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.