Thursday, March 22, 2012

Abraham Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II: Part I

In the summer of 2008, Marge and I visited the Oshkosh Public Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to see a special exhibition entitled “The Tsar and the President: Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln – Liberator and Emancipator.” It was a fascinating exhibit presented by The American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation and it was subsequently moved to the Kansas City Union Station Museum after three months. We both enjoyed the exhibit and gained new insights about the history of US-Russian relations.

A Surprising Friendship

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than existed between the United States and Russia in the middle of the 19th century. The vast Russian empire was celebrating its millennium and the new American Republic was not yet one hundred years old. In addition, the two systems of government were diametrically opposed. Russia was ruled by a hereditary monarchy and America by an elected president. Tsar Alexander II was well groomed and carried the persona of royalty that was in complete contrast to the lanky, homespun figure of Lincoln.

There are six letters in the National Archives from Alexander II to President Lincoln, each written in two languages, French and Russian, and signed “Your good friend, Alexander.” Also preserved in the National Archives are hand copies of Lincoln’s replies, signed “Your good friend, A. Lincoln.”

Alexander II’s Interest in America

Tsar Alexander II was a well educated man. He spoke four languages, including English, and was trained from birth to understand his responsibility to rule the Russian Empire. He was 37 years old when he ascended to the Russian throne in 1855, and was described as “tall and very handsome” by the American Minister in St. Petersburg.

The Tsar had long been fascinated by America and this interest began when the Siberian missionary to Alaska, Father Veniaminov, visited the Winter Palace and shared his experiences in the Russian colony in North America. One impressive piece of evidence indicating the Tsar’s interest in America is that when he was crowned Emperor, “Tsar of All the Russias,” one of the first letters he wrote was to President Buchanan, expressing the hope that he “would be given the same consideration that was extended to his father,” Nicholas I. The Tsar’s first letter to President Lincoln is dated September 21, 1860, just a few weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration. It is a friendly letter in which the Tsar tells the new American President about the birth of his son, Grand Duke Paul. By the way, there are altogether 21 letters of Alexander II to American Presidents in the National Archives.

An important factor in US-Russian relations was the Tsar’s appointment of Prince Alexander Gorchakov as Chancellor and Foreign Minister. He was a distinguished statesman and historian who had great respect for the United States. “The American Union,” he said, “has exhibited to the world the spectacle of a prosperity without example in the annals of history.” Gorchakov became the Tsar’s right hand man in foreign affairs and helped to shape constructive relations between the two countries.

Russian Support During the Civil War

When the Civil War broke out, both England and France considered hostile intervention on behalf of the South and they tried to convince the Tsar to join them. Alexander II’s refusal was critically important because the British and French then decided to abort their plans. This was the second time that Russia refused to undermine the new American Republic. The first was during the War for Independence when the British asked Catherine the Great to send 20,000 Cossacks to help put down the rebellion in their colonies and she refused.

Eleven days before the first battle of Bull Run, Chancellor Gorchakov sent the following message to the Russian Envoy in the United States, Edouard de Stoeckl: “ . . . for more than eighty years that it has existed the American Union owes its independence, its towering rise, and its progress, to the concord of its members, consecrated, under the auspices of its illustrious founder, by institutions which have been able to reconcile union with liberty . . . . In our view, this Union is not only a substantial element of the world political equilibrium, but additionally, it represents the nation toward which our Sovereign and Russia as a whole, display the friendliest interest, since the two countries located at the ends of two worlds, during the previous period of their development seemed to have been called to a natural solidarity of interests and leanings which they have already proved to each other.”

As a sign of the Tsar’s moral support for the President during the Civil War, he sent two squadrons of Russian naval vessels to America in September 1863, one that landed in New York and the second in San Francisco, where they remained for seven months. The visit by the Russian fleet was seen by the Lincoln administration as a great encouragement during the difficult days of the Civil War.

