Segment from Seeing Red

Tsars & Stars

Joanne and Ed tell Brian about Russia’s relationship with America in the 18th and 19th centuries.


Songsties by Podington Bear

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JOANNE: Now, we’re telling you the story not just to give you a great piece of trivia to bring out at your next party– although, by all means, you should totally feel free to do that. It’s because in recent years– and recent months, weeks, and days– Russia has been in the news a lot.

From its role in Syria and Ukraine, to its controversial role in the 2016 election, you would almost think we’ve returned to the bad old days of the Cold War.

But America’s relationship with Russia predates the Cold War. It even predates the Soviet Union. And it’s a relationship that is full of strange twists and turns.

ED: In today’s show, we’ll look at how American suffragists used women’s rights in revolutionary Russia to shame Woodrow Wilson into giving them the vote. We’ll also hear about Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s unlikely friendship with an Iowa farmer. And we’ll read some letters from you, our listeners.

BRIAN: But first, Ed, you mentioned this French writer Alexis de Tocqueville. He never used the word “exceptionalism,” but he did compare the United States to Russia, no?

ED: Yeah, in a really interesting way. In the 1830s, he makes a remarkable comment. De Tocqueville says, there are now two great nations in the world, which started from different points– seem to be advancing toward the same goal– the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.

One, the Americans, has freedom as the principal means of action. The other has servitude. Which is bizarre, when we consider at this time–

BRIAN: Quite a bit of servitude.

ED: Yeah, exactly. We called it slavery, though.

Their point of departure, De Tocqueville, says, is different, and their past diverse. Nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.


ED: Isn’t that spooky, Brian?


BRIAN: That really is. I can relate to that.

ED: Exactly, and it seemed kind of built in, because of this huge land mass that each occupied.

And so I’d say that from across the 19th century, both countries were so preoccupied with becoming themselves, they didn’t have much time to think about the other one. But there were a couple of points where their paths did cross.

One was at the time the American Civil War. And there, the Russians were the only people who stood up alongside the North, the United States.

BRIAN: Really? What did they do?

ED: Well, they actually helped seal off some of the trade from the Southern ships. So that’s the first time you see it. So there is a warm relationship between the United States and Russia.

And they ended serfdom, we got rid of slavery, at almost exactly the same time. Servitude in Russia ends in 1861. Emancipation Proclamation in the United States in 1863.

Now, the big difference, of course, is that the Russians have a czar, and we had Abraham Lincoln. So there is that divergent past that De Tocqueville’s talking about. And then, only two years after the war, another big crossing of path which has really enduring consequence– the United States buys Alaska from Russia. And the United States and Russia, no matter how much they’re destined to control half the world, don’t in the 19th century.

BRIAN: They’re having a little trouble controlling themselves, as a matter of fact.

ED: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And Russia is concerned that this distant area of Alaska will fall to the British if they don’t sell it.

So they do purchase Alaska for $7 million. And it turns out people think that this was called Seward’s Folly–

JOANNE: Doesn’t it get called Seward’s Folly?

ED: It does, but not by many papers. Just by his political enemies. Generally, people go, well, seems like a pretty good idea. Pretty good deal.

And so that’s sort of the last real concrete moment. So you just had these flashpoints.

BRIAN: But that’s so incredible, Ed, because the real takeaway there is, this is like trading a star player to a team that you know is going to finish in the cellar. Right?

I mean, they want to get rid of Alaska to somebody who’s a nobody. So, hey, I got an idea. The United States! Right?

ED: And there’s a lot to that. And the idea, too, kind of like keeping up the sports analogy– it’s like “for a player to be named later.” You know, that we’ll make a deal now with the Russians, because they seem that there will be a powerful country. We might need them. And it would be good for us to have this outpost up there in the North.

And they continue to have deals. The Russians are able to have fur companies and things like that in Alaska. So it was kind of another thing that built good will.

So you put all these together, there’s actually relatively good will between the United States and Russia throughout the 19th century.

BRIAN: But I have to ask you something. What about this czar thing? What about this authoritarian thing? That just seems such a stark contrast to my conception of late 19th-century America. You know, democratic America.

ED: Well, that’s the way democratic America wanted to see itself. The United States wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the czar. He seemed kind of exotic and romantic. On the other hand, terrible stories came out of Russia of the things that the czar was doing with his unchecked power.

JOANNE: And there was a Freeman family czar story. Well, let’s

ED: Hear it.

JOANNE: When I was a kid, I was told that my great-grandfather fled Russia, went to America, because he was being chased by the czar. And as a little kid I just thought that meant a guy in a big black funny hat was chasing my great-grandfather across here, and he somehow was fast enough–

BRIAN: What an image.

JOANNE: Exactly. He made it to America.

But what’s interesting about that is, when I was a kid, the czar was a bad guy. I had– there was no question that he was an evil, bad guy.

ED: And, you know, increasingly in the eyes of Americans, that was the vision, because people heard of the mistreatment of the Jews in Russia, but they also heard about these labor camps that are in Siberia. People saw them with their own eyes and came back and said, Russia is not what we want to be.

And so Russia, as embodied in the czar, comes to be seen as uniquely old-fashioned, archaic.

BRIAN: Not like our modernizing democracy.

ED: Well, that was exactly– hey, they got rid of serfdom, we got rid of slavery, but now we’re moving forward with real democracy, whereas they still got this guy with all of this speaking French and all this gold and Faberge eggs.

JOANNE: We could point over there and say, look at them. I mean, they’re over there in that sad state, whereas we–

ED: Exactly. But other people said, you know, that’s true, but we can’t afford to be too self-righteous about this, because look at the a system of racial subjugation and violence and lynching that we have going here right now.

So I think that helps explain, going into the 20th century, Brian– there’s a lot of slippage. It could go in lots of different directions depending on how events unfold.

And when the revolutions hit Russia in 1917, some people look at that and say, you know, this may be Russia actually kind of leapfrogging ahead of us in terms of modernity.

JOANNE: You know, Ed, speaking of the Russian Revolution, there was one group of Americans that thought Russia was way ahead of America in 1917. In fact, historian Julia Mickenberg says this dates back to the 1880s and 1890s, when American suffragists noticed the prominent role Russian women played in the movement to overthrow the czar.