THE PROBLEM of the acquisition and sale of Alaska, and to whom it belongs, excites the minds of researchers to this day. There are suppositions that once the first Russians had traversed Siberia, they settled in Alaska during the second half of the 16th century.1
The next period, in which Alaska gets mentioned by Russian people, dates to 1648, in connection with the names of the Cossack Semyon Dezhnev and his associate Fedot Popov, who circumvented the Asian continent, then passed from the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean basin.2 Later on, an official expedition was organized; its commander, Vitus Bering, announced in 1728 his discovery that Asia and America did not have a land bridge between them.3
The first legal documentation of Alaska’s coastline took place on August 21, 1732, when the crew of the St. Gabriel, under the leadership of surveyor Mikhail Gvozdev and navigator Ivan Fyodorov (or K. Moshkov, according to other sources), recorded its contours without going ashore. From this date began the jurisdictional affiliation of Alaska with the Russian Empire. However, the territory for a long time continued to be developed on the basis of civil law. The bureaucrats of the Russian Empire did not duly administer the land in Alaska. This situation contributed to the consolidation of legal relations within civil society on the territory along the lines of the Novgorod Republic.
By 1799, the situation in Russian America began to radically change following the formation of a complete monopoly by G.I. Shelikhov’s companies. The decree by Tsar Paul I granted Shelikhov’s widow and
children an official monopoly on fur and other industries throughout the entire space from the Aleutian Islands to California. This decree was the basis for setting up the Russian-American Company, which became the first authorized body of governance there. It was assigned its own flag and allowed to maintain its own Ground Forces and Navy. The company had the right to claim new lands.
In 1802, Tsar Alexander I acquired 20 shares of the Russian-American Company. His example was followed by the imperial family, statesmen and aristocrats, as well as wealthy merchants and industrialists. In 1816, the company started issuing its own financial currency in the form of sealskin banknotes in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10 and 20 rubles; and in 1826, coins appeared in denominations of 10, 25 and 50 kopecks. The economic success of the Russian-American company was apparent.
The question arises: Was Alaska actually sold, or was it simply transferred to the operational management of the U.S. by a fictitious contract?
Representatives of the Russian-American Company actively expanded the territory of Russian America. Its population grew arithmetically due to the adoption of Russian citizenship by the local population in America. This process was facilitated by the Russian Orthodox Church: In 1741, the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary had been consecrated there.
In turn, the United States of America began to express concern that if no action was taken, the North American continent could become completely Russian in the next half-century. Under the Monroe Doctrine (that the American continent belongs only to the United States), Russians began to be pushed out of California.
Tsar Alexander I answered the U.S.’s actions with a decree prohibiting foreign ships from approaching within 100 Italian miles of Russian shores or settlements in America, drawing the boundary of Russia’s American possessions at the 51st parallel.
All of this served as a pretext for delimiting borders, and on April 17, 1824, in St. Petersburg, the Convention on the Definition of Borders of Russian Possessions in North America was signed. The U.S. administration did not stop there. It eventually insisted on several other agreements and treaties that entailed the further withdrawal of the Russian Empire from the Pacific Ocean waters along the coast of North America.
There is also a theory that the U.S. perpetrated a political “hoax.” The American political elite staunchly supported the myth that Alaska wished to cede from the mainland and sought to bring to life a new Novgorod Republic, with ambitions to claim territory from the Far East and Siberia to the Ural Mountains. Perhaps this was a further argument for Russia in favor of the sale of Alaska.
Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich Romanov again returned to the question of the sale of Russia’s possessions in North American in March 1857, under the sway of false arguments about a Novgorod Republic and the developing events of that time between the North and the South within the United States of America. He presented a letter to Tsar Alexander II, outlining his views on the issue.
After looking over the letter, Alexander II agreed to consider the proposal further and appointed a special committee for that purpose. Admiral Baron Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel and Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov were appointed as experts on the matter. Both representatives of the special commission spoke out mildly against the sale of Russia’s North American possessions for ethical reasons. Given the situation, Tsar Alexander II decided not to push things any further but to determine what the U.S. itself thought of the matter.
