A satirical Washington Post article sparked a flurry of media interest this month with its proposal that the United States trade Alaska back to Russia for $1 trillion. The idea even caught on with some nationalistic segments in Russia.
But don't dust off the welcome mats and the matryoshkas just yet.
Juneau resident Allan Engstrom was in Totma, northeast of Moscow, when Vremya, a Russian national news program, broadcast the story.
"All of a sudden, every Russian I met began asking, 'Did you hear? The Americans are going to sell Alaska back,'" Engstrom said. "At first, I didn't know how to respond but eventually I simply said with a laugh, 'If you want to buy it, I will sell it to you right now for $20 million. Give me the money and it's all yours.' I also mentioned I might have a bridge to sell in Brooklyn."
The spoof began when Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote "Alaska Would Be More at Home In Russia," claiming the acquisition would help both countries. The sale would help the United States "cut the federal; deficit and the debt," he wrote. The state "would be just the sort of strategic acquisition to appeal to President Putin's imperial instincts," he added.
Russian media realized the story was a joke but still seized the moment. Channel One, a state-run television network, sent reporters to New York. The daily paper Trud reported that Alaska was an unwieldy presence in the United States.
"(The story) allows many Russians to reflect with pride at how the Russian economy is booming to high oil prices," Engstrom said. "Here, they see American foreign policy as out to control the world, and yet we are so mired in debt, that we would contemplate the sale of Alaska. The story plays to their feelings of superpower pride, which was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union. That is the feeling I have got from the average Russian, for whom the story is a way to thumb their nose at America."
Cybercast News Service (www.cnsnews.com) reported that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, thought the sale was a fine idea.
Zhirinovsky, a devoted nationalist given to making outrageous proclamations, has been talking about reacquiring Alaska for years - even by force. Some pockets of Russians, who still believe the Communist-era notion that Alaska was leased to the United States, support his comments.
Of course, the United States purchased Alaska for $7.2 million in 1867.
"Russians I know consider Zhirinovsky a clown and of no consequence. No doubt he has a following," said Lydia Black, a Kodiak resident and one of the foremost Russian-America scholars. Black was presented the Governor's Lifetime Achievement Award for her work earlier this year.
"The vague notion that Alaska was not sold but leased to U.S. in 1867 was propagated in Stalin times," she said. "My friends told me that this was stated in high school history text books. I myself did not peruse such a textbook. But no doubt there are people, Zhirinovsky and the Communist parties, that hold to this 'nationalist' line. But then there are idiots everywhere."
"Most Russians, though, reflect little on Alaska, due to the great distance," Engstrom said. "Especially Russians on (the western) side of the country, look more toward Europe than toward the Pacific. And any educated Russians I have met with, including Svetlana Fedorova, one of the foremost scholars of Russian America who I saw (Wednesday), understand it was just a joke."
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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