The Russian Envoy in Washington sent regular updates to Chancellor Gorchakov that he shared with the Tsar, who often noted his comments in the margins, in one case writing “Bravo!” Despite one leader serving as the ruler of an autocracy and the other as leader of a democracy, these two remarkable men became friends who shared their admiration for one another. They also both took the revolutionary steps of freeing their serfs and slaves, but that story will follow.

NOTE: This essay is based on the booklet “The Tsar and the President: Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln – Liberator and Emancipator,” published by The American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation.

- Originally released in May 2009

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Russia and America: Getting Acquainted

In the early decades following the War of Independence with Great Britain, Americans felt drawn to Russia for numerous reasons. Although Russia was expanding East and the United States was expanding to the West, the two countries established a friendship not across the Pacific Ocean, but rather across “Old Europe.” The leaders of the young American Republic appreciated Russian assistance in the war against the British and both nations gained from a growing trade relationship in the early 1800s. In the 1830s and 1840s, ships from New England poured Cuban sugar into Russian ports on the Baltic Sea, returning with loads of Russian rope, tackle, cotton canvas for sails, and native iron.

Direct information about each other’s societies was limited, however, and the number of travelers from either country was very small. The formal opening of diplomatic missions in Washington and St. Petersburg took place in 1808-9, and the popular attitude of each nation toward the other was positive. Mutual cooperation in opposition to the British and French helped solidify the early friendship, enhanced by a growing sense that both nations were the newly-emerging world powers, as Great Britain and France -- the worn-out powers of “Old Europe” -- declined.

Learning About Each Other Through Literature

For Russians, direct information on the political ideas and institutions of the United States was limited by government censors, although some materials did slip through tsarist censorship or were smuggled into the country. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, for example, was circulated among Russian radical thinkers, shaping their images of the new democracy. It is interesting to note that harsh treatments of the United States were viewed by the tsarist government as more dangerous than favorable ones, since criticism of slavery invited comparisons with Russian serfdom.

Russian publishers, restrained from political commentaries by ardent censors, instead emphasized American literature and poetry, and educated Russians began to develop an extensive familiarity with the world of American writers. Washington Irving was the first American author to win a substantial Russian following; his Rip Van Winkle was a standard discussion item in intellectual circles. James Fenimore Cooper’s books, especially The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, and The Pathfinder, gained a wide readership in the Russian capital and among nobility in the provinces. The same was true of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

Russian writers rarely met with their American counterparts and had even less opportunity than American authors to visit the far-away lands of the New World. This was one reason why Russian literature was scarcely known in the United States. Rarely were a Russian’s works translated into English, and when they were (usually by the British), copies were difficult to find. By the middle of the 19th century, direct contacts between the two countries had increased in number and the Russians, in particular, became zealous in their efforts to learn more about their new commercial and political ally, the United States.

Russians had another distinct advantage during the mid-1800s: there were many more educated Russians well versed in English than there were Americans literate in Russian. Russian nobility developed a strong taste for reading American literature in its original language, not in translation.

By the 1860s, while Cooper, Irving and Poe remained the favorite American authors of educated Russians, new names had been added to the list, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Undoubtedly, the most popular American book in Russia by the 1860s was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin -- a book not easy to publish in Russia for fear of peasant revolts!

“Close Friends in Separate Spheres”

The Russian sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867 symbolized the growing friendship between these two nations during the first 100 years of America’s existence. Through trade, political cooperation and increased knowledge of each other’s literature, the two nations gained substantially from each other. The perception of Russia as America’s essential friend was popularized in a book by the Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Charles B. Boynton. Boynton made the following assertion, which won wide acceptance in both countries:

When Europe has been taught that these Americas are the rightful and exclusive domain of Americans, the theater for an American civilization, which will brook no foreign dictation, the United States, as the leader of a grand alliance of American States, may present to all nations the type and model of a Christian Republic, while Russia, let us hope, will exhibit to Europe and the East, a Christian monarchy and a national Church administered so as to bless, instruct and elevate the people. If so, America and Russia will be the two great powers of the future.

As historian Norman Saul noted, these laudatory words represented the culmination of the previous one hundred years, a century during which America and Russia were “close friends in separate spheres.”

