Russia and the United States: The Forgotten History of a Brotherhood

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“A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it”. – Frederick Douglass (former slave who would later become a great American statesman and diplomat)

It has always been an utmost necessity to exercise caution when reading the historical accounts of great periods that threatened to change the course of the world. As is widely recognised though not reflected upon enough, ‘history is written by the victors’, and if this be indeed the truth, than we must be aware of what lens we are looking through.

It is a sad reality that most Americans have forgotten that the Russians were their brothers during the American Civil War, a union that was not only based from a geopolitical stratagem but much more importantly was based on a common view of humankind; that slavery’s degradation could no longer be tolerated and that industrial growth was an absolute precondition to free man. Historians today largely dismiss this as a fairy tale, they spew their vitriolic commentaries, and try to destroy the memories of great people from the past that truly did believe and fight for something noble. These historians would erase our heroes or otherwise would have us believe that they were nothing but small, bitter men that cared nothing for the world. For if we have no memory of such heroes, we have no memory of the fight that was left unfinished…

Since these revisionist historians would have this, let us not be led by such false guides into the dark forest of history, but rather let us focus on the actions and the words of the very men who shaped the world stage as proof of their mettle.

The Roots of Russian-US Relations

Princess Vorontsova-Dashkova (1743-1810) was one of the most important political and scientific leaders within Russia, and would become the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the most influential intelligence institutions in Russia. Benjamin Franklin met Princess Dashkova in Paris 1781 during her European tour and the two quickly recognised that they were on the same page in world outlook, comrades in the Enlightenment so to speak. In 1789, Benjamin Franklin would be recruited as the first American member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Princess Dashkova would become the first female member of Franklin’s American Philosophical Society all in the same year. Although some might have us believe that this was just a gesture of show for the public eye, anyone who comprehends the significance of both these institutions and their roles in American and Russian intelligence circles would recognise this as a close pairing.

Dialogue between the two countries would continue and in 1809, John Quincy Adams became the first American Ambassador to Russia and began a close diplomatic relationship to Czar Alexander I. In less than two years from Adams’ arrival in St. Petersburg, Czar Alexander I announced on Dec. 31, 1810 a ukase lifting all restrictions on exports and imports to Russia by sea, while at the same time imposing a heavy tariff on goods arriving overland, most of which came from France. This action by Alexander I would mark a clear break from Napoleon’s Continental System and was a great triumph for the US since most cargo carried to Russia by ship came in American vessels, whether the cargo was American or English. Napoleon would conclude from this decision that Russia stood in the way of his conquering of Europe and declared war on Russia 18 months later, to which as is well known, Russia was victorious.

In 1861, Cassius Clay became possibly the greatest US Ambassador to Russia (1861-1862 and 1863-1869), stead-fasting relations, Clay was instrumental in convincing Czar Alexander II to support the Union amidst the American Civil War and aided in setting up massive industrial improvements within Russia (more on this a little later). It is worth noting that Clay would also become very good friends with the Dashkova family, as he frequently cited in his Memoirs.

United under a common cause

In 1861, the Emancipation Edict was passed and successfully carried out by Czar Alexander II that would result in the freeing of over 23 million serfs. This was by no means a simple task for which there was much resistance met, and required an amazing degree of statesmanship to see it through. In a speech made by Czar Alexander II to the Marshalls of Nobility in 1856 he stated:

“You can yourself understand that the present order of owning souls cannot remain unchanged. It is better to abolish serfdom from above, than to wait for that time when it starts to abolish itself from below. I ask you to think about the best way to carry this out.”

The success of this edict would go down in history as one of the greatest accomplishments for human freedom and Czar Alexander II became known as the ‘Great Liberator’, for which he was beloved around the world.

Shortly after, in 1863, President Lincoln would pass the Emancipation Proclamation which declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” There is astonishingly a great deal of cynicism surrounding this today. It is thought that because Lincoln did not announce this at the beginning of the war it somehow was never genuine. The preservation of the country was to be the utmost priority. Lincoln was willing to see out the end of slavery over a longer period of time if it could mean the avoidance of a civil war, when it became clear that this was not possible and all-out war was inevitable, he declared that slavery would be abolished in the Confederate held states upon the Union’s victory. Those who doubt where Lincoln stood on the subject of slavery should review his career as a lawyer prior to becoming President where he clearly denounced slavery throughout his entire life.

United under a common threat

However, nothing would attest to the solidarity between Russia and the United States further than the confirmed assurance from Russia that it would actively interfere if Britain and France were to take military action against the Union and for the side of the Confederacy. Autumn of 1862 would mark the first critical phase of the war. Lincoln sent an urgent letter to the Russian Foreign Minister Gorchakov, informing him that France was ready to intervene militarily and was awaiting England, the salvation of the Union thus rested solely on Russia’s decision to act. The Foreign Minister Gorchakov wrote in response to Lincoln’s plea:

“You know that the government of United States has few friends among the Powers. England rejoices over what is happening to you; she longs and prays for your overthrow. France is less actively hostile; her interests would be less affected by the result; but she is not unwilling to see it. She is not your friend. Your situation is getting worse and worse. The chances of preserving the Union are growing more desperate. Cannothing be done to stop this dreadful war? The hope of reunion is growing less and less, and I wish to impress upon your government that the separation, which I fear must come, will be considered by Russia as one of the greatest misfortunes. Russia alone, has stood by you from the first, and will continue to stand by you. We are very, very anxious that some means should be adopted–that any course should be pursued–which will prevent the division which now seems inevitable. One separation will be followed by another; you will break into fragments.”

