Early Russian-American Relations

Russia and America: “Two Great Nations”

In December 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ceased to exist and the tensions of the Cold War gave way to a new era of Russian-American cooperation. Soon after, an observation made by Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, written in 1835, was discovered. This remarkable observation was often repeated to capture the new spirit of harmony between the former Superpower enemies:

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.”

Tocqueville’s commentary, repeated a century and a half later, helped to remind 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 had 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.

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