December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
The current Soviet “line” on the purchase of Alaska is essentially a reflection of Stalinist chauvinism, introduced into Soviet historiography in the mid-1930’s and carried to absurd heights in the period immediately following World War II. Thus, the article on Alaska in Volume II of the most recent edition of the Large Soviet Encyclopedia (1950) goes to great pains to praise Russian scientists and explorers for being the “first” to “study and familiarize themselves” with the geography, climate, and flora and fauna of the North Pacific, and laud the Russian-American Company for having raised “the cultural level of the indigenous population of ‘Russian America.’” This last flies squarely in the face of a Russian admission—by Minister to Washington Edouard de Stoeckl, in an 1867 letter to the Russian chancellery—that “The situation of the Indians of the [Aleutian] islands under our domination has not been improved either physically or morally, and the tribes of the mainland have continued to be as savage and as hostile as they were at the time of the discovery.”
As for America’s interest in Alaska, the Encyclopedia says, it was a simple case of territorial aggrandizement. True, the editors admit, Czarist Russia was a decadent country, and it was, indeed, this very decadence that forced her to get rid of a territory that was not only profitless but a drain on her economy. Furthermore, weakened as she was after the Crimean War, Russia felt she could no longer defend her outlying territories against her more predatory fellow imperialists.
Much the same spirit appears in Outlines of Modern and Recent History of the U.S.A. , published earlier this year by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Here the anti-American line is, if possible, even sharper. In the nineteenth century, it says, “the United States, exploiting the distance of Alaska from Russia, conducted an expansionist policy with regard to Russian possessions in America.” Though Czarist Russia is not exempt from criticism for selling, it would seem that the authors of this new history find it difficult to reconcile themselves to the “loss” of so valuable a possession: “a mere 7.8 million dollars,” they wistfully exclaim, was paid for this “huge territory”—one that was shortly discovered to be burgeoning with “rich gold deposits and coal reserves.”
An even more strident tone is adopted by another Soviet textbook, Outlines of the History of the U.S.A. , by A. V. Yefimov, published in Moscow in 1955. According to Yefimov, who is a correspondent-member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Seward “blackmailed the Russian Minister in Washington, Stoeckl, with threats of an invasion by American settlers in Alaska.” It was, in fact, a bargainer’s bluff, and Stoeckl did a little “blackmailing” of his own, notably by jacking up the price once he sensed Seward’s eagerness to buy. And yet: Poor Stoeckl!, the Soviet historians seem to say. Poor Czar! Poor, poor Russia! Imperialism is a terrible thing, unless, of course, it is undertaken by Russians.