"Where the Russian flag has been hoisted, it shall never be lowered." Who and why sold Russian America (Part IV)

12:50 30.09.2019 • Yuri Bulatov , Professor of world and Russian history at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Institute of International Relations, Doctor of Science (History)

Realizing that even he could not implement the idea of selling Russian America alone, the Grand Duke, acting very carefully within the framework of the Sea Ministry, was looking for proxies to participate in the planned transaction. Since it was extremely hard to find such people among members of old Russian nobility, candidates for the role of go-betweens in the sale of Russian America were being looked for among the new aristocracy at the imperial court.

The initial choice fell on Count Mikhail Reitern, who had recently been transferred to the Sea Ministry. According to contemporary accounts, Reitern knew how to please the high and mighty, probably by his ability to keep his mouth shut, and his outward modesty. On recommendations from Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, Reitern was sent for an internship, first in Europe, and then in the United States. Returning to Russia, Reitern was assigned to a senior position in the Finance Ministry, and shortly after, was “miraculously” promoted to the head of the ministry. As a member of the Grand Duke’s team, Mikhail Reitern began to oversee the financial side of the Alaska sale project.

Preparation of the secret deal was assigned to another Sea Ministry employee – Nikolai Krabbe. His colleagues described him as a good administrator, but with little knowledge of the maritime industry. Having become a senior administrator at the Sea Ministry, Krabbe became the right-hand man to Konstantin Nikolayevich, serving as a de-facto head of the ministry. The subsequent appointment of Reitern and Krabbe as members of the State Council, which the Grand Duke chaired, strengthened his positions even further. The technical details of the Alaska sale treaty were assigned to the Russian charge d'affaires in Washington, Baron Eduard Steckl, whose acquaintance Reitern had made during his stay in the United States.

According to their personal records, these three officials were “twin brothers,” whose ancestors had relatively recently joined Russian service and received Russian nobility. Mikhail Reitern, a Dutchman, the Ostsee German Nikolai Krabbe, and Eduard Steckl, a Belgian, had little to do with Russia. One common feature that distinguished these three officials was their stated readiness to carry out any task assigned them by any government. Career growth was their main goal in life. At first, luck favored them. After signing the Treaty of Cession of Alaska, Reitern was awarded the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky and was promoted to a full-time Councilor of State (civilian General). Krabbe received the rank of Admiral and was awarded the Order of St. Vladimir First Class. Steckl received the Order of the White Eagle and monetary compensation for his role in Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich’s dubious project.

However, royal graces did not save this “troika” from well-deserved retribution. Krabbe lost his mind, Reitern went blind, and Steckl was forced to flee abroad, where he ended his days in ignomy.

Implementing the Alaska sale project without mediation from the Russian Foreign Ministry was unthinkable, and this is something the Romanovs knew perfectly well. In April 1856, Alexander Gorchakov was appointed Russia’s Foreign Minister by Emperor Alexander II, who appreciated his professional expertise and character. Less than a year later, Gorchakov was instructed to render maximum assistance in clinching the Alaska sale deal with the Americans. In March 1857, he received a letter from Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich with detailed justification of the reasons for the possible sale of Alaska to the United States. As a government official, Gorchakov could hardly ignore the opinion of a member of the royal family. He immediately handed the letter over to Emperor Alexander II, who appended the following resolution on his brother’s missive: "This idea is worth thinking over."

By staking on Gorchakov, the royal family was playing it safe, sure that he would fulfill their will and not resign because of this “delicate” mission. They were also well aware of the new minister’s self-admitted ambition.

“In my youth I was so ambitious that at one time I carried poison in my pocket so that I could take it if I were passed over,” Gorchakov later reminisced in his memoirs.

The Foreign Ministry went down to work to fulfill the royals’ will, preparing a confidential Note concerning the planned sale of the Russian possessions in North America. The ministry appointed a team of highly trusted officials to act on the Note. Ironically, neither the author of the secret circular, nor its addressee was actually mentioned in the document. Senior ministry officials, who criticized the proposed transaction, were disciplined, and their negative feedback pertaining to the project was immediately buried in the “classified” section of the state archives. Alexander Gorchakov personally oversaw the preparation of all Alaska-related documents and actively patronized the Russian envoy in Washington, Eduard Steckl. When it came to the Alaska sale project, Gorchakov left nothing to chance, personally instructing Steckl about exactly how Russia would receive the money for the sale of Alaska.

As a man of vision, Alexander Gorchakov knew that sooner or later his role in the sale of Russian America to the United States would come out. Therefore, he was trying to make sure that his career would not suffer from his supposedly “forced Americanism,” associated with the sale of Alaska, and skillfully dosed out information about his participation in the development of contacts with the United States. Moreover, whenever necessary, he deliberately flaunted his Americanism. For example, contemporaries praised Gorchakov’s rejection of proposals by several European countries to jointly intervene in the US Civil War. Needless to say, his policy of backing the North’s fight for the emancipation of the slaves toiling for their white masters in the South was met with warm response in Russian society. Gorchakov’s far-sighted recognition of the importance of the American factor in Russia’s European policy was ultimately acknowledged by the country’s leadership as well.

