In the middle of the night on March 29th 1867, US and Russian diplomats thrashed out a deal that transferred Russia’s ownership of the territory of Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million.
Russia wanted to sell the territory because it feared that it could be lost without compensation if war broke out with Great Britain. Russian activity in the territory had hitherto mainly consisted of trading in fur and missionary work among the Native Alaskans. The land added approximately 586,412 square miles of territory to the United States.
As the American Civil War broke out and European powers jostled over which side to support, Czar Alexander II unequivocally supported the North. He went as far as sending Russian warships to New York and San Francisco in case France or England harboured any designs to assist the Confederacy.
It is a widely held belief that the goodwill of the Russians helped to smooth the way forward for the sale of Alaska. The acquisition of the territory had been a major objective of US Secretary of State Seward’s for some time, but progress had stalled in the run up to the Civil War.
When Russian ambassador Edouard de Stoeckl announced to Seward that he had received a communication from the Czar approving the sale, the US secretary hastily assembled his team and completed a draft of the necessary documents in the early hours.
Whereas Seward was quick to announce the deal to the press, Russians learned of it from English newspaper accounts and were quick to express universal outrage.
In a 480-page biography of Czar Alexander II, entitled “The Last Great Tsar,” the Russian historian Edvard Radzinsky dedicates a tiny mention to the transaction. “The sale of Alaska,” he says, “is the one act for which Russians have still not forgiven Alexander II.”
Why did he decide to sell?
There are various theories as to why the Czar decided to sell, one of the more enduring is the fact that cash was required to pay off debts accrued during the Crimean War. The colony was also not considered cost effective and presented a target to foreign enemies like Great Britain.
Grand Duke Konstantin, the Czar’s brother, had said that the colony was hopelessly unprofitable and corrupt – whilst the indigenous people were suffering abuse and subsequent to the opening of the Pacific port of Vladivostok in the Russian far east, the American outpost was considered surplus to requirements.
Official audits at the time found the colony to have its books in good order, whilst the tales of conflict between Natives and Russians were now largely exiled to the past.
A racially mixed creole middle class had developed in the territory and young men of promise were sent to study in Moscow and St. Petersburg. They would return to the colony with a university education and effectively became the de facto administrators of the territory – thus providing a cultural link between their Russian and Native families. Russian Americans too, enjoyed certain benefits decades before they were standard in the United States including education for girls, and smallpox vaccinations for infants.
It was the vulnerability of the colony however, that provided the most concern for Russia. The Crimean War had witnessed fighting just west of the Aleutian chain and the Shenandoah confederates had caused havoc for the Yankee whaling fleet in the Bering Sea during the American Civil War. By allowing friendly Americans to possess the territory, it might provide a buffer between Siberia and British expansion in Canada.
An absolute bargain
If Russia was selling Alaska today, the $7.2 million price tag would equate to roughly $101 million or £78 million. That’s less than the following:
- The amount Manchester United FC paid to sign Paul Pogba.
- The Trans Alaska oil pipeline.
- 1/3rd the cost of making the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
- 1/8th of the amount paid for London’s Millennium Dome.
There are various additional theories about what happened during the Alaska purchase, namely that Czar Alexander II was misinformed about the absence of gold in Alaska and would therefore not have sold the territory, or would certainly not have sold it so cheaply had he known. Another myth is that the deal was not in fact, a sale but a 100-year leasehold, which was therefore meant to expire in 1967. Bizarrely, documents evidencing this in the Russian foreign ministry apparently went missing, presumed stolen, and Russia had to accept the fact of the sale.
Whatever the Czar’s reasons were for selling Alaska at such a knock down price, the way President Putin has been bullying Donald Trump lately, we may yet see the territory change hands once again!