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Once upon a time, Russia came close to conquering North America

At the beginning of the 19th century, Russians had a colony about an hour’s drive away from present-day San Francisco in the US. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Russia became a superpower of the northern Pacific Ocean when it conquered the Ural regions, followed by conquering Siberia. In the 18th century, Russia founded colonies beyond the sea in North America and for a while it governed Hawaii as well.

Russia sold its land in North America to the United States in 1867. But this was only a coincidental twist in a series of events that might just as well have led to the majority of North America still being part of Russia today.

According to Owen Matthews’ book Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America (2013) Russia came close to succeeding in its attempted conquest. The problems that eventually ruined Russia’s attempted conquest of America were disconcertingly similar to the problems that are today considered to be the obstacles to Russia’s development.

The biggest setback was when Russia’s trading company in America, which was governing its colonies, fell into disfavour with the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. The trading company included many rebels and liberal young noblemen who wanted to reform Russia. The Tzar considered them guilty of the rebellion against him in 1825.

Matthews’ book tells the tragic story of the world conqueror and visionary, Russian nobleman Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov. Rezanov, originally a Tatar, served as the trusted man of three tsars. It is known that some Finns were also involved in the trading company and in Alaska.

The conquest of Siberia and the northern Pacific Ocean was motivated by the tempting possibilities of the global fur trade. In China’s Canton, the most valuable fur pelts cost more than a seaman’s annual pay. The penises of certain animals were also worth a good price per kilogram. They were eaten to gain sexual prowess.

The trade was organised by the state in a very poor, even detrimental, manner. Noblemen were prohibited from trading. The conquerors of the Ural regions, Siberia and Alaska were adventurers who had made their own fortune. They were the oligarchs of their times, and there were a large number of crooks and criminals among them. The law did not protect the local population.

The mightiest man in the east was the King of Siberia, Grigory Ivanovich Shelekhov. He created the foundation for Russia’s trading company in America. His wife (and later widow) Natalia Shelekhova was just as energetic as her husband and managed all kinds of business matters on her own.

Nikolay Petrovich became Shelekhov’s partner. Later on he married Shelekhov’s daughter Anna Grigoriyevna. Rezanov was the person who used his networks to arrange the necessary support from the Court of the Tsar in Saint Petersburg.

Even though the Russians tried to benefit from the long-distance trade of North America and Asia just like many other countries, they failed. Russia lacked a financial system that was capable of supporting large-scale long-term efforts. Merchants were not capable of assembling large enough fleets, and they did not have the ability to maintain extensive operations for years on end.

Even maintenance deliveries could not be afforded. Rezanov lamented over the fact that the colonies were dependent on deliveries from foreign states. He had few ships of his own and even those were in poor condition and managed by a crew that was often drunk.

A third problem was the arbitrary nature of the politics. Unlike in Britain, people with great wealth and the noblemen in Russia were dependent on being in favour with the ruler. When the ruler changed, the favour and privileges had to be bought again. No one had permanent protection for his position provided by law.

Russia’s tale in America ended on an unflattering note. When Russia’s flag was lowered with festive ceremonies in New Archangel – the present-day Sitka in Alaska – the flag got tangled around the pole and it could not be lowered. Only the third man who climbed up to the top of the pole was finally able to tug the flag down, according to a Finnish blacksmith, Toomas Ahllund, who watched the ceremony.

This small detail gains special symbolic significance in Russia’s history. We are unlikely to witness any other flag-lowerings in the foreseeable future. The dispute over the Kurile Islands with Japan still continues. The dispute over the island of Sakhalin also began during the time of the trading company. Rezanov waged a war of his own in the area.

Owen Matthews has written a wonderful story of Nikolay Rezanov and his larger-than-life dreams. During his life, Rezanov lived in the glory of the Court of Saint Petersburg, in the wilderness of Siberia and on the seas of the world. Sometimes he ate from silver plates and drank from golden jugs, and sometimes he went hungry and suffered from the cold. All his dreams came crashing down in the end.

In Russia, the greatness of individuals is seen in how they wrestle with their fate – or the system. It is curious that a rock opera was made about this chamberlain of the Tsar during the Soviet Union. The text was written by the poet Andrei Voznesenski, a student of Boris Pasternak. The show was produced and directed by Mark Zaharov. He was granted the honorary title of People’s Artist of the USSR just before the Soviet Union collapsed.

A rock opera in the Soviet Union – a story about Nikolay Rezanov, the Tsar’s man

Russia is an extremely diverse and contradictory country. The rock opera Junona and Avos (Юнона и Авось) is one example of this. The opera was first performed in 1981, which is before Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal politics, perestroika and glasnost.