To do this, he used the art of secret diplomacy, entrusting baron Eduard Andreyevich Stoeckl to conduct negotiations. The appointed negotiator turned out to be an extremely interested party in the planned transaction. Taking the initiative from the start in the secret negotiations, he presented the purchase/sale of Alaska as a definitively resolved issue on the part of the Russian Empire and very staunchly pursued it. What prompted Baron Stoeckl here remains unclear and deserves further research. But there is no doubt that what he did was the scam of the century, fueled by certain political circles within the U.S.
The territory for sale legally belonged to the Russian-American Joint-Stock Company, which had the status of an independent public and private entity – or, as they say now, a public-private partnership. It should not have been sold without notifying or receiving approval from the Russian-American Company, nor from its shareholders, since such actions were against the law. From a juridical perspective, all these acts were illicit, and the transaction itself would therefore not be legally binding. Nevertheless, it took place.
A full array of opinions surrounded it, with varying angles of speculation as to the integrity of the deal, with some calling it collusion.
However, all of this played a secondary role while the real goal, from our point of view, was to oppose the revival of a Novgorod Republic and its political order.
It is also an interesting fact that the amount of the 1867 transaction between the Russian Empire and the United States of America was $7.2 million. This was the exact amount of the bill that Russia had presented to the U.S. (and was never paid) for the fleet provided by Russia during the American Revolutionary War.
The question arises: Was Alaska actually sold, or was it simply transferred to the operational management of the U.S. by a fictitious contract to avoid political upheaval?
Thus, the problem before us indicates that this issue should be reviewed by the International Court of Arbitration, at least with respect to the fact that there are disagreements regarding the exchange of funds by the parties to the transaction. After all, no one has ever seen a receipt documenting the monetary transfer. Based on the ruling on this dispute, other procedural actions may be taken. To follow this further, a few matters need to be better understood: Was this a financial and political scam in which the Tsar is improperly blamed for trusting his agents (who cleverly took advantage of the situation), or was it a bad-faith real estate deal on the part of the United States of America? Or perhaps it was a conspiracy among third parties pursuing their own interests in the deal?
One contemporary researcher of this issue, Yury Bulatov, stated the following: “I am sure, beyond doubt, that there is a mystery behind the voluntary cession of Alaska. After all, there must have been some reason for the Americans to insist from the very outset that the entire archive of the Russian-American Company should be transferred under their purview. The treaty of March 30, 1867 specifically noted: ‘(A)ny government archives or documents relative to the territory and dominion aforesaid, which may be now existing there, will be left in the possession of [an] agent of the United States.’ Apparently, the U.S. administration at that time was already trying to protect itself and reliably hide from prying eyes the secrets of the deal under which the Russian ceded its territorial possessions on the North American continent.”4
1. See: Predystoriya Russkoy Ameriki (zarozhdeniye interesa v Rossii k severo-zapadnomy beregu Ameriki) // Istoria Russkoy Ameriki (1732-1867) v 3-kh tomakh. Ed. Academician N.N. Bolkhovitinov. Moscow: Mezhdunarodniye otnosheniya, 1997. Vol. 1.
2. See: Dokumenty ob otkrytiyakh russkikh zemleprokhodtsev i polyarnykh morekhodov v XVII veke na Severo-Vostoke Azii; http://drevlit.ru/docs/world/XVII/1600-1620/Otk_russ_mor_sev_cost_azii/pred.php
3. See: Osobennosti perekhoda k aktivnomy poisku blizhayshikh beregov Ameriki // Istoria Russkoy Ameriki…
4. Bulatov Yu.A. ” ‘Tam, gde podnyat’ russkiy flag, on uzhe opuskat’sya ne dolzhen’: Kto i zachem prodal Russkuyu Ameriku.” Mezhdunarodnaya zhizn, 2015, No. 4, p. 127.
Author: Yevgeny Zinkov, Professor, Department of Social, Humanitarian and Natural Sciences, North Caucasus Branch of the Russian State University of Justice, Doctor of Science (Philosophy)
Source: International Affairs, Vol. 66, No. 2, pp. 60-64
Key words: Alaska, Russia, U.S., Novgorod Republic, Russian-American company.