Some Russians rethink Alaska sale

142 years later, sale still a sore spot in Russian history, fuels nationalist rhetoric

Posted: Sunday, October 18, 2009

Is Russia having a case of seller's remorse for letting Alaska go for a pittance? And if so, why did it take so long?

Courtesy Of The Alaska State Library Historical Collections
Courtesy Of The Alaska State Library Historical Collections

It was today in 1867 that Russia formally let Alaska go, peddling its Russian America territory to the underdeveloped United States for $7.2 million to ensure that its rival European power, Great Britain, didn't get it.

Now, some Russian nationalists are talking of a return of Alaska to Russia, and blaming corruption and incompetence of various Russian governments over the years for the colony's loss.

The discovery of gold in Juneau in 1880 and the discovery of North America's largest oil field at Prudhoe bay in 1968 were reminders to Russia of how good a deal U.S. Secretary of State William Seward got when he purchased Alaska for the United States.

Historian Andrei Znamenski of the University of Memphis has followed the growth of Russian nationalist interest in Alaska. He traces its origins back to a tongue-in-cheek 2005 column in the Washington Post suggesting Alaska would fit better with Russia than the United States. Even Alaskans might prefer Russian ownership, business columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote.

"With Alaska free from the political grip of environmentalists in Washington and Marin County, Alaskans would be able to drill and fish and clear-cut to their heart's content, unlocking value that could never be realized as long as they are in the United States," he wrote.

Pearlstein suggested that the United States would come out ahead on selling Alaska back to Russia because the state gets so much more in federal spending than it pays in taxes.

Znamenski called the column "a joke that was taken seriously."

In Russia, he documented a growing movement among the country's nationalist politicians to use the cheap sale of Alaska as a way to build on nationalist sentiment and resentment of outsiders.

"In a paranoid nationalist imagination, the 1867 Alaska purchase easily turns into a conspiracy of pro-American interests, which plotted to alienate from Russia her most important territorial and geopolitical acquisition," Znamenski wrote in an academic paper recently.

One Russian commentator, he said, lamented "the senseless, foolish, cunning sale of Russian America, our richest territory, for pennies! All Alaska is covered with the bones of Russian people and poured with rivers of their blood and sweat."

Others called the sale "treason, and referred to predatory Yankees," Znamenski said.

At the Alaska Historical Society's annual conference last month, Znamenski gave the keynote address, a talk called "Patriot Games: Alaska in the Modern Russian Nationalist Rhetoric."

Former Gov. Sarah Palin may have drawn Alaska into the fray when during the U.S. presidential campaign she referred to when Russian leader Vladimir Putin "rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States."

Steve Smirnoff, honorary counsel general for Russia in Anchorage, said he didn't make much of the Russian rumblings about re-acquiring Alaska.

"They're made tongue-in-cheek by most people," he said.

What Smirnoff is dismayed about, however, is Palin's abandonment of a role for the state's governor in promoting trade with Alaska.

"We let the ball drop," he said. "At one time we were considered the gateway to the Russian Far East, but the government piddled around and Seattle picked it up," Smirnoff said.

Palin touted Alaska's proximity to Russia as evidence of her experience in international affairs, but she showed no interest in helping Alaskans do business in Russia, he said.

"We need a governor to lead a trade delegation, open the door, drink a few vodka toasts, and then let the business community take over," he said.

Smirnoff said he's written a letter to new Gov. Sean Parnell hoping to get him interested, but hasn't heard back.

It's probably true that Russia got a lousy deal on the sale of Alaska, Smirnoff said, but there was no way of knowing at the time.

Pearlstein said that Alaska would be a better cultural fit with the new Russia, than with the United States, as well.

"Alaska has more in common with post-Soviet Russia, where government remains at the center of the economy and political power is in the hands of a small, shadowy group of oligarchs, who use it to enrich friends and family," he wrote.

That column was published in 2005, before FBI raids exposed oil executive Bill Allen's rampant bribery of Alaska legislators and others.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com



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