America And Russia, Americans And Russians


Exactly two hundred years after George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States and three hundred years after Peter the Great’s ascent to the Russian throne, a new chapter opened in the history of the relations of the two greatest states of the world.

The United States and Russia never fought a war. Twice in the twentieth century they were allies. Their governments and the structure of their societies have been very ,different, yet there are similarities in the character of the two countries. The relationships of the two states and of their peoples have often been interesting, rather than dramatic—the reason for this being the great geographic distance separating them (except in the Arctic), a dominant fact even now.

For more than a century Russia’s main rival was often Great Britain. The clever Czarina Catherine the Great favored the cause of American independence against Britain (she also made John Paul Jones a rear admiral in the Russian navy, where he served against the Turks—the kind of oddity that has so often punctuated American-Russian relations). The counterpart of John Paul Jones, who was a native Scotsman choosing to fight on the American side against his own countrymen, was the Connecticut-born John Ledyard, who spent the years of the American War of Independence in the service of Great Britain, indeed aboard the ships of the famous explorer James Cook. Ledyard was the first American attracted by the prospect of crossing the icy Bering Sea narrows from Siberia to Alaska. He did not quite make it, but he came close enough to evoke the interest of Thomas Jefferson.

In any event, at that time the few settlements in Alaska and on the northwestern rim of the great Pacific Ocean, reaching down to San Francisco, were Russian, not American. The United States (and Great Britain) were fortunate in that the rulers of Russia, in faraway St. Petersburg, seldom had a strong interest in sea power, including the making of a seaborne Russian empire in the Pacific (whose eastern rim the Russians had reached more than a century before the first Americans debouched in the West). In that great global region of the Pacific the relations between Americans and Russians have almost always been friendly—even during the worst years of the so-called Cold War.


Against George Washington’s wishes, and against his exhortation to the American people in his Farewell Address, the new American ship of state was badly buffeted by the waves of the last great Atlantic world war between Britain and France, of which the “Second War of American Independence” was but a part. In 1812 John Quincy Adams was the American minister to Russia. His friend Benjamin Rush wrote to him from Philadelphia: “The year 1812 will, I hope, be immortal in the history of the world for having given the first check to the overgrown power and tyranny of Britain and France. Russia and the United States may now be hailed as the deliverers of the human race.” Adams was wiser and more circumspect. Although the United States was a de facto ally of Napoleon against Britain, Adams welcomed and saw the immense significance of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia (just as many Americans, 130 years later, recognized the immense significance of Hitler’s defeat before Moscow). John Quincy Adams did, in 1823, interpret the Monroe Doctrine (of which he was the author) to the Russian minister in Washington to the effect that the United States “would contest the right of Russia to any territorial establishment on this continent,” but Adams never thought that the destiny of the United States should be that of a “deliverer of the human race.” His phrase in 1821—that we are friends of liberty everywhere “but we do not go abroad in search for monsters to destroy”—should be engraved over the mantel of the Oval Office to remind every President.

Whether this wisdom of a great American statesman evoked a deep resonance within American popular sentiment is arguable. What remains certain is that the relations of the United States and Russia during the nineteenth century were seldom hostile, and for the most part satisfactory. Americans were, at times, justifiably exercised by the Russian subjugation of Poland, by the cruelties of Russian penal practices, by forced exile to Siberia, by the mistreatment of Jews, by the very image of an autocratic and unconstitutional government ruled by a czar; but there were statesmen enough in America to understand, too, that there were no real conflicts between the vital interests of the Russian and American states. The statesmen in St. Petersburg also thought that, but their estimation of their relationship with the United States was part of their larger calculations. While it is an interesting coincidence that Czar Alexander H’s abolition of serfdom in Russia was decreed at almost the same time (1861) as was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863), it is even more telling that during the Civil War Russia was sympathetic to the North (in 1863 a Russian fleet paid a friendship visit to New York, an occasion for riotous celebrations). It is certainly telling—and surely consequential—that St. Petersburg was willing to sell Alaska to Washington in 1867 for a pittance ($7.2 million). The Russians’ reasoning was simple. They wanted to embroil the United States with Britain, which during the Civil War had been considering supporting the South and which in the 186Os seemed to be engaged in a race with the Americans toward British Columbia and the southern panhandle of Alaska.