The opera is still shown to full audiences in Moscow. It was broadcast on television in 1983, and it has done tours of many countries. This rock opera, which was apparently the first great rock opera in the Soviet Union, became a cultural symbol for the country’s reformation policy.

Junona and Avos was fitting for a time when the Cold War was loosening its grip and the threat of a nuclear war was slowly receding. It was an opportunity to tell a story about the love between a Russian nobleman and the Tsar’s favourite, Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov, and the daughter of the commander of San Francisco’s Spanish fortress, Conchita Arguello. Love surpassed nationalities, religions and politics. Rezanov was not even close to the ideal of the Hero of Socialist Labour.

The opera’s story is true in its general outlines. The opera’s name is derived from two ships. The word avos (авось) is also used to refer to the playful interaction between a person’s hopes and fate.

One of Russia’s strong qualities is combining different styles in imaginative ways, as they are in Junona and Avos. The symbols of the era of the tsars and the rock opera methods of telling a story are mixed with religious and political imagery, and of course with the joy of love.

For some reason, the censorship allowed a show like this to be presented. Even the creators were surprised as all the eleven other rock operas by the composer Aleksei Rybnikov had been prohibited right from the start.

It is difficult for an outsider to understand where the line between serious drama and parody is drawn. An ultramodern style is intertwined with grand pathos and silly playfulness without any deeper meaning. The symbolism follows the long traditions of Russian soul and culture. The opera also sings hallelujah to love.

But Rezanov’s love did not last. His wife, Anna Grigoriyevna, whom he so deeply loved, passed away in childbirth after seven years of marriage. Another loved one, Conchita, was  left on the other side of the globe. Rezanov died a tired and unhappy man on his way home from San Francisco to St. Petersburg in 1807 in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.

He did not have to see his life’s work and honour destroyed, even though he was already on his way to ruin.

Conchita learned about her groom’s death the following year when a ship’s passenger told her about it. Conchita never married and wanted to remain faithful to Nikolay Petrovich’s memory. In older age, Conchita withdrew into a convent and told her story to a sister in faith.

“I will never forget you – I will never see you again”, goes the opera’s sophisticated pop tune. It has been popular in Russia, just as it was in the Soviet Union.

But this opera is not about nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The show is about genuine nostalgia for the Russian way of life. This is how it was understood even during the Soviet Union era.


Junona and Avos (Юнона и Авось) was shown at the Helsinki Hall of Culture on April 25, 2014. (Comp. Aleksei Rybnikov. Text Andrei Voznesenski. Directed by Aleksandr Ryhlov. Choreography by Žanna Šmakova. Aleksei Rybnikov Theater Company, Moscow.) But the show was only a pale imitation of what it is in Moscow at the Lenkom Theatre and Theatre Estrady.

(Translated from Finnish by Elina Sellgren.)

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A distinguished British political commentator Norman Angell wrote in his “The Great Illusion” that European states had become so interdependent and so much part of the international trade and commerce that no one would be fool enough as a leader in Europe to start a new war.

He wrote this in 1910 (!), four years before World War I.

“Angell tremendously underestimated the irrationalities and social processes that lead to devastating  outcomes, even when they make no sense.”

That is what Jeffrey Sachs, one of the most famous economist in the world, wrote about Angell’s thinking – in 2005. (J. D. Sachs, The End of Poverty. How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime.)

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Russia’s Foreign Ministry has a plan to establish an exclusive shop for foreign diplomats and “select citizens”, i.e. for the members of Russian élite (news from 10.2. and 11.2.2015). Only foreign currency can be used in this shop, to be located in Moscow city centre.

According the the news, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made an official proposal for establishing a new tax free “Beryozka”. The shop will be run by private business men. The government will decide the matter.

Fine. But what do ordinary people think about these kind of plans to secure that the priviledged stay priviledged instead of creating better life for all?

«Такая богатая страна и такие бедные люди.»

If the ordinary people are having it worse and worse and the niceties of life run further and further away, how you should judge the political leadership? Is it enough to praise the warlords? Or is it really believable to blame Americans for all …?

Indeed, now when you can’t get Parmesan for the pasta and when many other goods of modern international cuisine is missing, a new shop, of course, helps those who are invited and cabable to do shopping in the new “Beryozka”.

For me, though, it looks like the shape of things to come – a step back into the queues from the stagnant Brezhnev era. The gap between everyday distress in Russia and the standard of living in the western world is widening again. I feel very sorry for all this.

