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Russian Reflections

Was Alaska Sold for a Song? Part II: Preserving Prestige
In the June issue of PASSPORT Yury Samoilov told the first part of the Alaska story: how the western part of the country was settled by Russians, and why they decided to leave and keep their prestige intact. In this article, Yury elucidates the terms of the treaty that was signed by the U.S.A. and Russia.
By Yury Samoilov

In order to negotiate a settlement, Alexander II ordered the last governor of the Russian colonies in Alaska, Prince Dmitry Maksutov, to estimate the value of all assets of the Russian American Company (RAC). The actual settlement was of no real concern to Alexander, because he had already decided to leave Alaska, and the sooner the better.

On the Aleutian Islands

Alaskan river view

After brief negotiations, both sides came to an agreement by which Alaska with adjacent islands should become a part of the US and that Russia should leave the American continent, having received $7.2m from the USA. The treaty was signed on 30 October 1867 and is entitled: “Treaty Concerning the Cession of the Russian Possessions in North America by His Majesty the Emperor of all Russia to the U.S.A.”

Many Americans accused the then US Secretary of State, William Seward, who had put his signature on the treaty, as being a “waste of money”. Why pay all this money, they argued, if Russia was going to leave anyway? So, in my opinion, Mr Seward created a cover-up whereby the US actually bought Alaska with a total area of 1.5m sq km from Russia at a fantastic low price, about 2 cents an acre. The story was repeated so many times by American and Russian politicians, that in the public conscience it became something like an irrefutable truth. That is indeed how the issue is presented in history books and literature in general.

The Pavlovsk settlement on lake Kadyal. Drawing by I.G. Voznesenski

However there are other versions. One of them points out that there was no real sale of Alaska at all. According to this version, $7.2m was paid for real estate (houses, fish processing plants, dockyards and so on), owned by RAC. The land was a free supplement. Despite its paradoxical nature, this version is quite plausible. For example, the $30,000 paid for Fort Ross included all the houses, implements and cattle with exception of land. At that time, Mexico considered all land in California its own possession. Russia was forced to agree, although it had also considered this land its own.

Indian winter shelters.
Drawing by I.G. Voznesenski

My own version of events is that there was neither a sale of Alaska nor the sale of RAC real-estate. A gentlemen’s agreement was probably reached between the US and Russia, by which Russia basically left Alaska and never came back for $7.2m. Putting this agreement in the form of an official treaty was something that Russia was extremely interested in. In principle the US could offer a considerably smaller sum, but in this case, the prestige for Russia of having appeared to have sold Alaska would not have been achieved. The sum of $7.2m was defined, in my opinion from this very consideration, but not from the real price of Alaska land, which cost thousands of times more than 2c per acre. The price of land in Alaska and the price of the RAC assets on this occasion simply didn’t matter.

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