Why you should care
Because we have a roller-coaster history with the land of Putin.
Russia was going to war in Crimea with the great European powers lined up against it. American public opinion was inflamed, and the U.S. sent informal help … to Russia. Welcome to the 1850s.
The 19th century was “probably the best time in the whole history of our relations,” says Ivan Kurilla, a history professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, Russia. While Americans today are conditioned to be somewhere between wary and antagonistic toward Russia — and tensions are high amid hacking scandals — the nations once were close pals. The animating concept was simple: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Great Britain was the foil in those days, particularly after the Brits invaded and burned the White House and Capitol during the War of 1812.
“Both the United States and Russia saw advantages in good relations with the other to offset the power of Britain, particularly Britain’s naval power,” says David Foglesong, a history professor at Rutgers University. While the U.S. did not have much military might, its mercantile prowess was growing. So the U.S. and the Russian empire signed a commercial treaty in 1832 to formalize a blossoming relationship. Soon, America found a great market for its sewing machines, and Russia used American expertise to help build the St. Petersburg–Moscow railroad and a network of telegraph lines, for a modernization under Tsar Nicholas I.
Without American sympathies, Russians would have felt alienated totally against all of Europe, all the civilized countries of that time.
Ivan Kurilla, history professor
At the time, the two nations were struggling with similar issues: territorial expansion and slavery. While criticism of the government was forbidden — some things never change — Kurilla says the wink-and-nod way for Russians to criticize serfdom was to attack American slavery, and many writers did. Some of the more subtle abolitionists did the reverse in the U.S.
In October 1853, the Crimean War broke out when Turkey, later joined by Great Britain and France, fought back against Russian incursion into Turkish territory along the Danube River. Much of the fighting eventually took place across the Black Sea in Russian Crimea as the allies went on the offensive with a yearlong siege of Sevastopol. America was determined to stay out of Europe’s wars, but it managed to help its Russian pals. American doctors went to the front lines to help patch up injured Russians, America signed a trade agreement with Russia and the U.S. sent in supplies — Samuel Colt even shipped over weapons. But perhaps the biggest American role was an intangible one: U.S. public opinion was on Russia’s side, and dispatches from America were widely read among Russian elites. “Without American sympathies, Russians would have felt alienated totally against all of Europe, all the civilized countries of that time,” Kurilla says.
A battered Russia accepted the loss of some territory and a neutral Black Sea in an 1856 peace deal. Its American partnership only strengthened as Russian warships were built at the New York shipyards. A few years later, America fell into its Civil War. Russia had just abolished serfdom and stood by the Federal cause, even sending its fleet to New York. It was mostly out of self-interest: Russia wanted to avoid having its ships bottled up in the Black Sea if war broke out again. But it also was a major public relations coup for the North and sent a message to France and Britain. In the unlikely event the European powers thought seriously about intervening for the South, they now knew that to do so would mean fighting Russia too.
Worries about the Brits also led to Russia selling Alaska to the U.S. in 1867. Though packed with natural resources, the vast territory was separate from the Russian mainland and would have been hard to defend from British incursion by sea. Russia also needed the money for new railroads. Even though critics pilloried Secretary of State William Seward’s “folly,” America took Alaska off Russia’s hands for $7.2 million.
But the friendship was not to last. America soon drifted back closer to Britain, as bad wartime feelings faded and people started thinking of Britain as “our cousin,” says Foglesong. As America started to eclipse Britain as a global empire, it too saw the advantages in containing Russia. With the addition of the Philippines in the Spanish-American war, the Far East became a more important sphere of influence. Russian pogroms against Jews and incursions into Manchuria drew international condemnation, and Congress revoked the 1832 commercial treaty in 1911, putting a formal end to the America-Russia romance.