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Russia is really the place where history plays in politics – or with politicians. Too many are disillusioned and look back to the times of greatness whether it was in the 18th century or the Soviet period. Anyway, people are proud of their history. What else they could, ask cynics. I don’t say that, even though the present condition of living is demanding for the most and the future looks unsecure.

If oil prices fall, Russia will face enormous troubles. At the moment oil is the only positive sector in her economy. Yet without reforms even the oil industry will suffer with outdated technology, lack of investments and poor governance.

Slightly exaggerating, it could be said that the Soviet Union collapsed because microchips could not be developed. Mathematicians and physicists were certainly as good as in the USA but they were not allowed to experiment with the limits of the impossible. Creativity lives and flourishes in the heads of independent minds.

Surely, Russia has still huge potential. And it is natural that Russians want Russia to be recognised as a nation with an esteemed position among other nations. People emphasise historical glory to mitigate the contempt and arrogance shown by many western politicians. We can do it again, Russians are saying. Yes, they can.

Westerners themselves feed the anti-intellectual political campaigns in Russia. They like to boast about  their superiority and omniscience.

Yet western politicians forget that their success was not created by this generation of politicians and bureaucrats in the European union headquarters in Brussels or Washington. On the contrary, they are close destroying it. The succes was created by earlier generations.

Unfortunately, relations between Russia and the West are deteriorating badly, especially between Russia and the USA. However, in one area the gap is not widening; it is diminishing. There are great success stories in Russia, there are huge riches in Russia – material, cultural as well as intellectual. There are millions of middle class people – of which many are better off than their counterparts in the West. And as far as I can understand, almost all people in Russia want a decent society that is fair and functions well.

Yes, there are also millions of poor and destitute people in Russia but that is something we also find more and more commonly in the USA and Western Europe. As Westerners themselves very well know, inequality has increased immensely even in the Nordic welfare states starting from the late 20th century. Indeed, the politics of the western powers is getting closer to Russia – but from the wrong direction.

My opinion is that in case Russians can establish modern political democracy and fair legal system, they will easily catch up with the “old and tired” Western Europe, the faltering USA and even China. Especially the younger generations have the drive and energy that is not anymore so often seen in the old Western Europe.

(This was originally published in the old blog 25 April, 2013.)


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The world seems not often to be just about black&white things. As I wrote about Ukraine (below), I couldn’t imagine that some day a top politician in the European union would say something much similar.

Yet that was what happened in the 14th May: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s debuty in Germany (vice chancellor) Sigmar Gabriel said that “it was certainly not smart to create the impression in Ukraine that it had to decide between Russia and the EU”. (The Moscow Times May 15.)

Indeed, that shouldn’t have been the case. Professor Andrei P. Tsygankov said (quoted in my blog, below): “Both Russia and the West are responsible for the highly dysfunctional country that Ukraine has become because they pushed it to choose between one side or the other, thereby depriving it of a choice to remain a moderate, neutral territory between two large powers.”

Mr. Gabriel also stated that even though the EU had also made mistakes that doesn’t justify Russia’s behaviour.

Mr. Gabriel is the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and Merkel’s deputy in the coalition government.

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Now even I’ve got something to say about the conflict between Russia, Ukraine and the Europian Union.

First of all, ex-president Viktor Yanukovych’s regime was fully corrupted. That’s all known for sure. Secondly, his governance destroyed the country’s economy and all steps to decent civic society.

Thirdly, opening fire at the Maiden and killing people was an act of a remorseless tyrant. Mr. Yanukovych should have chosen otherwise. Even Crimean Russians want a better leader than Yanukovych. Well, seemingly many favour a certain Mr. Vladimir Putin but he’s a president of another country …

After the Orange Revolution (2004) Ukrainians lost their first chance to develop a new democracy. Everything went wrong – and they can’t blame the Kremlin in Moscow.

It’s possible that Ukrainians can’t compromise with each other this time either. Yet Ukrainian Russians should be equally recognised. I expect them to support the democratic course if only they, too, benefits from the new way.

In our days tyrants always risk to be overthrown. Unfortunately, sometimes they are followed by persons who very soon become tyrants themselves.

Karl Marx said that in history there often are 20-year periods when nothing changes. And then comes a day when everything changes.

That’s all clear. Yet situation in Ukraine is more complex.

According to my view, Russia has genuine security interest in Crimea. Western powers should acknowledge this. As an historian, I’m a bit cynical; you just can’t close your eyes from the worries of other nations and people. What you could do, though, is to develop a mutual understanding and security system that recognises everyone’s interest in a productive and friendly way. That’s the arena of international politics.