NOTE: These “Reflections” were based on Norman E. Saul’s book Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867 (University of Kansas Press, 1991).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Early 19th Century Russian-American Relations

Russia and America: “Two Great Nations”

Alexis de Tocqueville
In his book, Democracy in America written in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville made a remarkable observation about Russia and America:

There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans. . . All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and only to be charged with the maintenance of their power; but these are still in the act of growth; all others are stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these are proceeding with ease and with celerity along a path to which the human eye can assign no term. . . . Their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

Alexis de Tocqueville’s commentary reminds us that Russia and America were not always bitter rivals. The animosity of the Cold War and the hostility between the United States and Russia that had grown since the Bolshevik Revolution has erased from the memories of most Americans and Russians the harmonious relations that had existed between them for the previous 150 years.

The New American Republic And Its Ties With Tsarist Russia

The first American Minister to Russia was John Quincy Adams, who served in this capacity for six years (1809-1815). Although he never traveled outside St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital at that time, he did meet with Russian nobility and merchants, visit their churches and cemeteries, and tour Russian factories. He also established close working and social relationships with Tsar Alexander I and his advisors. The principal topic of conversation was the increase in American shipping to Russian ports, not politics, and Russians were eager to develop contacts with this emerging New World power.

Ambassador William Pinkney
When former Senator Adams returned to the United States to pursue his political career, which later included terms as Secretary of State and President, his replacement as American Minister was William Pinkney, an experienced diplomat from Maryland. Shortly after his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1817, Pinkney met with Alexander I and found him to be very cordial. Pinkney noted: “The Emperor conversed with me for half an hour and expressed himself from time to time in the strongest terms of regard for our country and frequently declared his desire to cultivate with us the most friendly relations.” The Tsar pointed out to Pinkney that there was “a striking analogy” between their two countries and this became a common theme throughout the 19th century. Pinkney also articulated another thought which became a common theme of many other American visitors to Russia in the 1800s -- a deep admiration for the person of the tsar. Several decades later, Americans visiting Russia who met with the autocratic Tsar Nicholas I often favorably compared him with their own “democratic” Andrew Jackson.

Growing Russian-American Affinity

In the early 1800s, American knowledge of Russia was very limited. Most of the reports about Russia were from British sources and were characterized by a decidedly anti-Russian tone. One of the earliest American commentators on Russia, who signed his columns “Tacitus” and was later identified as William Darby, condemned the distorted European perspective on Russia. He set the tone, shared by many Americans of his time, with the following observation: “The facts are, that as long as Russia stands a great Eastern Power, any serious collision with the United States will be avoided by both France and Great Britain. Russia is, from both position and power, the only real and natural ally the United States can have in Europe.”

John Lloyd Stephens, one of the first American writers to publish accounts of his travels in Russia, concurred. While traveling through Tsarist Russia in 1835, Stephens wrote that “to an American Russia is an interesting country. True it is not classic ground; but as for me, who had now traveled over the faded and worn-out kingdoms of the Old World, I was quite ready for something new. Like our own Russia is a new country, and in many respects resembles ours.” These two observations, together with Tocqueville’s commentary, became the standard American perception of Russia in the early 1800s.

What is also fascinating is that Russian visitors to the United States shared the same view. Platon Chikhachev described his impression of the New Republic to Russian audiences in the 1830s with these words: “During my stay in North America I often thought of my country. The wealth of resources with which each of these two states has been endowed by providence, the stability of the basic principles upon which their prosperity is built, and finally, the youth of their population, keen-witted and full of life, often led me to compare them to each other. . . . one may affirm that Russia and the United States are two states before whom there is opening up a most promising future. . . Having emerged only recently into the light of history, they have already secured for themselves a place in the future, moving with a firm and stately tread towards their goal.”

