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any think that the state of Alaska has always been part of the USA. If so, it might come as a shock to some that one of America’s modern rivals actually owned the territory of the modern Alaska state for a large part of history, and its name is actually derived from the Russian adapted word of the native people of Alaska. Initially, Alaxsxaq, the Russian explorers would Russify the word into Alyaska.

On October 18, 1867, the Russian territory of Аляска (Anglicised: Alyaska) was sold to the United States of America for $7,200,000, which is around $111 million if we adjust for inflation. Even by modern standards, this sum seems quite measly for 586,412 square miles of land, especially when we look at how powerful the Russian Empire was at the time. Therefore we must ask, why did Russia sell Alaska?

War is expensive

Russia has been no stranger to war. Reaching a peak of 8,600,000 square miles in size, expanding to such a degree doesn’t come without some conflict. The cost of war has always been high, even for an empire of such size, and this became very apparent after the Crimean War (1853–1856).

Suffering defeat at the hand of the “Allies” after an unsuccessful campaign to cut the Ottoman Empire down to size, the Russian Empire was on its knees economically. The war put the country in bankruptcy. Losing naval dominance over the Black Sea as part of the Treaty of Paris destroyed one of the Empire’s biggest trading assets, further worsening their economic situation. The Tsar needed money to modernize and rebuild, and he needed it quickly.

Russian wooden warship (left) against a Royal Navy ironclad (right). Richard Henry Nibbs, First Shot of the War. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Alaska was Russia’s only overseas holding at the time. Although it did benefit the empire through the prestige it gained from owning a ‘colony’, the economic costs of protecting this 500,000 square miles of what many saw as ‘nothingness’ greatly outweighed this, especially at a time when money was hard to come by.

As a result, the Tsar decided that the territory must go. Now came the question: Who should Russia sell Alaska to?

Supply with little demand

When we think about it, there are only two real contenders when it comes to who Russia should have sold Alaska to. The first contender was the United Kingdom. In 1867 the UK still directly owned Canada as one of their dominions; it would have made sense to sell to the UK as Alaska could have easily been integrated into the dominion of Canada without much hassle from both parties.

There were only two problems with this. Firstly Russia and the United Kingdom were fierce rivals at the time. During the leadup to the Crimean War, the UK was one of the first countries to try to limit Russian expansion, eventually resulting in the UK joining the Ottoman Empire on the Allied side to achieve this objective. As Alaska was so close to Russia, selling to the British Empire was out of the question.

British redcoats during the Crimean War. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, even if the empires weren’t rivals, Great Britain was not looking for more territory on the Pacific. Canada was hard enough to administer already due to its size, and because of the Canadian coastline in the west, it also allowed the empire to access the Pacific.

Only one other option remained, America. Russia and America were allies at the time, a bond strengthened through the mutual dislike of the British Empire; therefore they were the perfect customer for Russia’s land. There was only one little problem that stopped America from purchasing Alaska earlier than 1867, the American Civil War (1861–1865).

Union engineers in Petersburg, VA, in August 1864. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the Union defeated the Confederate States, the country was stable enough to start negotiations for the purchase. A team of surveyors from Russia was sent to Alaska to look for natural resources and other materials so that a value for the purchase could be figured out. The surveyors came up with a value of $10,000,000; however, most of them argued that Russia shouldn’t sell the colony but rather just reform its administration.

The Tsar disregarded the advice of the surveyors and took the evaluation to the American government. After much negotiation, the price of $7,200,000 was reached, and on October 18, 1867, the deal was finalized, officially making Alaska a part of the United States of America, strengthening the alliance for years to come.

With hindsight

If we look at the value of Alaska now, we can clearly see that this was a massive steal for the American government. The yearly gross state product nowadays is around $50 billion due to the large reserves of fossil fuels and a gold rush in the area around the end of the 19th century means that the USA has got much more than they paid for in this deal.

The geopolitical ramifications of Russia still owning Alaska to this day would be massive, and it is inarguable that the course of modern history would be changed due to this lesser-known yet important event. Hallmarks of modern history, such as the Cold War and the resulting nuclear war scares, might have been but a thought in people’s minds. In situations with such large-scale consequences, we can only assume what could’ve happened.

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