The Russian-American Border
written by A. L. Hart Havens on March 15, 2022
With the world’s attention laser-focused on the conflict on Russia’s western border with the Ukraine, it is often forgotten that Russia shares a border to its east with a much larger and more powerful adversary — the United States of America.
Situated in a frigid, desolate, and largely forgotten region of the world where the territories of the world’s foremost nuclear superpowers meet, the Russian-American border is certainly deserving of a closer look particularly in light of current events.
In addition to showcasing this strange and interesting border region, the article will also cover the fascinating history of Russian colonialism in North America before examining the seemingly dim prospect of Russian-American reconciliation.
Walking to Russia
The Russian and American borders converge in the furthest reaches of their most remote regions, the Russian Far East and the United States Far Northwest Territory. In fact, the point of convergence is around 3,900 miles (6,300 kilometers) away from both Moscow and Washington, D.C., marking vast distances from the two countries’ power centers. The fact that this border is almost exactly equidistant from Moscow and Washington D.C. is an astonishing coincidence.
And while the closest distance between the US and Russian mainlands is some 50 miles (80 kilometers), there are two islands situated in the center of Bering Strait that bring the countries much closer together. These are the Diomede Islands, with the more westerly Big Diomede Island belonging to Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and the more easterly Little Diomede Island to the US state of Alaska. With the two islands separated from one another by a mere 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers), the wintertime freezing-over of the surrounding waters makes it possible at certain times of the year to walk from the United States to Russia.
It should be kept in mind that there is no visa-free travel agreement in place between the United States and Russia. This means that ordinary citizens require a prearranged visa to enter the other country, although indigenous people living in this region are afforded limited visa-free travel privileges between Alaska and Chukotka for the purpose of visiting relatives.
It is also worth mentioning that the low sea levels prevailing 20,000 years ago at the peak of the most recent ice age created a now-underwater land bridge connecting today’s Russian and American mainlands. This land bridge gave rise to numerous waves of migration from Eurasia over several thousands of years, and it was during this time that the ancestors of today’s Native American Indians are thought to have simply walked into North America.
Today, a person making the short trek across the ice by foot or snowmobile from one Diomede island to the other will inevitably cross the International Dateline, which runs through the middle of the Pacific Ocean and through the narrow gap between Big Diomede and Little Diomede. Upon reaching the other island, the traveler will suddenly find himself in a time zone that is 21 hours ahead of or behind his point of origin.
In light of this odd situation, Russia’s Big Diomede Island is known as Tomorrow Island and America’s Little Diomede Island as Yesterday Island. The time difference of 21 hours (as opposed to an entire day) is due to local time zone preferences. On the American island, the Diomede School sports teams are aptly nicknamed the Dateliners.
During the Cold War, the narrow stretch of water and ice separating the two Diomede islands was colloquially referred to as the Ice Curtain, as it complemented the European Iron Curtain as the lesser known of the two boundaries separating the US and Soviet spheres of influence.
Now, the national border criteria defined in the Liberated Services article entitled 32 Unexpected Borders in Pursuit of Travel Freedom require a land or fresh water convergence of the contiguous territories two countries. And although Russia and the United States admittedly do not share a common border under this narrower definition, this can nonetheless be viewed as a national border in the broader sense of the term.
Russian Alaska (1733-1867)
Around a century after Russian pioneers first reached the Pacific Ocean in 1639 marking a major milestone in the conquest of Siberia and eastward expansion of Russia, the Russian tsars starting with Peter the Great began sending explorers into today’s Alaska, which included several expeditions in the early 1700s by Vitus Bering (after whom the Bering Strait is named).
Although the Russian Empire was slow to join other European powers in establishing colonies in the Americas, it held a distinct geographical advantage in coming from the east. This allowed for easier access to the northwestern coast of North America, where there was relatively little competition at the time from other powers — the United Kingdom and Spain (and later the United States and Mexico).
The colonization of the Alaskan coastline and the Aleutian Islands was facilitated by the Russian-American Company, a government-sponsored joint-stock company headed by merchant-trader Alexander Andreyevich Baranov. Under Baranov’s command, the chartered Russian-American Company was involved in large-scale fur trapping and timber harvesting and also served as Russian Alaska’s de facto government. Among the numerous settlements was Russian America’s capital of Novo-Arkhangelsk (now Sitka, Alaska), which was the site of a major battle in 1804 that saw Russian forces routing the indigenous Tlingit tribes. Despite their military defeats, the native Alaskan population was decimated much more so by Old World diseases introduced by Russian settlers than by anything else.
Tsar Alexander I — best known as the vanquisher of Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812 — issued a decree in 1821 asserting Russian sovereign over roughly the territory of today’s Alaska. The Russian reign over Alaska in the ensuing decades led to an influx of missionaries and the construction of Orthodox churches, although the total Russian population of Alaska at its peak never exceeded 800. The settlers were concentrated on the coastline and made no attempt to tame the harsh Alaskan interior.