And that’s what Finland and the Soviet Union did after World War II. Finland assured the Soviet Union that the Finnish territory will not be given to any power to attack the Soviet Union. It worked rather well, though with some occasional troubles. Finns kept and developed their market economy and western style parliamentary democracy – even though the Soviet Union had a military base in Finnish territory, Porkkala, 60 kilometres from Helsinki, the Capital (1944—56).

Also, the Soviet government was happy with Finns who were not conflict-oriented but recognised the Soviet Union’s worries about security. (Sometimes it all went too far but in the long run Finland’s policy was very succesful.)

I think that Finns possibly acted more tactfully than some persons supporting the nationalistic course in Georgia or in Ukraine. Finns are ultra-patriotic but usually very constructive. Yet extremists were and are found everywhere but you shouldn’t give hand to them.

I’m strongly against the gunboat diplomacy of attacking one’s neighbour or against the sovereignty of any state. The issue is extremely sensitive in Finland – as it is in the Baltic countries (which were forced to ask help from the Soviet Union in 1939—40). Developments in Ukraine 2013—14 make people in many countries to think the case of Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968.

For too many, then, Russia is a good cause for anxiety. Russian government itself would benefit greatly from calming down the alarm in the West and among Russia’s neighbours.

Of course, many of us also remember Vietnam, Chile (1973) and, for example, the Falkland Islands (1982). Historians also know that during the previous centuries (1521—1809) the Swedish realm, of which Finland was then a part of, waged war against Denmark more frequently than against Russia. And Sweden started a war more often than her supposed enemies (Russia, for example).

Yes, the world is not only black and white, as adults tell their children. There’s also this grey zone in between, as Swedish singer Eva Dahlgren sarcastically said in her concert in Helsinki many, many years ago. (Her words, though, were directed to the rather conventional middle-aged people in the audience.)

The popular appeal of Russia has already been low. Many of my friends elsewhere feel pity for me, because I “have to” live here. Well, I chose to. I love this country, her cultural riches, the people and – especially! – Moscow.

Possibly things are getting worse here as people seem to think. The war in Ukraine certainly would not help Russians. At the moment I don’t think President Putin is heading to the battle, although he most likely keeps all options open. However, he occupied Crimea and is reinforcing his position – which means he is a step ahead of others.

Mr. Putin knows that the Obama regime in the USA is incapable and weak. He has seen that the European Union has a very weak machinery for foreign policy – if any. And he knows, as anyone else, that there is no security policy in the EU which could function even in theory.

However, President Putin’s ambassadors in Sweden and Finland may have let him know that there was suddenly a lot of talk about the NATO option in the social media in both countries …

In all, I couldn’t say it better than Professor Andrei P. Tsygankov: “Both Russia and the West are responsible for the highly dysfunctional country that Ukraine has become because they pushed it to choose between one side or the other, thereby depriving it of a choice to remain a moderate, neutral territory between two large powers.” (The Moscow Times 28.2.2014.)

He continues: “Now is the time for the West to reach out to the Kremlin and form a comprehensive arrangement under which the two parties will be joint economic donours and joint guarantors of Ukraine’s stability and territorial integrity.”

Indeed, as a Finn I very much appreciate the idea of territorial integrity.

Tsygankov also warns the post-revolutionary hangovers which are extremely painful – and which is again looming Ukraine, second time in her post-soviet history. Hopefully Ukrainians won’t loose their opportunity this time. Missing their chance now would possibly radicalise too many too dangerously and, therefore, destabilise the situation in the area for unseeable future.

President Putin has also a choice: is Russia in better condition after his second term or is it worse? Of course, if he thinks it will be worse anyway, he might need a war to explain that it’s not his fault …

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Among the wonders of world politics is the popular appeal that the western world has had during the last decades, if not some centuries. Contrary to many unfavourable scenarios and fortune tellers, Capitalism has not yet collapsed. It still attracts people in most parts of the world, nowadays even in China.

Yet bullies lack soft power. The former Communist Soviet Union had, indeed, some soft power in the 1960s and 1970s even in the Western World. The utopias of Communism attracted a group of people in the West. Furthermore, the Kremlin’s policy of peace received some positive response among the western public in general, although the practical actions of the Soviet Union destroyed much of the political liturgy.

Freedom of the people, the right to be and act as an individual, is the axiom of the political thought in the western world. Also the Communist utopias were for freedom of the people. Yet these ideas never materialised, on the contrary. In people’s mind Communism is linked with poverty, oppression and prison camps.

World politics is not only diplomacy; it is more the silent agency of soft power and sweet power that appeal to individuals everywhere.

