On first hearing, it came across as a “beginners” attempt at an April Fools Day joke, something so obviously false that no one could take it seriously: that “Russia sold Alaska to America.” In spite of the immediately absurd nature of this statement, reality proves more bizarre than fiction once again: it happened, it’s true. Imagine today’s geopolitical map and then speculate upon an alternative history of the 20th Century if the sale had never occurred, a fascinating topic of discussion.
The exchange was made on 30th March 1867; the sum of 7.2 million USD in return for 1.52 million square kilometres of picturesque wilderness, plus a large reserves of untapped wealth. Russia, under Tsar Alexander 2nd, entered into the deal aware of the stakes involved, indeed it was some on the American side that failed to grasp its potential.
Although the purchase was received positively by most; some deemed the new land “useless”, and referred to the purchase as “Seward’s Icebox” or “Seward’s Folly” – William Seward being the American Secretary of State who negotiated with Russian diplomat (and envoy in Washington) Eduard de Stoeckl, throughout the process.
Ellis Oberholtzer (historian) balked at the cost of maintaining such a region without a population to fill it, and the New York World considered it a “sucked orange” whose only worth was measured in the furs of animals already hunted to near extinction. Time (along with oil and mineral reserves) would reveal otherwise, of course. There were dissenters too, on the Russian side, with press indignation at the thought of giving away land that had already seen so much development and effort expended upon it.
Russian-controlled Alaska was initially established by the eastwards movement of trappers and traders across Siberia, into Alaska’s western-most regions in 1732. By 1821 Tsar Alexander 1st had declared sovereignty and the Russia-America Company had been established (1799) to exploit the new land’s potential wealth under the direction of Alexander Baranov, a successful Russian merchant (more on whom next time).
Alaska was a vast resource for the fur trade. Sea Otter fur was highly prized – resulting in the near extinction of the local species. Walrus ivory too was a desirable commodity, comparable in value to that obtained from elephants.
The company’s folio extended to mineral wealth and the trade of commodities with local tribes. Russia-America could also import and supply desirable tea and Chinese silks for example, establishing the region as a major financial hub. Over 20 settlements appeared and started to grow – most situated on Alaska’s western coast or on nearby islands, ready to facilitate the shipment of goods ‘back home’.
Other, smaller outposts were established inland for valuable furs and to maintain trading connections with local tribes. Even the orthodox church was involved, sending missionaries to build churches and convert native tribes. Financial endeavours were backed by investments from Russia’s elite, including the Tsar himself and other prominent Russian nobility. In spite of such progress, Russia’s hold on the massive territory was not as solid as the above description suggests. History.com reminds us:-
“No permanent colonial settlement would pop up until 1784, and there were never more than a few hundred Russians living in Alaska at any one time. Far from self sufficient, the colony depended on native tribes, the British and the Americans for supplies”
So what went wrong (and right)?
Let’s take a look next week.