Sep 18, 2021
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Alaska was Russian and may still be ours

Russia 200 years ago abandoned Alaska, wanting to make it better that its inhabitants remember and appreciate. This desire can be traced both in the imperial decree and in the entire policy of Russia in the region at all times. But have all the chances been used up?

200 years ago, Emperor Alexander I signed a decree expanding Russian possessions in North America to the 51st parallel, regulating the conduct of trade and fishing of other states in Alaska and the northwestern Pacific. This was an attempt to protect the activities of the state Russian-American company founded in 1799 from abuse by foreigners. Starting with the super-profitable fur trade, it, not being a colonial and capitalist enterprise, became less and less profitable, since the Company (the Russians behaved like this always and everywhere) engaged in the economic development of a vast region in the interests of its Indian population living in savagery, raising its moral and moral level, missionary activity, for which money was required. And they, we repeat, became less and less, and largely due to predatory foreign competition. Western people viewed the local population as despicable natives, to whom they had not the slightest concern, as a source of bare profit.

Therefore, Russia wanted to save “our subjects on the Aleutian islands and on the shores of North-West America, subject to Russia” who are subject to “various constraints and inconveniences from constant and forged bargaining”, from arbitrariness on the part of foreigners who do not recognize any rules, that is, in fact British and Americans. First of all, it meant ensuring the receipt of taxes from the economic activities of foreign nationals in the region, who were attracted by furs, fishing and much more, to the local treasury.

It didn’t work then

However, Alaska, where gold had not yet been found, was too far away, and therefore there was no strength and ability to force Britain and the United States to act in a civilized manner in the Russian possessions there in St. Petersburg. Therefore, the tsar’s decree, which consisted of 63 points, was met with hostility by the United States and Britain, in fact, was not observed.

The only attempt to apply the decree took place in 1822, when a Russian warship detained an American ship, which, after a protest from Washington, in order not to aggravate relations with the United States, had to be released with … payment of compensation for the delay. After the conclusion of the Russian-American Convention of 1824 and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1825, foreigners’ access to Russian possessions in Alaska and adjacent islands was officially opened.

Gone to stay

The Russians owned Alaska for 135 years and were forced to sell it for 7.2 million US dollars in 1867 (realizing that it would be impossible to protect it from the same Americans if something happened). The Americans treated their new territory with its inhabitants as a colony and made it their state only in 1959. In general, the Russians did not want to leave, but had to. The vast territory in the Far East became Russian only in 1860, the railway reached Vladivostok more than 30 years later. These examples clearly show that there was not enough manpower and resources for the development of Siberia and the Far East simultaneously with Alaska. I had to choose. This is a reality that was impossible to ignore, but which is already in the past!

However, not ultimately taking place as colonialists and exploiters, the Russians left behind a different memory in Alaska. Since they did not rob, they did not kill even in the form of revenge of local residents, sometimes brutally killing Russians, did not exploit them in their own interests, they sincerely tried to peacefully, by their own example, introduce them to a higher culture and religion, seeing the Indians as people like them themselves, respecting their human dignity and traditions. All this, as we have seen, had a negative impact on profits, but it became a solid foundation of the sincere respect and affection of the local population for the Russians that appeared over the years, an incentive for the adoption of Orthodoxy.

So what?

Today, every tenth resident of Alaska – and these are Indians, not Russians – is Orthodox, and some of them speak Russian, caring and nostalgic about their Russian past. Therefore, Russian Alaska still exists. In the spiritual realm. In memory and in hearts. The 150th anniversary of the transition of Alaska to the jurisdiction of the United States was celebrated there – in the midst of the Russophobic campaign in the rest of the country – by donning kosovorotki, kokoshniks, Russian military uniforms, solemn service in the Orthodox Cathedral of Archangel Michael in the city of Sitka (formerly Novo- Arkhangelsk), once the capital of Russian America.

Several years ago, at the International Arctic Forum in Arkhangelsk, the Alaska government’s Arctic policy adviser Craig Flynner even regretted that Alaska did not remain under Russian rule. According to him, in this case, “the Russians would develop Alaska from the point of view of ensuring national security,” as a “strategic region,” and this, “in turn, would lead to the production of oil, gas and mineral resources,” and therefore Alaska is now , “quite possibly”, “would have been more developed.” Of course, one can argue with this, but it is difficult to imagine an official from any other American state (by the way, there were Russian possessions in California) who could say something like that. And all because in Alaska they know about Russians firsthand.

Upon returning to the United States, Fliner had to declare under pressure that he was misunderstood, after which the journalist who interviewed him had no choice but to show the recording of the conversation: the representative of Alaska said this. This once again confirmed what was said above: the good memory of Russia in Alaska is alive, she – like Orthodoxy – has become an integral part of the local identity, Russians are respected and loved there. And, who knows, maybe someday they will wait. Next time – anything happens, repeating itself on a new level, in this wonderful world! – forces and resources should be enough. States are not eternal: they gain something, then lose, then gain again, and each has its own cycle and sequence in this sense. Is the hint clear?

Sergey Latyshev

Photo: M. Scott Moon / Globallookpress

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