Why Russia wanted to sell Alaska

  • Saturday, February 18, 2017 10:08pm
  • LifeCommunity

The Crimean Peninsula has been in the news again. Oddly enough, that bit of land on the far side of the world, only slightly larger than the Kenai Peninsula, made world headlines more than 150 years ago and influenced Alaska’s destiny.

Often we think of our nation’s origins from the vantage of the English-speaking colonists on North America’s East Coast who carved out a new nation, first from the numerous indigenous peoples who preceded them and, second, from the British Empire. But to understand Alaska’s history and how it ended up attached to “the Lower 48,” we need to consider a different vantage: Russian history.

In the early 1800s, Russia had grand plans for its Alaska colony. Nikolai Rezanov, a glamorous nobleman and early power broker for the Russian American Company (RAC), promoted a vision of Russian dominance of the North Pacific, with its American colony spanning the entire coast from the Aleutians to San Francisco.

But the years ground down that ambition. The colony failed to attract farmers, industry or settlers. Alaska’s boosters lamented that they could not recruit Russian women “of good morals.” Supplying basic foods such as bread was a chronic problem. Turnips, cabbages and spuds grew along the chilly, damp coasts, but not grains.

Shipping supplies all the way from European Russia provided constant hassles. Russians in Alaska, as well as Natives they tried to control, bought goods from foreigners. The czarist government tried to ban such exchanges, but as other colonial powers created more Pacific ports the Russians couldn’t even monopolize trade with their own people. Aggressive English speakers from the growing United States and British provinces in Canada vied to control the Pacific Northwest and tested Russia’s power to their north.

Sea otters, fur seals and other Alaska furbearers declined while higher-quality Canadian pelts undercut Russia’s global fur trade. Profits fell despite efforts to diversify Alaska’s economy. RAC’s links to anti-czarist revolutionaries further reduced its popularity in St. Petersburg, and in 1826 the government hung the company’s office manager for plotting with the Decembrists.

To the south, prospectors struck gold at the mill of John Sutter, who in 1841 bought the Russian buildings at Fort Ross. In 1849, the same year that Doroshin found gold on the Kenai River, the gold rush burst upon California. Watching the California chaos, Russian authorities feared that a flood of crazy Yankee prospectors might someday converge on Alaska.

Enter Crimea. In the heyday of European imperialism the Russian, Ottoman and British empires bumped up against each other in places such as Afghanistan, Romania and the sunny Black Sea enclave of Crimea. The war there is remembered (if at all) in America due to Englishman Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Historians describe the Crimean War as a gory fiasco. For Russia, the war ended in 1856 in a humiliating and extremely expensive defeat.

In 1858, the Russian empire annexed much of the Amur Basin from a weakened China. In quick succession, the Russians founded the thriving new cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok on their Asian seaboard. Henceforth, instead of sailing to Alaska, potential Russian colonists could go to the Amur valley, with its rich soils, mild climate and convenient connection to Siberia.

Thousands of miles away, in the capital of St. Petersburg, the czar’s brother, Grand Duke Konstantin, began lobbying – in top-secret notes – that it was time for Russia and Alaska to part ways. The colony was no longer needed or profitable. The optimistic Americans had funds to buy it peacefully. Such a sale could pay off the Crimean War debt and allow the traditional friends, the USA and Russia, to thwart their shared traditional enemy, Great Britain.

“… [W]e must not deceive ourselves and must foresee that the United States, constantly aiming to round out their possessions and desiring to dominate undividedly the whole of North America, will take the afore-mentioned colonies from us and we shall not be able to regain them,” Konstantin wrote.

Before 1860, the czar’s inner circle decided Alaska’s fate. They just had to find a way to pay off the RAC. But then the United States had their own unfortunate war, and the Alaska plans were put on hold.

This is the fifth in a series about Kenai Peninsula history in observance of the 150th anniversary of the US purchase of Alaska, leading up to our local history conference, April 21-22 in Soldotna. Jeffrey Meyers from Kenai Peninsula College will talk more about why Russia sold Alaska. For more conference information, check out its website at http://www.kenaipeninsulahistory.org/ and its Facebook page, or phone 907-460-7554.

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