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America & Russia

July 2024
3min read

In politics as in nature, opposites clash but are also attracted. At any event they cannot escape one another; and no two contrasting nations have ever been more fatefully linked than the United States and Russia.

Over a century ago Alexis de Tocqucville, as AMERICAN HERITAGE noted in an early issue (June, 1955), propounded what seemed at the time a most unlikely prophecy. “There are at the present time,” he wrote, “two great nations in the world which seem to tend toward the same end … I allude to the Russians and the Americans. … Their starting point is dilferent, 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 hall the globe.” America then was still a raw republic sprawling westward across a continent of which it was not yet full master. Russia was a backward, semi-Oriental autocracy—a glitter of lights at St. Petersburg ebbing out into shapeless plains ol serfdom, medievalism, and mud. Hctwcen the two rose the self-assured, stately capitals ol Europe: the arbiters of Western man. Yet today, as Tocqueville predicted, the ultimate arbiters are at the outer extremes, whence they rival, suspect, and misunderstand each other. Still, for all their dissimilarities, they are related by unique experiences of overwhelming change and growth.

It is the history of this fateful American-Russian relationship, now cordial, now angry, upon which the editors of this magazine aim to cast such light of historical understanding as they can. Several articles dealing with significant episodes have already appeared—lor example, the story of John Quincy Adams’ ministry to St. Petersburg, by William Harlan Hale (February, 1958), and that of the ill-fated North Russia expedition of 1918-19, by E. M. Halliday (December, 1958). Now we begin a new series, taking up subjects both remembered and forgotten. How many now recall, lor instance, the Czarist settlements in California that might have brought a long sweep of our West Coast under Russian domination; or the once-famed “friendship” visit of the Czar’s fleet to Union ports during a crisis of the Civil War; or American relief to Russia during nineteenth-century famines?

Over the past century and a half, the Americans who have penetrated the secretive fastness of Russia, whether self-appointed or official envoys of the Republic, have been an extraordinary lot. Our series will examine, from the beginning until modern times, this strange galaxy of philosophers and fools, drunkards, soldiers, politicians, adventurers, and even statesmen into whose hands the conduct of American-Russian relations has fallen. Of these, few were more singular than John Reed; and an article commencing overleaf recounts the adventures of that young idealist from Oregon who plunged into the “Ten Days That Shook the World” and became, in effect, a Western missionary to and of the Bolshevik revolt.

If one chooses, one can regard Reed’s story as simply another case history of a type familiar to subsequent years, the American ideological defector. But it can also be seen as a tragedy of disillusionment standing at a turning point in the long his tory of attraction and repulsion between America and Russia.

At the outset, no two nations were more unlike than the United States of the Revolutionary era and the autocracy of Empress Catherine: yet her regime aided our cause so substantially as to foreshadow a long cordiality. When Russia also lent encouragement to America in the War of 1812 and to the Union in 1863, millions of Americans believed that they had found abroad a truly benevolent friend.

This was a myth, of course. Russia’s partisanship was based simply on Realpolitik: backing a new contender against her old enemy, Britain. But myths diehard; and it seemed logical that the two giants would draw together, there being no disputed area and no overt conflict of interest between them.

That, too, was a myth. Russia and America were never as geographically isolated from each other as some liked to think. The possibility of collision between them in Alaska, in California, over fur trade and fisheries arose early in the last century. The Monroe Doctrine itself was a challenge hurled in large part at Czar Alexander’s Holy Alliance. American cordiality toward St. Petersburg was interrupted—prophetically—by American revulsion against its brutality in putting down the 1830 Polish revolt, against its dispatch of armies to smash the 1848 Hungarian rebellion (which touched off a demand in Congress to grant free American lands to Hungarian refugees), and against the monstrous pogroms of the 1890’s. Envoy after envoy reported home on the repressions of the Russian police state, and the elder George Kennan shocked his countrymen with a detailed report on the honors of Siberian political prisons.

Gradually American liking for Russia shifted away from its regime and toward the regime’s unhappy people, a change not to be underestimated in view of what was to come. Theodore Roosevelt, admiring Russian vigor in his rough-and-ready way, erupted in 1897 with the words: “Sometimes I do feel inclined to believe that the Russian is the one man with enough barbarous blood in him to be the hope of a world that is growing effete.” And when Lincoln Steffens went abroad, like John Reed after him, to watch the Russian masses take over, he wrote back in high excitement to Bernard M. Baruch, "I have been over into the future, and it works.”

The fatal flaw in all this was the American dream that once Russia cleared out its past, its future would lie a democratic one like our own. What couldn’t Russian man accomplish, on free soil amid space and natural resources so comparable to ours? The rest is recent history. The Soviets’ refusal to make men free struck many Americans as a personal betrayal. It made of Russia’s oldest friend the Soviets’ major enemy, the more determined as we saw the misuses to which human faith and aspiration had been put. Perhaps we had hoped for too much in a chill and divided world. But at least we had seen some counterpart between ourselves and the Russians, our not-so-remote fellow citizens of great occasions on the globe. And one does not need to swallow H. G. Wells’s dictum whole—that war is the result of bad history teaching—to see that a little good history teaching, preferably on both sides, might not be amiss in our own times.

The Editors

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