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The historical mistake of Catherine the Great. Sale of Alaska

JANUARY 30, 2020 7 min. read
The historical mistake of Catherine the Great. Sale of Alaska

History is cruel to the incautious ones. The careless steps taken by Tsarist Russia 153 years ago lead to regret today. These regrets are influenced differently in the political arena as gold mines and oil fields were discovered under the melting ice of Alaska, once a useless piece of land for Russians. However, Alaska's color has been white for years. The harsh climate lands with beautiful nature, rich surface, and underground resources are now within the American borders. Trade was highly developed in Alaska in the nineteenth century. International development made Novo-Arkhangelsk (now Sitka) the center of interest for traders. A big part of the revenue was from the trade of Sable fur and walrus ivory. Trade turnover in the region was controlled by the Russian-American Company (RAC), which had enormous privileges and was directly subordinated to the Tsarist government. The Tsar family representatives were among the shareholders of the company, which had its flag and currency. So what brought Russia into this deal? There is another question to be asked. Why was America so interested in purchasing this piece of ice?

The discovery of Alaska
Alaska was discovered as a result of Russian expeditions to expand its territory. The Tsar wanted to explore more areas, moving eastward. During the search to the east, the expedition group swept through the Bering Bay to the land of Alaska in 1732. From 1787 Russia began to settle here. Before the Russians, local tribes of Eskimos lived in this area.

Reasons for transaction
The fact that the sale took place aftermath of the Ottoman-Russian War gives a right to view this war as one of the primary reasons. Russia was economically weak. Alaska's annual cost was on the rise, and the Tsarist government considered this too much for the "useless land." The situation was quite different. Although Russia did not want to refuse Alaska's trade revenues, it was no longer possible to defend these lands. Some historical records say that Russia had knocked on the UK door before selling Alaska to America.
Nevertheless, it is said that the UK reject the proposal. If so, not only Russia repents for this transaction now. But the Ottoman, French, and British alliance against Russia during the Crimean War cast a shadow to the reality of this fact. On the other hand, the Tsarist government refused to unite with Britain against America. The danger of Britain's capture of Alaska by force was growing day by day. In that case, the Tsarist government decided to sell Alaska to reduce its financial losses. And it would be a big blow to England. Russia's hope on the other side of the ocean was more convincing. The only closeness between America and Russia in history is in these years. America experienced this before. Alaska could also sound appealing to a country that bought Louisiana (and several such territories) from France and added its area.
Moreover, Russia, which received military support from America during the war, preferred to sell Alaska to America rather than lose it to England. America wanted to invade its neighbor territory without difficulty and had an eye on Alaska for a long time. As America was gradually expanding due to the colonies, it was insecure having a dangerous and economically active country in the neighborhood for hegemony in the region. It was a matter of urgency, as the States pursued its policy toward European imperialist countries under the "Monroe Doctrine." Summarily, Russia's proposal was not unexpected for America. When we look at the reasons that motivate America to trade, many facts are revealed. Thus, the purchase of Alaska would facilitate to possess potential fur and fishing trade in the region, establish economic ties with Asia-China and Japan, impede efforts by Britain and Russia to strengthen in the area and make America a superpower. Besides, President Johnson was involved in reconstruction work in the country, so he believed that the purchase would help divert attention from the domestic issues. All of this shows that both parties had substantial arguments for the transaction.

Preparation stage for sale
It is known that the Governor of Eastern Siberia Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky proposed this idea for the first time. According to him, the Tsarist Empire was unable to protect these lands due to the military and economic weakness. Therefore, Russia had to pay more attention to strengthening in the Far East. However, the decision to sell Alaska was influenced by Konstantin Nikolayevich, the younger brother of Tsar. He cited the decline in RAC revenue and began taking steps to debunk the company. As a result, Alexander II approved the decision. The Russian Ambassador to the United States, Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, was given special instructions on the matter. The task included to persuade American judges and to publish news on the issue in the press. In the American media, some were asking, "What will America do with this mass of ice and fifty thousand of Eskimos?" Meanwhile, the Russian press published news on positive decisions that could be made. The headlines included questions such as, "How can a Tsar sell such a worthy piece of land?"
Alaska's fate was resolved at a secret meeting in December 1866. At a meeting with the attendance of Tsar in St. Petersburg, the decision to sell Alaska was officially adopted. The meeting was kept secret. Even according to some historical facts, some Russian officials learned about the decision from the papers.