President Lincoln was given the go ahead to publicise Russia’s support for the Union and this was sufficient to cause Britain and France to step back. The second critical phase would occur during the summer of 1863. By then, the South’s invasion of the North had failed at Gettysburg and the violent anti-war New York draft riots also failed. Britain was once again thinking of a direct military intervention. What would follow marks one of the greatest displays of support for another country’s sovereignty to ever occur in modern history.

The Russian Navy arrived on both the east and west coastlines of the United States late September and early October 1863.

The timing was highly coordinated due to intelligence reports of when Britain and France were intending their military action. The Russian navy would stay along the US coastline in support of the Union for 7 months! They never intervened in the American civil war but rather remained in its waters at the behest of Lincoln in the case of a foreign power’s interference.

Czar Alexander II, who held sole power to declare war for Russia stated in an interview to the American banker Wharton Barker on Aug. 17, 1879 (Published in The Independent March 24, 1904):

“In the Autumn of 1862, the governments of France and Great Britain proposed to Russia, in a formal but not in an official way, the joint recognition by European powers of the independence of the Confederate States of America. My immediate answer was: `I will not cooperate in such action; and I will not acquiesce. On the contrary, I shall accept the recognition of the independence of the Confederate States by France and Great Britain as a casus belli for Russia. And in order that the governments of France and Great Britain may understand that this is no idle threat; I will send a Pacific fleet to San Francisco and an Atlantic fleet to New York.

…All this I did because of love for my own dear Russia, rather than for love of the American Republic. I acted thus because I understood that Russia would have a more serious task to perform if the American Republic, with advanced industrial development were broken up and Great Britain should be left in control of most branches of modern industrial development.”

It was therefore very much due to Russia’s dedicated display of solidarity with Lincoln’s Union that Britain and France did not intervene and the country was able to piece itself together. Lincoln referred to the Russian support in his Thanksgiving Proclamation as “God’s bounties of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate the heart.”

The Fight for Advanced Industrial Development

What was Czar Alexander II referring to exactly when mentioning the advanced industrial development of the American Republic? Well, in short he was referring to the Hamiltonian system of economics. Notably, Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 Report on the Usefulness of the Manufactories in Relation to Trade and Agriculture  which was published in St. Petersburg in 1807, sponsored by Russian Minister of Finance D.A. Guryev. In the introduction to the pamphlet, Russian educator V. Malinovsky wrote:

“The similarity of American United Provinces with Russia appears both in the expanse of the land, climate and natural conditions, in the size of population disproportionate to the space, and in the general youthfulness of various generally useful institutions; therefore all the rules, remarks and means proposed here are suitable for our country.”

In 1842, Czar Nicholas I hired American George Washington Whistler to oversee the building of the Saint Petersburg-Moscow Railway, Russia’s first large-scale railroad. In the 1860s, Henry C. Carey’s economics would be promoted in St. Petersburg’s university education, organised by US Ambassador to Russia Cassius Clay. Carey was a leading economic advisor to Lincoln and leading Hamiltonian of his age.

Sergei Witte, who worked as Russian Minister of Finance from 1889-1891 and later became Prime Minister in 1905, would publish in 1889 the incredibly influential paper titled “National Savings and Friedrich List” which resulted in a new customs law for Russia in 1891 and resulted in an exponential growth increase in Russia’s economy. Friedrich List publicly attributed his influence in economics to Alexander Hamilton.

In his 1890 budget report, Sergei Witte – echoing the Belt and Road Initiative unfolding today, wrote:

“The railroad is like a leaven, which creates a cultural fermentation among the population. Even if it passed through an absolutely wild people along its way, it would raise them in a short time to the level requisite for its operation.”

Witte was explicit of his following of the American model of political economy when he described his re-organization of the Russian railways saying:

“Faced by a serious shortage of locomotives, I invented and applied the traffic system which had long -been in practice in the United States and which is now known as the “American system.” [Memoirs p.19]

Where do we find ourselves today?

Both President Lincoln and Czar Alexander II recognised that the sovereignty of the individual and of a nation were intertwined and that Russia and the United States had become united in this cause. That for an individual to be truly free, there needed to be a system that could ensure access to a basic standard of living and education, for which industry was imperative. Lincoln would be assassinated on April 14, 1865 and Alexander II on March 13, 1881. Their deaths, as is often the case with great leaders, left a void that seemed too large to ever refill.

Today President Putin is advocating this very same policy alongside China in the Belt and Road Initiative, a policy with the clear intention to uplift the standard of living across the world with advanced industrial development.

It is time the United States joins this initiative and remembers its forgotten brother.


Originally published on 2019-10-16

About the author: Cynthia Chung is a lecturer, writer and co-founder and editor of the Rising Tide Foundation (Montreal, Canada). 

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

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