Acting on the strength of this public recognition of his merits, after the Treaty of Cession of Alaska had been duly ratified, Alexander Gorchakov finally managed to convince Alexander II that further responsibility for the implementation of the treaty should no longer be the competence of the Foreign Ministry. With the Emperor’s consent, this responsibility was assigned to the Finance Ministry, and personally to Mikhail Reitern. As for Gorchakov, he quickly withdrew into the shadows trying to make sure that the text of the Alaska sale treaty remained hidden from the Russian public for as long as possible. It wasn’t until a year later that the text of the Russian-American agreement of March 30, 1867, and only in French at that, finally appeared in a limited-access Foreign Ministry publication.

Alexander Gorchakov’s skillful use of his extraordinary talent for diplomatic maneuver was not limited to foreign policy alone, with the contemporary critics of the Alaska sale deal never being able to find out the truth about his role in that dubious project. In June 1867, just a month after the ratification of the treaty, Gorchakov received the rank of State Chancellor from the Emperor - the highest civilian rank in the Table of Ranks. Gorchakov’s authority was further strengthened, and his reputation remained unstained. Russian America was never mentioned in the official certificates, which came with Gorchakov’s awards.

Special councils have traditionally carried a bad connotation in Russian history. In Stalin's time, the term stood for the so-called extrajudicial bodies that decided the fate of political prisoners. During the 1860s, it was a special council that decided the fate of Russian America. Regardless of any particular period in history, the status of such councils was never legal and, therefore, their decisions were never legitimate either.

These days, historians know very little about that fateful meeting, which made the final decision to sell Alaska. All modern-day historians know is exactly when and where it happened, and who participated in that closed-door gathering. At 1 pm on December 16, 1866, a meeting discussing the sale of Russian America was held at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in St. Petersburg.

Presiding over the meeting of that “initiative group” was Emperor Alexander II, who was joined by Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov, Finance Minister Mikhail Reitern, the Sea Ministry’s managing director Nikolai Krabbe and the Russian envoy in Washington Eduard Steckl. The details of that meeting remain shrouded in secrecy to this very day, because either no records were made during that session, or they haven’t been found yet. Whether a protocol was signed after the meeting is not clear either. Unfortunately, the participants never shared any information about it with their near and dear. Moreover, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich’s diaries for 1866 were initially lost, and upon their subsequent discovery, appeared to be thoroughly cleaned up, with the pages describing the events of November-December 1866 taken away by some unidentified persons.

It looks like attempts are still being made to keep the whole story of the December 16, 1866 meeting under wraps. For example, the two-volume encyclopedia of biographies, titled “The Russian Empire in Faces,” which was published in Russia at the turn of the 21st century, and included, among other things, the life stories of Emperor Alexander II, his brother Konstantin Nikolayevich, ministers A. Gorchakov, M. Reitern and Admiral N. Krabbe contains no mention of their role in the sale of Alaska.

It should be noted, however, that the December 16 meeting fully deserves to be called a conspiracy. Indeed, the “initiative group” led by members of the Romanov family had not consulted with either the prime minister or the heads of the security departments of the Russian government. Alexander II and his brother just couldn’t care less about the opinion of the country’s top officials about the possible consequences of the proposed deal. Prime Minister Pavel Gagarin, Minister of War Dmitry Milyutin, Minister of the Interior Pyotr Valuyev, as well as several other heads of ministries and departments were kept in the dark about the sale of Alaska, and learned about the transaction only from foreign press reports.

The Romanovs were in a hurry to wrap up the deal with the Americans, primarily due to the widespread anti-American sentiment in the Russian society of that time. The Russian elite were equally unhappy and demanded explanations from Washington about its unilateral cancellation in February 1867 of the agreement on telegraph communication the US had signed with Russia in 1863. The Americans argued, however, that running a telegraph cable under the Atlantic Ocean to connect America with Europe was more cost-efficient.

All that happened just a month before the completion of the secret deal for the sale of Alaska. Ignoring the fact that the Americans had previously proved themselves as unreliable partners, the Romanovs kept insisting on finalizing the deal. Quite a risky business too, since any premature publicity of the very fact of Russian America being ceded to the United States could cause serious reputational damage to the ruling dynasty.

Secondly, as the main shareholders of the Russian-American company, the Romanovs realized full well that such transactions should be finalized as soon as possible, in order to minimize a possible public backlash. Any leak of information about the sale of Alaska and the actual price would inevitably sent company stocks, including those of the RAC, into a tailspin both in Europe and the United States.

Thirdly, the sale of Russian America was done behind the backs of RAC private investors without either their consent or any preliminary evaluation of the company’s property. This means that the transaction made on behalf of the state, was carried out in violation of the laws of the Russian Empire, where private property was declared sacred and inviolable. That’s why Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich and his team had to move fast and shorten the preparatory stage in finalizing the Alaska sale agreement.

Therefore, maximum secrecy was the key to the success of this joint Russian-American “operation.” In order to minimize the number of those in the know of what was going on, the Alaska sale agreement, executed in English and French, was written by hand. Therefore, conducting a graphologic examination of the handwritten texts could let us know for sure the names of those who drafted the Russian-American agreement.

The authors of the agreement on the Russian side deliberately sought to protect the Romanov family from the possible failure of the planned project in the event of its premature or deliberate publicity. After all, they could declare this document fictitious, since on the one hand, it referred only to the cession, not sale of Alaska. On the other, it made no mention either of the time frame of the proposed cession, or of any standard formula of the transfer of a territory to a partner for an indefinite period of time. Thus, if necessary, you could always play it back and present this agreement only as a protocol of intent.