However, by 1860 Alaska had become a liability for the Russian government, as overhunting had severely reduced the populations of sea otters and other fur-bearing animals, and the Russian-American Company was no longer profitable. It had also become increasingly apparent that the Alaskan colony would be too difficult and expensive to defend in the event of a war against the United States or the United Kingdom (which controlled Canada at the time). Interestingly, world maps at this time showed Alaska as Russian America and Canada as British America.
Given the bitter rivalry between Russia and the UK in 1860 at the height of the British Empire, Tsar Alexander II — also known as Alexander the Liberator for abolishing serfdom throughout the Russian Empire — sought to sell Alaska to the United States rather than to the United Kingdom. Negotiations with US Secretary of State William Seward, which were initially interrupted by the American Civil War (1861-1865), eventually resulted in the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867 for a mere $7.2 million (around USD $140 million in today’s dollars).
The vast majority of the Russian population returned to Russia in the wake of the immediate dissolution of the Russian-American Company. However, the Russian colonial period left a lasting impact on Alaska to this day, which can be seen in the 90 Russian Orthodox parishes consisting almost entirely of indigenous Alaskans.
Additionally, several Russian dialects have survived in Alaska and are spoken by indigenous people in the Anchorage region, most notably in the towns of Kodiak and Ninilchik. These dialects have been of great interest to linguists, as they have been completely isolated from Eurasian Russian for over 150 years and now feature vocabulary and expressions considered to be extremely archaic by speakers of modern standard Russian. The 1964 Alaskan earthquake — the second most powerful in recorded world history (after the 1960 Chilean earthquake) — and the resulting tsunami took a toll on Alaska’s Russian-speaking communities, although they were already in irreversible decline beforehand. With the youngest proficient speakers now well into their retirement years, the Old Russian dialects of Alaska are quickly approaching extinction as living languages.
As a final word on Russian Alaska, various historians and politicians have in decades past asserted that Russia (and/or the USSR) maintains a legitimate territorial claim to Alaska. In fact, Joseph Stalin reportedly told the American delegation at the February 1945 Yalta Conference that the Soviet Union would refrain from reclaiming Alaska. Cloaked as a gesture of goodwill (presumably in return for Roosevelt’s willingness to place half of Europe under communist rule), Stalin’s implication was that the Soviet Union could exercise its territorial right to Alaska at any time if it wished to do so. Interestingly, assertions of legitimate Russian claims to Alaska are typically grounded in one of two theories — (1) that the US government never provided the agreed-upon $7.2 million payment or (2) that the 1867 transfer of Alaska did not involve a sale but rather a 99-year lease. However, there does not appear to be any verifiable evidence lending credence to either of these claims.
While it is fairly common knowledge that Alaska was once a Russian possession, most people are unaware of the other historical Russian settlements situated literally halfway around the world from Russia’s then-imperial power center of Saint Petersburg, most notably those on the territories of today’s US states of California and Hawaii.
In 1812, the Russian-American Company set up a fur-trading outpost about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of San Francisco on the California coastline in today’s Sonoma County. Known as Fort Ross, the settlement housed a Russian Orthodox chapel and a population of around 30 ethnic Russians and 120 Native Alaskans and other Native American Indians. Sophisticated shipbuilding and windmill construction trades were also carried out at Fort Ross. The Russian-American Company also established three nearby agricultural communities (for the purpose of supplying food to Russian Alaska) as well as a sealing station on the Farallon Islands 20 miles (30 kilometers) off the California coast.
However, the Spanish government was displeased with the Russian intrusion into this unsettled territory claimed by New Spain, and it prompted the construction of several Spanish settlements aimed at blocking any southward Russian expansion attempts. And in 1821, the government of the newly independent Mexico continued the Spanish policy of containment by constructing forts to the immediate south of the Russian presence in California. By 1841, the overhunting of valuable fur-bearing animals had brought about a decline in the Russian colony’s profitability and importance, and Fort Ross was sold and incorporated into a Mexican agricultural colony called Sutter’s Fort (centered in today’s Sacramento). The site of the former Russian settlement is now a California state park.
Extending its Pacific reach, the Russian-American Company arrived at the independent Kingdom of Hawaii in 1804 and quickly established trade with the locals. It also set up three forts on the Hawaiian island of Kauai that served as a way station for the shipment of expensive pelts from Russian America to the then-vibrant markets of southern China. However, when the Russians made a clumsy attempt to gain influence over the Hawaiian archipelago by instigating a local power struggle, American merchants operating in Hawaii caught wind of the plans and quickly thwarted the endeavor.
The Russians were forced out of the archipelago by 1817, and thus their Hawaiian settlements — Fort Alexander, Fort Elizabeth, and Fort Barclay — were extremely short-lived. The Russian Orthodox chapel remained in service for some time thereafter, however, although it was permanently closed in the wake of a US-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the subsequent 1898 annexation of Hawaii by the United States.