The neighbouring countries of the former Soviet Union were afraid of the pressures directed from the Kreml in Moscow. Westerners invented the phrase Finlandization (Finlandisierung), meaning the pressure that a small country (Finland) experienced in the shadow of the Soviet Union. Of course, the October Revolution 1917, the occupation of Eastern Europe after the World War II, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, etc. caused much fear in the western countries. Yet I think the people in the Soviet Union suffered most.

Today many in Ukraine and Moldova, among others, most likely have the same fear. Their big neighbour is behaving like a bully, not like a trusted partner in mutual and productive cooperation.

As regards Ukraine, I didn’t agree with the European Union policy. In the EU bureaucracy there are too many arrogant besserwissers (with luxurious privileges) who have lost the touch with the real world. They act as the French nobility did before the French Revolution in 1789.

I’m not saying that the western world is a paradise. In politics you can’t always deliver everything that one or the other wish to have. But you can give people hope for the better. And it takes only few years to see, if life is getting better or not.

At the moment it seems that the political elite in Russia lacks the vision of reform. The country’s economic life is not getting better. The civic society doesn’t get support from the leading elite.

However, the rise of the civic society gives an entirely different picture. It contradicts the politics. Russia is developing. That Russia, of which I’ll write more later, does have the soft power and sweet power that I, personally, love much.

I can imagine that some day Russia is a trendy business among the westerners. I hope the EU will solve a couple of its own major problems by then.

Bullies lack soft power.

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As a historian I was asked what are the main factors that have made Russia different with Western Europe. And that question was followed the second one, possibly as important as the first one: can I cut the long story short?

Very briefly, I think there are four major elements explaining the different path in political and social development in Russia compared to the so-called western Europe.

First thing is that the Roman law was never adopted in the core areas of Russia or in the Russian empire. In Western Europe the principles of Roman law supported individual’s position against the overlords and powers of the state or empire. In the Middle Ages a free man could not be tortured! Even the highest authorities had to follow the legal procedures and could always be summoned to appear in court if rules were not followed. Possibly, all this never worked perfectly well but the principles got strength and authority and certainly secured the rights of individuals in many disputes with the overlords.

The second thing was that religious Reformations in the 16th century did not much or at all touch Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church was almost utterly immune to any of such ideas – like individualism – which, in my opinion, were possibly among the most important factors paving the way to the modern society. The Russian Orthodox Church is an extremely conservative force. (One should emphasise that the Catholic faith was also influenced by the new ideas that arose at that time.)

The third difference is that the Enlightenment, also one of the most influencial cultural trends in Western Europe between the Middle Ages and the 20th century, did not find much understanding in Russia. Even though Catherine II (1762—1796) favoured the Enlightenment ideas her influence was not strong enough to further the reforms throughout the society.

Possibly these three issues were the most important factors in creating the western individualism and ideas of human rights and political freedom. This is very much of what historians of the western world usually explain – even though some discord over the details prevails.

Yet, personally, as a man slightly inclined to economic history, I would like to emphasise one more aspect: the emergence of wealthy middle class people. The wealth increased enormously already at the 16th and 17th century in Europe, to say nothing about the 18th century. This heavily contributed individualism and creativeness. Wealth accelerated consumption and luxury which meant more opportunities, more status issues, more change and variety. All this strenghtened the individualistic approach to see what the life is like in a decent society.

Furthermore, it meant that wealthy people wanted to secure their possessions. They needed political sovereignty and fair legal system to protect  their fortune and their rights against tyrants. This principle, manifested in England’s Magna Carta in 1215 and soon also, for example, in some Polish-Lithuanian statutes, was the radical principle fostering the parliamentary system in which the executive power is controlled by the Parliament.

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Up until the late 20th century, Russia expanded some 500 years almost continuously. Even the time of troubles at the early 17th century did not change the trend, nor the revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century.

The U.S.A. still lags behind some 250 years – if we count the time. A good perspective to remember?

So far no Western European power has had that long period as a great power as Russia has. Great Britain was rather close, though, and generally the rise of Western Europe surpasses that of Russia’s. Yet Western Europe’s success has been divided by many equally strong states and empires, as in Western Europe the power position has shifted from one to another every now and then.

As a state or an empire Russia survived extremely well. Of course, the success story has a tragic history; it has had its price. Much of what you can find and see in Russia testifies that the human costs of keeping the power status have been enormous. Individuals did not count in Russian history, even less so in the Soviet period. Standard of living was poor, administration arbitrary and legal system corrupted.

People lack many nice things which made life in the western world much easier, softer and admired.

Probably that was the thing that destroyed the Soviet Union and Communism. Political legacy of the governance was questioned.