All news

Deal of ‘the century’: 150 years since the sale of Russian Alaska

The idea of selling Alaska to the US emerged for the first time in 1853
Signing the Alaska Treaty of Cessation, 1867 Emanuel Leutze/Public domain/
Signing the Alaska Treaty of Cessation, 1867
© Emanuel Leutze/Public domain/

MOSCOW, March 30. /TASS/. Thursday March 30 marks the 150 anniversary of the signing of the Treaty concerning the Cession of the Russian Possessions in North America (the Alaska Purchase) by his Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias to the United States of America. The US senate ratified it and President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty on May 28, 1867.

Russian explorers Mikhail Gvozdev and Ivan Fyorodov discovered Alaska during the course of an expedition on the ship Svyatoi Gavriil (St Gabriel) in 1732. The Second Kamchatkan expedition of Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov explored the peninsula in more detail in 1741.

An expedition led by Grigory Shelekhov arrived at Kodiak Island in 1784, thereby ushering in the Russian America period. From 1799 through to 1867, Alaska and the adjoining islands remained under the auspices of the Russian-American Company that had organized the study and charting of the peninsula from 1825 to 1860.

The indigenous tribes coming into dependence on the company were obliged to make up ‘game teams’ and to hunt for fur under the guidance of the company’s overseers.
The first Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived in Alaska in 1794. The diocese of Kamchatka, the Kuriles and Aleutian Lands was established in 1840, but reorganized in 1852 into the New Arkhangelsk Vicariate of the Kamchatka diocese. By 1867, Alaska had about 12,000 Orthodox Christians among Alaska’s indigenous ethnic groups.

New Arkhangelsk (currently Sitka) was the administrative center of the Russian possessions in North America, the borders of which were legitimized by the 1824 treaty with the US and the 1825 treaty with the British Empire. Their total territory reached almost 1.5 million sq. km. The Russian population of that vast area stood at around 1,000 individuals.

The idea of selling Alaska to the US first surfaced in spring 1853, put forward by Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, Governor General of Eastern Siberia, who sent a memorandum to Emperor Nicholas I stating that it was important for Russia to cede the North American possessions, as the country did not have either military or economic capability to defend them against the US aspirations.
General Muravyov-Amursky suggested focusing on the development of the Far East instead.

The idea found a powerful supporter, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich the younger brother of Emperor Alexander II, who was President of the State Council and the Maritime Minister. He made the first official presentation on the proposed sale of Alaska on April 3 (March 22 Old Style), 1857, in a letter to Chancellor (Foreign Minister) Alexander Gorchakov.
The argument Duke Konstantin put forward included the constricted financial situation and the believably small revenues from the American territories.
He also made a far-reaching observation, writing: "There should be no deceiving ourselves, as we must foresee a situation where the United States, which is seeking permanently to expand its possessions and to establish its unchallenged domination in North America, will take these colonies away from us while we will be unable to return them."

Emperor Alexander II supported his brother’s proposal and Chancellor Gorchakov endorsed it, too. He recommended, however, to take slow action on the issue and to put it off until 1862. The Russian ambassador to the US, Edouard de Stoeckl received a directive "to make inquiries about the opinion of Washington’s cabinet on this subject." 

Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich unleashed a campaign to oppose the operations of the Russian-American Company. In 1860, he organized an official audit scrutinizing the company’s operating costs and revenues, with the latter turning out to be solid enough, about 430,000 silver rubles annually. Nevertheless, the Grand Duke and the Finance Minister, Mikhail Reitern, managed to pull the plug on the company’s rights to explore and develop the island of Sakhalin. Many of the company’s trade benefits were revoked and this entailed a notable deterioration of its financial performance.

On December 28, 1866, the Russian Foreign Ministry in St Petersburg held a special conference on the sale of Russian possessions in North America. Emperor Alexander II, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, Finance Minister Mikhail Reitern, Naval Minister Nikolay Krabbe, and Baron Edouard de Stoeckl attended it.

The conference voted unanimously for ceding Alaska to the US, but the decision would be kept confidential. The degree of secrecy was so high that Defense Minister Dmitry Milyutin learned about it from British newspapers. As for the board of the Russian-American Company, it received a notification on the deal only three weeks after an agreement with the US government had been signed.

On March 30, Ambassador De Stoeckl and US Secretary of State William Henry Seward signed the Treat of Cession of Alaska for $7.2 million (or more than 11 million Russian rubles), which the US pledged to pay within ten months. The amount contrasted notably with the estimated value of the Russian possessions in America, which Ferdinand Wrangel, the chief governor of Russian colonies in America put at 27.4 million rubles in April 1857.
The treaty was compiled in English and French. The US received the entire Alaska Peninsula, the Alexander and Kodiak archipelagos, the Aleutian chain islands, and several islands in the Bering Sea. The total land surface area conveyed to the US stood at 1.519 million sq. km. Under the treaty, Russia ceded free of charge to the US all the properties of the Russian-American Company, inclusive of buildings and installations but exclusive of churches, and pledged to withdraw its troops.

The indigenous population of the new territories was transferred to US jurisdiction but Russian colonists received the right to move to Russia over a period of several years. The Russian-American Company was disbanded and its shareholders received insignificant bonuses, the payment of which dragged on almost into the 1880’s.

Alexander II signed the document on May 15, 1867. In October 1867, the Governing Senate issued a decree on implementing the treaty and published its Russian text in the Full Code of Laws of the Russian Empire.
The US Senate ratified the treaty on May 3, 1867 and an exchange of ratification instruments between the two countries took place in Washington on June 20.

The official ceremony of Alaska’s handover to US sovereign ownership was held in New Arkhangelsk. To the accompaniment of cannon salutes, the officials hauled down the Russian flag and hoisted the American one.

The special governmental commission, Captain 2nd Rank Alexey Peshchurov, signed the transfer protocol on behalf of the Russian Empire. General Lovell Harrison Rousseau was the signatory on the part of the US
The US Congress endorsed a decision to pay monies to Russia on July 27, 1868. Ambassador De Stoeckl ran up $165,000 in bribes to US Senators.

In January 1868, sixty-nine soldiers and officers of the New Arkhangelsk garrison were evacuated to Nikolayevsk-on-Amur in the Russian Far East. The last group of 30 Russians left Alaska on the Winged Arrow ship, specially purchased for the operation, on November 20, 1868. It eventually brought them to Kronstadt naval base.

At the same time, fifteen Russian took on US citizenship.