walking alone. Adams noted that the Emperor often stopped to talk with people whom he met on his walks. This was a ruler who was not fearful for his life, despite what happened to his father and the fears of his grandmother.

The extremely lavish ceremonial balls and banquets that filled many nights in St. Petersburg began to wear on the frugal American. Russian nobility were living beyond their considerable means and no one seemed to worry. Adams reported to his mother Abigail that “the tone of society among them [the nobility] is almost universally marked by an excess of expense over income. The public officers all live far beyond their salaries; many of them are notorious for never paying their debts. . . .”

Faced with expenses beyond his meager salary, Adams had to wrestle with the issue of bribery and kickbacks, which many diplomats gladly accepted. Adams admitted that “it is difficult to resist the opportunities [of bribes], . . . but I am determined to do it. The whole experience of my life has been one continual proof of the difficulty with which a man can adhere to the principle of living within his income – the first and most important principle of private economy.”

The increased commerce between America and Russia was clearly seen by the leadership of both nations as an encouraging trend and with the growth in trade came American visitors. By July 1811, Adams reported that there was a “continual succession of Americans, so that we dwell among our own people almost as much as if we were at home.” Over 150 American ships sailed in and out of Russian ports in the summer of 1810 and 63 had already arrived that summer, according to Adams’ notes.

By the following year (1812), both Russia and America were engaged in war, different wars, so that their relationship was not significantly impacted. In June, the United States declared war on Great Britain and, in the same month, Napoleon’s army invaded Russia. Within a month of Napoleon’s attack, Russia and Great Britain formed an alliance against France. For America, the complexities of European entanglements were hard to avoid, despite the best intentions of the Founders.