Alaska’s great return to Russia? Fat chance of that: Russia’s economy is in a downward spiral, and Moscow now faces a $150 billion default in foreign-currency debt owed by both the government and Russian companies including Gazprom, Lukoil and Sberbank. Financial analysts have warned that it will be the most impactful emerging-market default since Argentina’s in 2005, and could be worse than Russia’s own emerging-market default in 1998.
Since launching its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago, Russia has become a commercial pariah and has been crippled by sanctions as well as an exodus of western companies from Disney to Starbucks. Fast-food giant McDonalds, which opened its first location in Moscow thirty-two years ago in the winter of 1990, has shuttered all of its 800-plus locations across Russia.
The Kremlin fired back with its own sanctions against President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials on Tuesday, and over the weekend Oleg Matveychev, a member of the Russian Duma, offered an even more radical plan. The Russian lawmaker called for reparations from the United States that included the return of Alaska as well as a historic settlement in California.
Both Alaska and Fort Ross in California were once part of the Russian Empire in the late 18th and 19th centuries before being sold to the United States.
“We should be thinking about reparations from the damage that was caused by the sanctions and the war itself, because that too costs money and we should get it back,” Matveychev said during a Sunday interview on state TV.
The Russian lawmaker called for the “return of all Russian properties, those of the Russian empire, the Soviet Union and current Russia, which has been seized in the United States, and so on.”
That would include Alaska and Fort Ross, which is located approximately 90 miles north of San Francisco. Matveychev’s argument is clearly in line with that of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, who had attempted to justify Russia’s domination over Ukraine by suggesting the land was once controlled by Moscow.
North to Alaska
Any suggestion of a return of Alaska to Russia would be a comedic nonstarter, of course, as Russia’s claims over it lack any merit. The 49th State wasn’t acquired by the United States via conquest or even annexation.
It was sold by Russia to the United States for $7.2 million – roughly two cents per acre – in March 1867. It gave the United States 375 million more acres of land, and was the third-largest land deal in history, after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France – the second-largest land deal – provided an additional 512 million additional acres.
For the record, the largest “land deal” was really a treaty without money changing lands. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas essentially split the lands outside Europe between Spain and Portugal, then the world’s largest superpowers. Spain seems to have gotten the better deal, gaining control of much of modern-day Latin America – but Portugal was granted lands in Africa and the Far East.
As for the sale of Alaska, the deal had taken some time to work out, and Russia could only be described as an “eager seller.”
Fearing another war with Great Britain, Russia first approached the United States about selling the territory during the administration of President James Buchanan, but negotiations were stalled by the outbreak of the Civil War. Russia feared if war came with Britain it would be unable to defend the distant territory, which bordered British Columbia, and it also sought to bolster its struggling finances – does that sound familiar?
The deal was closed after the American Civil War, but many Americans thought it was wasteful investment. Critics of the deal called it “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox” as the Treaty with Russia was negotiated and signed by Secretary of State William Seward and Russian Minister to the United States Edouard de Stoeckl. Those opposed saw it as little more than a frozen tundra that offered few prospects for settlers. It should be remembered that at the time the “American frontier” was still ripe with opportunity.
That sentiment changed when gold was discovered in 1898, and today Alaska is a major provider of domestic oil. It is clear that Russia may have negotiated a bad deal (for them) in selling the territory, which could explain why they want it back. Yet, even the suggestion of Russian claims over Alaska has been met by strong words.
Good luck with that! Not if we have something to say about it. We have hundreds of thousands of armed Alaskans and military members that will see it differently. https://t.co/ji0Hiza1TE
— Governor Mike Dunleavy (@GovDunleavy) March 15, 2022
Any Russia’s “claim” to California is even more dubious at best, but Matveychev referenced the long-forgotten Russian colony of Fort Ross on California’s Sonoma coast established in 1812. The colony barely survived over the next three decades, which is why the Russian-American Company sold in 1841 after it became a financial liability.
Russia’s colonial administrator Aleksander G. Rotchev, the fifth and final man to hold the post, sold Fort Ross and accompanying land to John Sutter, who was known for establishing’s Sutter’s Fort and the more famous Sutter’s Mill that sparked the California gold rush.
According to the Fort Ross Conservancy, which maintains the National Historic Landmark, the name of the fort is said to derive from the Russian word “rus,” the same root as the word “Russia” and not from the Scottish “Ross.”
Claims to Antarctica
Matveychev didn’t just suggest that Alaska and a California settlement should be returned to Moscow’s control. He went even further, and suggested Russia be granted sovereignty over Antarctic.
“We discovered it, so it belongs to us,” the member of Russia’s parliament added.
That was certainly nonsensical hyperbole, even as both the U.S. and Russia maintain a “basis of claim” over Antarctica, while seven other countries – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom – also maintain territorial claims, some of which overlap.
The Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 1, 1959, by the dozen countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, specifically preserves the status quo.
“No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force,” notes Article IV of the treaty. Yet, given that Russia would launch an invasion of its neighbor, one can ponder whether treaties mean anything these days in Moscow.
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.