Russia Sells Alaska

Check used to pay for Alaska,
Worth $7.2 million

The surprisingly cordial relationship that developed between President Abraham Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II, a relationship described in previous “Reflections on Russia,” subsequently lead to the Tsar’s decision to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867.  The negotiations and the sale that took place, once the American Civil War ended, mark a high point in the history of Russian-American relations.

Russia’s Perspective

For the Tsar and his closest advisors, there were many factors that convinced them that it was time to sell Alaska to their friendly neighbor, rather than lose it to the British whom they fought in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and whose navy controlled the high seas.  Russia’s principal commercial enterprise in ”Russian-America” (as they called it) was the Russian-American Company, but it was badly mismanaged and was forced to sign contracts for food and supplies with businessmen in San Francisco for their northern outposts and to serve as the company’s principal markets.  While this company struggled to survive – in fact, it never made any money — commercial interests in California and New England argued that it was time for America to move in – a logical extension of its “Manifest Destiny.”

The distance from St. Petersburg and the mismanagement of the Russian-American Company were key factors in the Tsar’s decision to sell Russia’s only overseas colony.  There was also the realization that Americans were quickly moving across their vast country and would probably take over this territory in time anyway.  The growing friendship with the America, the exchange of naval visits, and the desire to keep the British out of the North Pacific were all part of Russia’s strategic thinking.

At a meeting in the Russian Foreign Ministry on December 28, 1866, the Tsar and five key Russian officials met for less than an hour and the only comments made on the possible sale of Alaska were positive.  After hearing all the advice, Tsar Alexander II agreed with the recommendation to send one of his top advisors to Washington with the authority to sell Alaska for no less than $5 million.  The only stipulations he added were that natives and employees of their company had the right to leave the territory, if they desired, and to retain their religion (Russian Orthodoxy), if they stayed.

Once the Russians decided to sell Alaska, the negotiation process with the Americans was kept secret and was brought to a successful conclusion at the end of March 1867.  They concluded after an all-night session and the treaty was signed at 4 a.m. on March 30 with a purchase price of $7.2 million – or approximately 2 cents per acre.

Painting by E. Leutze depicting
negotiation of Alaska Purchase

A Win/Win Agreement

With their expansion into Siberia, Russia’s growing presence on its Pacific coast, and the buildup in Vladivostok that made it into a modern naval base, the Russians considered Alaska a diversion and too far away to adequately defend.  The Far East was a priority now, not Alaska.  Russia liquidated a financial and strategic embarrassment for $7.2 million and the stock of the Russian-American Company soared so they were able to pay off all of their debts.  The Americans now had control of this region and they were not viewed as a threat; the troublesome British were now shut out of the Pacific North.

American expansionists were thrilled with this purchase, and while some leaders were critical of the decision, calling this purchase “Seward’s Folly” (so named because of the key role played in this decision by Secretary of State William Seward), the acquisition of an area of 586,412 square miles was soon recognized as a major achievement.  Although adding a territory twice the size of Texas immediately excited some Americans; others didn’t recognize its potential until 1896 and the great Klondike gold strike.

“Close Friends in Separate Spheres”

From the 1760s to the 1860s, Russia and America experienced 100 years of harmonious friendship, highlighted by the sale of Alaska.  The national interests of both countries were congruent, not in conflict; both countries also had a common antagonist – Great Britain.  There was also a realization, especially on the part of the Russians, of the limits of their power and the need not to expand beyond their defensive capabilities.  In addition, this was a period when differing political ideologies – democracy vs. autocracy – did not influence diplomacy in either country.

Over the next fifty years, leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, all of this began to change.  But that’s another story.