Sale of Alaska
The treaty, drafted in the English and French languages, was signed on March 30, 1867, in Washington by the Tsar's ambassador to the United States, Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, and the US Secretary of State, William Seward. 1 million 519 thousand km2 of land was sold to America for $ 7.2 million. For comparison, it means several times larger than the territory of modern France, or three times the size of the Turkish Republic. America undertook to pay this amount in installments. All real estate in the area (except for churches) also became American property. On October 18, 1867, Alaska officially became a US territory. These territories occupied about 10% of the Russian land, and the sales amount was $ 110 million at today's exchange rate. Today Alaska is the 49th and most extensive state in the United States.

Don't play the fool, America!
The myths about selling Alaska have been wandering around for years. The most famous of these is the sale of Alaska to America during the reign of Catherine the Great. However, this transaction took place years after the death of Catherine. Catherine II died in 1796 as a result of a brain leak. The famous sale took place in 1867, i.e., 71 years after the death of Catherine. What led to the spread of such lies? This idea began to form after the song "Don't Play the Fool, America!" (Не валяй дурака, Америка!), talking of the Alaska issue by Lyube, the Russian rock band created in 1989. Thus, the phrase "Catherine, you did wrong" in the song convinced everyone. It is worth noting here another point. During the Soviet era, anti-imperialist views were formed among the people. Most often, the "golden age" of the empire, i.e., the years of the sovereignty of Catherine the Great, were targeted. Seventy years of subconscious influences played a great role here. Another issue is the popularity of such songs on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Is it possible to get Alaska back?
A petition calling for annexing Alaska to Russia on the White House's website failed to win even with more than 35,000 votes. Many people are still hoping for Alaska's return. It is thought that the US has rent Alaska from Russia and will return it. In 2017, a person named Konstantin Shugaev was able to create an agenda with one more interesting fact. His company is engaged in a re-examination of historical documents and claims to have discovered some points when they reviewed the Alaska contract. According to investigations, the day the sale took place was also the end of the US House of Representative's powers. According to the law, the Senate also did not approve the treaty and therefore had no legal basis. However, despite all this, the sale of Alaska was made with the consent of both parties. Today, Russia considers this step caused by Tsarist Russia wrong. America's position in the face of such claims is interesting. Recently, news began to spread that US President Donald Trump is willing to join Greenland to the territories of the USA. This news was enough to reveal the American position. On the other hand, the purchase of Alaska is regarded as the most successful political decision in American history. This decision has changed the geopolitical situation in the world. Let's briefly look at what Russia has lost and what America has won.

Natural Resources and sources of income
Shortly after the sale of Alaska, rich gold deposits were discovered, and gold hunters from America began to flock there. Fifty years after the sale, it is reported that the United States earned about 50 times more than it paid for Alaska. In addition to gold, there are rich deposits of coal, molybdenum, platinum, and natural gas. The largest share of natural resources is oil fields. More than 80 million tons of oil are produced annually, which is equivalent to the annual joint production of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. A few years ago, the US had announced the international community that another oil field was discovered in Alaska. Newly explored reserves are reported to be extremely rich. Freshwater resources in the Alaska region can generate even higher revenue from fishing and seafood. Tourism is one of the most profitable areas in recent years.

The geography of Alaska
It is located in the northwestern part of America and is separated from Asia by the Bering Strait. The Pacific washes the south and southwest coast. There are 1,800 islands, 3 million lakes, and 3,000 rivers in Alaska. Although mild weather conditions prevail in coastal areas, most of the land has negative temperatures.
McKinley, the highest peak in North America, is located here and is known as the most touristic area. One-third of Alaska is covered by wood.

Tourism in Alaska
It can convince many with its nature that it is inconvenient for travel. Nevertheless, today, Alaska can attract many tourists due to the magnificent landscape. The best time to travel here is during the summer months, especially August. Denali National Park, the largest park in the US with 6 million hectares, is also located here. Only its fauna includes 167 bird species. Endless forests, lifestyles of the local population, ski racing with dogs, trips to the gold mines, and more increase Alaska's tourist flow every year. Here you can enjoy extreme tourism such as rafting, skiing, mountain biking, hiking in nature, and more. There are appropriate natural conditions for that.

And the result of the sale
Exactly 153 years have passed since the purchase. Today the US is a superpower in the world. As a country with global, political, military, scientific, and cultural power, it has the most significant say in the political arena. The sale decision made in time turned it a geopolitical force. Thus, it was able to withdraw the imperialist countries and the real dangers from its borders. It possessed great wealth - the largest oil reserves. Russia, however, lost this great opportunity and became the object of a great reproach. Alexander II was targeted as an object of laughter by the media of neighboring countries for his decision. Though, there were and still are many who justified his action. The political weight of the nineteenth century prompted him to take such a step. However, Russia had acquired these lands without any difficulty or any bloody battle. Perhaps because of this, he was able to give up Alaska so easily. As it is said, "Homeland is the land when you die for it." It seems the purchased land the same as the lands occurred effortlessly is just a piece of land for many.

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