is not often that we look back on “drastic” decisions that have been made by powerful nations and how these affect the present. Remember the words of George Orwell, “He who controls the past controls the future.” Thus, thinking of how the past would have affected the contemporary future (our present) is intriguing. In this alternate piece of history, we will be looking at possible outcomes of what would have happened if Russia hadn’t sold Alaska to the United States (U.S.) in 1867.
Contemporary Russian historians have sort of hidden the fact that Alaska was its own nation back in the 10th century, however, over time, with the power that the Russian Empire had grown to be, it claimed it and Russified the nation, as well as its name which used to be Alyaska. Deprived of any resources (from the knowledge at the time) and due to the extreme weather conditions, it did not seem like an important piece of land for the Russian Empire, but more of an authoritarian asset that would translate into power by enlarging the size of the Empire.
Due to the massive losses both in manpower and financially suffered by the Russian Empire in the Crimean War (1853–1856), Russia was in dire need to reclaim its status in case another war broke out. The Russian Empire loved to be prepared and always had its forces ready. Good military power is expensive, and with not much trade going on within the Russian Empire that could grow the treasury in a short period of time, they turned towards selling a piece of unused land within their country.
At the time, it seemed like a good move as less land meant the need for fewer troops to protect it. Alaska not only being the only overseas part of the Russian Empire but also measuring at around 580,000 square miles. Not that the land needed much protection — or any at all — as Russia considered it a land of nothingness.
Once put up for sale, the first nation to be interested was America, since Alaska was attached to the continent. Due to the industrial revolution, America was showcasing an impressive financial muscle, that permitted them to discuss a potential deal. At the time, even America did not know of the vast resources of gold within Alaska, they just saw it as an expansion that may come in handy in the future.
Therefore on the 18th of October, 1867, Alaska was sold to America for $7,200,000 ($111,000,000 today if we are just for inflation). For more information on the context of this event, I would recommend reading this article by Calin Aneculaesei which goes into more specific detail.
For the more interesting part now, we will look at different perspectives of how these two major powers would have been affected if this transaction would have not taken place.
Russian Economy and Revolution
The main reason why Alaska was sold in the first place was because of Russia’s dire need for resources to gain back its military power. This constant hunger for military power is more cultural than we think as the 20th century had presented it to be by Russia/the Soviet Union. In this section, we can only make assumptions which I will try to justify with facts.
The main hopes here are that Russia would have been able to discover the vast resources of gold within Alaska. In the early 1800s, many Russian explorers traveled to “foreign” land in search of resources or something that could be defined as usable for the Russian Empire. Some legends state that a few of these explorers who “never returned” (considered to have died during the expedition) had found gold mines within Alaska and kept it all for themselves.
In this case, we can say that the gold would have eventually been found some way or another, in which case the Russian Empire would have grown its economy exponentially, maybe so much so that it wouldn’t have fallen due to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The main cause for the Bolshevik Revolution besides the social ideology brought by Vladimir Lenin was the lack of social services and basic resources provided to citizens. Too many civilians were dying from starvation or simply the lack of medical resources and this was happening during the 20th century.
With the gold provided from Alaska, the Russian economy could have been stabilized and its citizens pleased with better living conditions, therefore the abdication of Nicholas II might have not happened. Lenin tried to present how a big nation suffering from poverty could be efficient. He described it as “making use of nothing” as most people only had a roof over their heads that was about to collapse at any moment.
In this case, we could also assume that the Russian Civil War (1918–1922) would have never taken place, which means that millions of lives would have been spared from death. It is imperative to remember that most of the lives lost during this war were those of civilians, with most of them not necessarily fighting in the war, but instead dying in Russian labor camps also known as “Gulags”. To learn more about the atrocities that could have been avoided have a look at this article, entitled “Letters Depicting the Horrors Lived by Prisoners Inside Soviet Gulags”.
If the Russian Empire was to make it after 1917, we would probably see a very different Russia today, a democratic nation without the communist culture.