NOTE: These “Reflections” are based on Norman E. Saul’s book Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867 (University of Kansas Press, 1991).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

John Quincy Adams in Russia: Part III

Russia Withstands Napoleon’s Attack

While America was engaged in another war with the British, Adams was a witness to the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in June 1812. In a letter to his mother Abigail, Adams argued that in the course of human history since the creation of the world, he could not think of a greater, more sudden, and more total reversal of fortune ever experienced by man that what Napoleon faced as a result of his attack on Russia. Over the course of twenty years he had been a leader with unparalleled success. Then, on June 24th, he entered Russia at the head of an army of 300,000. On September 15, he took possession of Moscow, while the Russian armies retreated before him, but not without a fight. Of the two battles between French and Russian soldiers, one “was perhaps the bloodiest that has been fought for many ages.”

In Adams’ judgment, Napoleon appeared to believe that all he had to do was reach Moscow and the Russian Empire would fall prostrate at his feet. Instead, to his great surprise, Napoleon realized that he was in trouble. Moscow was destroyed in part by his troops and in part by the Russians themselves. First his communications were interrupted by small detachments of Russian troops. Then he found re-constituted Russian army groups on his flanks closing in on him while he spent an idle six weeks in Moscow. Napoleon soon found himself with a starving and almost naked army 800 miles from his frontier, exposed to a rigorous Russian winter. On October 28, Napoleon began his retreat but it was too late. Thousands of his men perished by famine, thousands from the deadly winter, and thousands simply threw down their weapons without a fight. Adams concluded that if Napoleon “has a soul capable of surviving such an event, he will probably be a prisoner himself.”

In a letter to Secretary of State James Monroe, Adams extolled the courage and fortitude of the Russian people during their courageous battle against the invading French army. He wrote there was “little to censure and much to applaud and admire” in the conduct of Alexander I, the nobility, the citizens, the peasants, and the Russian army. “The spirit of patriotism has burnt with the purest and most vivid flame in every class of the community. The exertions of the nation have been almost unparalleled; the greatest sacrifices have been made cheerfully and spontaneously.” He continued: “In the most trying extremity they have been calm and collected, deeply anxious, but uniformly confident and sanguine in their hopes of the result.”

As Adams reflected on the consequences of the defeat of Napoleon and the march of the victorious Allies (Russia, England and Austria) into Paris, he predicted that revolutions would follow in Germany, France and Italy and that Alexander I would become the “Arbitrator of Europe.”

Russian-American Relations After the Wars Ended

As his five years of service in St. Petersburg came to an end, and the defeat of Napoleon was assured, Adams had high expectations for the Russian Tsar. He wrote that he placed “great reliance upon the moderation, equity, and humanity of the Emperor Alexander,” and he confessed that “I have confidence in nothing else.” Adams was convinced that the Allies on the European continent “must be governed entirely by him” and that Alexander I must resist the policy of severely crippling defeated France.

While Russia was involved in the struggle against Napoleon, Alexander I offered to mediate the peace negotiations between the Americans and British who had been at war since 1812, a war that resulted in the burning of the White House by British troops. Repeatedly his efforts at mediation were accepted by the Americans, but rejected by the British. Finally the British agreed to direct negotiations with the Americans and the Treaty of Ghent was eventually signed on December 24, 1815, without Russian involvement.

The high expectations of Alexander I that John Quincy Adams had when he left St. Petersburg to become Minister to the Court of St. James in London and then Secretary of State vanished in subsequent years. The second half of the reign of the Russian Emperor was much different than the first half. He abolished many of his own liberal reforms and become more arbitrary in his behavior while serving as one of Europe’s most powerful leaders. “Liberty,” he maintained, “should be confided within just limits. And the limits of liberty are the principles of order.” Until his death in 1825, Alexander I increasingly became more autocratic and no longer was admired by American leaders.

Commercial relations continued to grow between America and Russia in the early part of the 19th century, but the mutual admiration that had previously existed between the young Alexander and President Jefferson was over. As Secretary of State in the cabinet of President James Monroe and later as America’s sixth President, John Quincy Adams faced a much less friendly neighbor. Alexander I’s successor, Nicholas I, had no sympathy for democracies or constitutional governments and American leaders were equally disinterested in a close relationship with a rigid autocratic regime.

- Originally released in January 2009