Russia and America: Getting Acquainted

In the early decades following the War of Independence with Great Britain, Americans felt drawn to Russia for numerous reasons. Although Russia was expanding East and the United States was expanding to the West, the two countries established a friendship not across the Pacific Ocean, but rather across “Old Europe.” The leaders of the young American Republic appreciated Russian assistance in the war against the British and both nations gained from a growing trade relationship in the early 1800s. In the 1830s and 1840s, ships from New England poured Cuban sugar into Russian ports on the Baltic Sea, returning with loads of Russian rope, tackle, cotton canvas for sails, and native iron.

Direct information about each other’s societies was limited, however, and the number of travelers from either country was very small. The formal opening of diplomatic missions in Washington and St. Petersburg took place in 1808-9, and the popular attitude of each nation toward the other was positive. Mutual cooperation in opposition to the British and French helped solidify the early friendship, enhanced by a growing sense that both nations were the newly-emerging world powers, as Great Britain and France — the worn-out powers of “Old Europe” — declined.

Learning About Each Other Through Literature

For Russians, direct information on the political ideas and institutions of the United States was limited by government censors, although some materials did slip through tsarist censorship or were smuggled into the country. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, for example, was circulated among Russian radical thinkers, shaping their images of the new democracy. It is interesting to note that harsh treatments of the United States were viewed by the tsarist government as more dangerous than favorable ones, since criticism of slavery invited comparisons with Russian serfdom.

Russian publishers, restrained from political commentaries by ardent censors, instead emphasized American literature and poetry, and educated Russians began to develop an extensive familiarity with the world of American writers. Washington Irving was the first American author to win a substantial Russian following; his Rip Van Winkle was a standard discussion item in intellectual circles. James Fenimore Cooper’s books, especially The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, and The Pathfinder, gained a wide readership in the Russian capital and among nobility in the provinces. The same was true of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

Russian writers rarely met with their American counterparts and had even less opportunity than American authors to visit the far-away lands of the New World. This was one reason why Russian literature was scarcely known in the United States. Rarely were a Russian’s works translated into English, and when they were (usually by the British), copies were difficult to find. By the middle of the 19th century, direct contacts between the two countries had increased in number and the Russians, in particular, became zealous in their efforts to learn more about their new commercial and political ally, the United States.

Russians had another distinct advantage during the mid-1800s: there were many more educated Russians well versed in English than there were Americans literate in Russian. Russian nobility developed a strong taste for reading American literature in its original language, not in translation.

By the 1860s, while Cooper, Irving and Poe remained the favorite American authors of educated Russians, new names had been added to the list, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Undoubtedly, the most popular American book in Russia by the 1860s was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin — a book not easy to publish in Russia for fear of peasant revolts!

“Close Friends in Separate Spheres”

The Russian sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867 symbolized the growing friendship between these two nations during the first 100 years of America’s existence. Through trade, political cooperation and increased knowledge of each other’s literature, the two nations gained substantially from each other. The perception of Russia as America’s essential friend was popularized in a book by the Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Charles B. Boynton. Boynton made the following assertion, which won wide acceptance in both countries:

When Europe has been taught that these Americas are the rightful and exclusive domain of Americans, the theater for an American civilization, which will brook no foreign dictation, the United States, as the leader of a grand alliance of American States, may present to all nations the type and model of a Christian Republic, while Russia, let us hope, will exhibit to Europe and the East, a Christian monarchy and a national Church administered so as to bless, instruct and elevate the people. If so, America and Russia will be the two great powers of the future.

As historian Norman Saul noted, these laudatory words represented the culmination of the previous one hundred years, a century during which America and Russia were “close friends in separate spheres.”

NOTE: These “Reflections” were based on Norman E. Saul’s book “Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867” (University of Kansas Press, 1991).