America would have not been as affected as Russia. In 1867, when the purchase of Alaska happened, many democrats thought that this would bring ruin to America, as seven million U.S. dollars was quite the fortune back in the 19th century. However, without proceeding with the purchase of this land, America might have had the financial power to extend itself on a structural basis that would have helped them deal better with the immigration that followed in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
This would have allowed the country not only with providing more housing but also more jobs and with more variety than your commonly found agricultural jobs which, let’s be honest, didn’t pay that well. Many historians argue that the purchase of Alaska did impact the U.S. as a butterfly effect towards the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, this can be argued extensively from this alternate perspective.
First of all, in realistic terms, the purchase of Alaska was a financial success, as the gold obtained from Alaska over the late period of the 19th century was enough to regain what had been paid for the country. The big Gold Rush from 1896, also known as the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–1899), unveiled the vast availability of gold within the region, which was described at the time as being of the purest quality. These were also the first steps taken by America to populate as well as popularize Alaska.
Now let’s take a look at the alternate perspective, if America was to never purchase Alaska, it would have never had the financial power to develop at the beginning of the 20th century, at least not at that high level seen in the roaring 1920s. Not only that but imagine how harsh the Great Depression might have been in this case, besides the fact that this would have started much sooner, meaning that there wouldn’t have been any roaring 1920s.
We also need to take into consideration the Alaskan oil rush from the 1960s that had taken place in Prudhoe Bay which is today recognized as one of the most popular oceanic oil fields. This once again majorly bumped up the American economy during the Cold War, which was much needed for the Arms Race as well as the Space Race.
On the other hand, we also need to take into consideration that this would certainly affect the power of the U.S. dollar, as the gold switch rate would have been different without the abundant supply of gold at the time. A significantly smaller economy would have also meant that the industrial revolution would have taken a lot longer to implement nationwide.
We could argue that apart from all the resources offered by Alaska, the land would have been more suitable for Russians due to the extreme climate rather than Americans. Even to this day, the Alaskan population is quite low compared to the size of the country, with only 731,545 inhabitants, and since 2017 the numbers have started to drop as its peak was actually registered in 2016 at 741,456 inhabitants.
Something more interesting along those lines is a protest that took place in 2014 in Moscow’s Red Square where Russians protested that they want Alaska back with signs saying “Love you Crimea” and “Obama, Think About Alaska”. This movement was small and short-lived, therefore it did not get much attention from the media, nor the Russian or American governments.
No Cold War?
The biggest question that most people can think of is the potential of not having a Cold War. Now, of course, this would mean that many other things would have to have changed but if we look at things systematically there is a hypothetical potential for the Cold War to not have taken place. If we look at the beginning of World War II (WWII), Alaska would have not only provided so much more financial power for a bigger and better military power but also would have allowed a sort of safe haven for citizens during this war.
We also need to take into consideration that America would have been a lot closer to Russia, meaning that the transport of goods and weaponry could have been done more swiftly, with less risk. Other historians who looked at this hypothetical event have discussed the possibility of a bridge being built in the late 19th century between Russia and Alaska that would have allowed for better trade routes, meaning closer diplomacy with the U.S. Government.
Improved relations with the U.S. government at the time would have not only meant a better distribution of force during WWII which may have won the war sooner but also a potential for the two nations to not start a rivalry in the early 1950s which led to the Cold war.
If the Cold War was to still take place this would have been devastating news for America as Russia would have been right at their doorstep. Besides this, it would potentially have had a bigger capability to potentially nuke every state in the country from Alaska. At the same time, we can consider the use of Alaska as a country or part of Russia to only deposit their military power and even conduct nuclear weapon testing.
Defying that the Cold War was more of a political war, after all, there are too many factors to take into consideration. Therefore, assuming that keeping Alaska would assure peace is quite unreasonable, but still, a major factor that would have at least shaped the Cold War in a different way, in other words, a lot more favorable for the “potential” Soviet Union.
As mentioned before, besides all the gold hiding in Alaska, there was also a lot of oil, which proved to be a financial bandage for the U.S. during the early stages of the Cold War, or the start of the Space race (1955–1975).
In this case, we also need to take into consideration the potential of the Cold War turning into World War III, which would have been seen as more of a Nuclear War. Maybe even a war could have been fought in Alaska, preventing the endangerment of making humanity extinct by throwing nuclear missiles across the globe.