Collusion, Censorship, and the Propaganda War
Given the two countries’ strained relationship dating back well over 100 years, it is noteworthy that the United States and Russia nonetheless fought on the same side of both world wars. In fact, the United States supplied the ailing Soviet Union and rag-tag Red Army with weapons, tanks, and other advanced American military hardware as well as jeeps, trucks, food, and oil throughout World War 2 to the tune of $11.3 billion (around $230 billion in today’s dollars) through the Roosevelt Administration’s Lend-Lease program. Much of this war materiel and weaponry was delivered to the Soviet Union across the Bering Strait from Alaska, with shipments beginning in 1941 well before Pearl Harbor.
Both Joseph Stalin and top Soviet general Georgy Zhukov later admitted that the Soviet Union would have stood little chance of warding off German and Axis forces in the absence of the massive material assistance received from the United States. What’s more, the cozy relationship between Roosevelt and Stalin saw the US government and in particular Dwight D. Eisenhower (supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe at the time) making great efforts to prevent the American public from learning of the numerous atrocities perpetrated by the Red Army.
This included the thwarting of repeated attempts by General George S. Patton to expose the US military’s knowledge of thousands of American GIs imprisoned in Soviet gulags. A celebrated war hero and major thorn in the side of the US government and media due to his larger-than-life persona and utter refusal to be silenced, Patton announced that he would be resigning (rather than retiring) from the US military on January 1, 1946 in order to make a major announcement to the American people. However, he passed away on December 21, 1945 as a result of a mysterious car accident that left many questioning the true circumstances of his death.
Russian-American relations quickly deteriorated in the years following World War 2, remaining poor throughout the ensuing Cold War until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, the rise to power of Boris Yeltsin, a man widely viewed as a drunken stooge willing to push Russia into subservience to the US government, led to a significant improvement in relations between the two countries. In fact, Yeltsin is said to have frequently consulted then-president Bill Clinton for political advice on running his 1996 reelection campaign. This collusion is evident from the cover of the July 1996 edition of Time Magazine that is audaciously entitled Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of how American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.
Interestingly, it was Bill Clinton’s wife Hillary who after the 2016 US presidential election blamed the Russian government for her agonizing defeat. And while mainstream media outlets have been eager to echo Hillary’s claims of Russian interference, they have shown little interest in discussing her husband’s blatant interference in Russian elections.
Now, if the Trump-Russia collusion narrative is indeed a complete fabrication, this invariably means that the US intelligence agencies and mainstream media were lying not only about Trump, but also about Putin and Russia. And the fact that the media chose to involve Russia in its effort to smear Donald Trump (when it could have picked any other country or organization) would strongly suggest a clear willingness to engage in dishonest journalism for the purpose of maligning the Russian government. In light of this, it would only be reasonable to view to western media coverage of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict with a high degree of skepticism.
This skepticism is also warranted in view of the mass censorship of Russian media being carried out in the west, which has made it difficult for citizens of western countries to access information that contradicts the NATO-supported narrative. In retaliation, the Russian government has begun censoring pro-western media within Russia.
Propaganda wars are nothing new, of course, and subtler attempts to discredit Russian media outlets (and those of other NATO adversaries) have been underway for some time. For example, Youtube videos posted by the now-banned Russia Today network prominently displayed in the video description that RT is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government. Similarly, China Daily videos (which are not yet banned from Youtube) include in the video description that China Daily is funded in whole or in part by the Chinese government. By contrast, the government-funded media outlets of NATO countries — PBS in the US, BBC in the UK, CBC in Canada, DW in Germany, etc. — are labeled by Youtube simply as a public broadcast service.
In view of increasing talk of a serious military escalation, Russian-American relations are unquestionably approaching an all-time low with still much room for further deterioration. In this unprecedented situation in the post-Cold War era, an escalation of hostilities to the scale of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is not inconceivable at this point.
If cooler heads do indeed prevail and a major war or proxy war between the United States and Russia is averted, the odds of any genuine reconciliation between the two countries nevertheless remain slim unless one of two highly unlikely events were to occur — (1) Vladimir Putin is replaced by a leftist pro-western politician like Volodymyr Zelenskyy or (2) a noninterventionist figure of the Ron Paul ilk wins the US presidency with congressional support.
Interestingly, there appears to be some disagreement among the most hardline interventionist war hawks in the US government on the issue of whether Russia or China is the bigger threat to US/NATO global hegemony. In late 2021, the ultra-neoconservative former national security advisor John Bolton floated the idea of taking a conciliatory approach toward Russia under the condition that Russia put an end to its friendly relations with China. An arrangement of this sort might superficially improve relations in the short term, however the odds of Russia on Vladimir Putin’s watch actually accepting such an obviously insincere reconciliation offer are effectively zero.
Thus, the geopolitics of the world at the highest level will continue to see a power struggle between the NATO-aligned countries and the bloc of countries aligned with Russia and China, with each side seeking to expand its sphere of influence at the expense of the other. And while the majority of the world’s countries have blamed Russia for instigating the war in Ukraine (and only nine countries assigning blame to NATO), three of the world’s five most populous countries — China, India, and Pakistan (all of which possess nuclear weapons) — have adopted an officially neutral stance and resisted western pressure to enact Russian sanctions.