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Alaska in the Сrosshairs

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Photo: Russians would prefer the return of Alaska as a land that was lost. Source: Collage The Gaze.
Photo: Russians would prefer the return of Alaska as a land that was lost. Source: Collage The Gaze.

If you need to get acquainted with what Russian political and historical mythology and revanchism are, you need not look for another concrete example than the Russian-American border. Just say the word "Alaska" to an ordinary Russian and ask them about their associations and turn on the recorder... The Russian-American border, like the Russian-Japanese border, is purely maritime and not very long. Given the size of Russia, it is nothing at all. 49 kilometers in the strait between the Russian Ratmanov Island and the American Krusenstern Island. 

Russia inherited its border with the United States from the USSR. Along with the realization that this is the border with the "main enemy." The Russian Far East, along with Siberia, and even more so Ratmanov Island in the Bering Strait, are places far from traditional Russian centers of civilization, uncomfortable and poorly suited for life. There are objective reasons for this, such as the harsh climate. But this is a traditional weakness in Russian explanations. 

After all, as we can see, before the Russians took control of East Prussia and Finnish Karelia, these were flourishing parts of Europe that turned into depressed provinces with destroyed infrastructure. This is very striking in comparison to neighboring areas of Europe with similar natural conditions. 

Ratmanov Island, like the Chukotka Peninsula (Ratmanov Island is administratively part of the Chukotka District), is certainly not Vyborg or Kaliningrad, but the same story repeats itself here. It is unlikely that even the most stubborn Russian patriot will dare to argue that in nearby Alaska, which is part of North America and has similar conditions to the far North, life is incomparably richer, more comfortable, and less isolated from civilization than in Chukotka, Kamchatka, Kolyma, and the Kuril Islands. 

This is a poorly concealed envy. But this is also the subject of imperial arrogance: "We are still the best and survive in conditions where others would die!" And here the traditional Russian doom is ruling the roost, in the realization that there will be no normal life in these territories for Russians.

From the Russian Empire to the United States

The fact that this Russian-American border was formed as a result of the sale of Alaska (i.e., the territory now occupied by the largest American state with a size of more than 1 million 717 thousand square kilometers) adds piquancy. by the Russian Empire in 1867. And the sale was conditioned precisely by Russia's inability to equip and organize lands far from the imperial center. 

Alaska had been developed by Russians since the second half of the eighteenth century. By the way, one of the arguments of Russians in any disputes with Americans, from the domestic to the diplomatic level, is to accuse the United States of having built a state on the bones of the indigenous inhabitants of America, the Indians. This is part of a deeply rooted Russian worldview of Mother Russia, which has never conquered anyone and has grown in territory only through the voluntary accessions of different peoples. 

This, of course, is an outright lie, as is the idea that the indigenous peoples of the North in Russia are living in prosperity and are not threatened with extinction. In Soviet times, they liked to contrast them with the same Indians and Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska, who, unlike the pre-Soviet ones, were allegedly barely surviving. In addition to the extermination and assimilation of the peoples of Siberia and the Far East, Russians were also actively involved in the genocide of Indians during the time when Alaska belonged to the Russian Empire. 

An echo of those times was the dismantling of a monument to Alexander Baranov, the ruler of Russian possessions in America, in Sitka, Alaska, in 2020 amid anti-racist protests. Baranov left an extremely bad memory among the local Tlingit Indians. Earlier, the Russians had practically organized a genocide of the Aleuts, the inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. The Russians used cruelty to gain the obedience of the inhabitants and force them to harvest fur, which was the basis of the colonial economy. 

The Russian American Company was created to exploit Alaska, which was not formally a state company. But the flaws of the Russian bureaucracy made it not very effective. Russian expansion into California, where the Fort Ross colony was founded to organize agricultural production and provide food for the Alaskan settlements, was unsuccessful. 

The Russian system of government could not be dynamic in the face of competition. In 1841, the thirty-year history of Fort Ross ended. And after the Eastern (Crimean) War of 1853-56, which was fought, among other things, in the Far East, where the French and British fleets attacked Russian settlements, the Russian leadership realized that it would not be able to hold Alaska in the event of an escalation of the military situation.

On the one hand, Alaska had a long border with Russia's traditional enemy, Great Britain, which owned Canada. On the other hand, the United States had already become stronger on the continent, and its enterprising inhabitants were already actively developing Alaska. Therefore, Tsar Alexander II's decision to sell this territory was forced and rational. On March 30, 1867, the sale agreement was signed in Washington, and on October 18 of the same year, the ceremony of transferring Alaska from Russia to the United States took place. The purchase price was 7 million 200 thousand US dollars in gold.

The American Myth of the Russians

And this is where the whole mythology of Russians begins. To a large extent, Russians generally believe that Russia cannot lose. If there is any defeat, they say, it is temporary. The loss of territory is extremely painful for the Russian national character. That is why the loss of Alaska, despite the fact that it was a fair and profitable sale (almost the entire amount was used to purchase railway equipment, which allowed for better logistics in the empire), is also perceived as a defeat. 

This is also the origin of stories that the ship with gold for Alaska did not reach Russia and sank. So, "we didn't get the money, we have to return what we sold." A very popular version is that Alaska was not given to the United States forever, but only for a hundred years. Therefore, in 1967, the Americans "had to return it," but the Cold War was going on, and the United States did not do so because it was not profitable for them, and "the overly humane leadership of the USSR decided not to escalate to nuclear war and not to raise the issue." 

It should be noted that in the mass consciousness of Russians, this story with Alaska has become absolutely mythological and devoid of specifics and accuracy. For example, the sale of Alaska is attributed to Empress Catherine II, who ruled from 1762 to 1796 and during whose reign the development of Alaska was just beginning. Moreover, during the reign of this empress, the empire had its greatest expansion in the South and West, which probably turned her into one of the most legendary characters in Russian history. This queen is credited with many achievements on a large and, conversely, small scale in various places of the former Russian Empire. Only the early eighteenth-century emperor Peter the Great bears some resemblance. 

The concentration of this Russian idea of Alaska as a lost "their" land that can and should be returned is reflected in the song "Don't Fool Around, America," which has been popular for thirty-three years, and which contains clichés and speaks of the desire to own Alaska and to manage this land and its inhabitants. It is significant that the band "Lyube", which sings the song, is militarized in style and supports the aggressive aspirations of the Kremlin, and has been working for many years to create nostalgia for Soviet times and a revanchist spirit.  

***

Russians would prefer the return of Alaska as a land that was lost, in their opinion, "unjustly." This topic is certainly not mentioned officially, although odious politicians can afford to mention it. It is clear that the Russians are primarily concerned with the fact that Alaska is now owned by their main rival and even enemy. But this enemy is strong, and the Russians will not be able to take this land back. The folklore of injustice and the need to return Alaska and establish a "fair border" is very revealing for understanding the depth of Russian revanchism.



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