This morning in the Washington Post Stephen Stromberg echoes a point I made over at my place yesterday about President Obama’s flat joke about the purchase of Alaska, made during his Moscow visit:

But Obama probably also shouldn’t have said this. The president joked to a group of Russian businessmen about how Czar Alexander II gave America “a pretty good deal on Alaska,” which the United States bought from Imperial Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million in gold.

It’s still a sore subject. The first time I visited the post-Soviet Europe as an exchange student in western Ukraine, Alaska came up as I was speaking to a classroom full of high school students. NATO was in the midst of bombing Serbia — on whose behalf Russia entered the First World War — and the ethnic Russian teacher explained that the military action wasn’t the only thing Russians wanted the United States to roll back. Alaska, she said to my astonishment, should be Russia’s again. “We are hoping,” she said earnestly, explaining that this could be a way to deepen trust and respect between Cold War rivals.

That has been my experience, too. I haven’t found the subject to be one about which Russians have much of a sense of humor. I’d appreciate hearing others’ experience to the contrary.

It’s also what’s come out in the scanty Russian language media coverage of President Obama’s visit. Most Russian commentators were more likely to complain about President Obama’s referring to PM Vladimir Putin as “president”. They appeared more predisposed to attribute it to ignorance rather than a slip of the tongue, as I did.

President Obama’s speech was covered live by any of Russia’s major news outlets and the flavor of the coverage it’s received was captured pretty well in this article in the New York Times:

“We don’t really understand why Obama is such a star,” said Kirill Zagorodnov, 25, one of the graduates. “It’s a question of trust, how he behaves, how he positions himself, that typical charisma, which in Russia is often parodied. Russians really are not accustomed to it. It is like he is trying to manipulate the public.”

Others suggested that after decades of social turmoil, Russians were simply exhausted with politics, and had been so often disappointed by Western leaders that they were not inclined to get excited by the latest one. Asked by one Moscow newspaper what they expected to come out of Mr. Obama’s visit, most respondents had the same answer: traffic jams.

It may not come out in my writing but I am, generally speaking, not unfavorably disposed to President Obama, particularly in the area of foreign policy. When an error is made I think that gentle criticism is warranted and that’s how I saw the incident: an unforced error.

The picture above is of the check for $7.2 million issued by the United States for the purchase of Alaska.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. sam says:

    Alaska, she said to my astonishment, should be Russia’s again. “We are hoping,” she said earnestly, explaining that this could be a way to deepen trust and respect between Cold War rivals.

    Sar…ah, hell no.

  2. odograph says:

    Wanting Alaska “back” is just stupid, have them talk to some Innuits about what was essentially slave trade.

  3. Alaska has oil so I think we need to keep it. But we clearly have more Dakotas than necessary. So maybe we could make the Russians a counter-offer: one of the Dakotas and the city of Detroit.

  4. DL says:

    What was interesting about this, was that the Russians sold it only because they had raped it of its prize sea otter furs which they actually exported to China. Thinking it had no real value left, they sold it to us, and we thought it was worthless also, many calling it “Seward’s Folly.”

    Trivia on Seward was that he was a victim of an assasination attempt as part of the Lincoln assasination by John Wilkes Boothe and his nefarious friends. Seward survived a throat cutting because he was wearing a neck brace for a previous neck injury, at the time of the attempt.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    I wasn’t familiar with this issue, but googling around discovered that:

    Many (most?) Russians appear to believe the sale was really a temporary lease.

    The transaction is attributed to a corrupt czar and corrupt Americans. There are stories that the money never got to Russia or that some of the money was used to bribe American politicians.

    Eastward expansion across continents is an important part of the Russian sense of self.

    There are continuing controversies over control over the Bering Sea that stem from competing narratives of the sale — particularly the notion that the Sea was inland Russian waters at the time of the transfer of merely “the land.”

  6. You all are just a bunch of knuckle dragging racist who can’t recognize Smart Diplomacy when you see it.