U.S. and Russia: 200 Years of Diplomatic Relations

Although Russia and the United States have different histories, cultures and traditions, they also have much in common: vast territories and natural resources, human and scientific-technical potential. And the destinies of our two peoples have crossed many times.

Two hundred years is a long time, and over the past two centuries Russian-American relations have undergone many changes, occasionally becoming seriously strained. But ever since regular contact began, Russians and Americans have felt respect and sympathy for each other.

Archive material provides ample evidence of Russia's friendly stance towards America. A letter from Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov to the Russian Envoy to the US, Eduard Stekl, dated July 10, 1861, and endorsed by Russian Emperor Alexander II, read in part: "The American Union is a nation for which the Emperor and the whole of Russia feels a very friendly interest because the two countries situated at opposite ends of the Earth were naturally called in the preceding period in their development to a solidarity of interests and sympathy, of which they have already provided mutual proof."

Historical documents attest to the fact that contacts between our peoples had existed long before the formation of the United States and the establishment of official diplomatic relations. Some little-known facts: in 1698 the Russian Tsar Peter the Great met William Penn, the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, in London. And one of the fathers of the American Navy, national hero John Paul Jones, was a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy and fought alongside the great Russian military commander Alexander Suvorov.

At a critical point in the American colonies' struggle for independence from the British crown, Russia - one of the biggest absolute monarchies in Europe - extended a helping hand when Empress Catherine II declined the British King's request to send a Russian military contingent to suppress the uprising. As seen from the Empress's personal correspondence, she had predicted victory for the young republic in its fight for independence, and wished it success. The ideas of a new North American state struck a chord with the Russian elite, as they were consonant with the aspirations of a developing Russia. Russia's policy of armed neutrality, declared in 1780, was a concrete contribution to the emergence of the United States.

That was by no means the only instance of Russian support. During the American Civil War of 1861-1865, Russia backed the Lincoln administration in its fight for the unity of the nation and the abolition of slavery. Emperor Alexander II sent two military squadrons to the American shores to preempt the possible interventions of Britain or France against the North.

Diplomatic relations between Russia and the US were formalized during a period of several months at the end of 1807 through intensive correspondence between the Russian special envoy to London, Maksim Alopeus, and the Foreign Minister Andrei Budberg, on the one side, and the American envoys to London, James Monroe and William Pinckney, and U.S. Secretary of State (later President) James Madison on the other. A report by Alopeus on September 13, 1807, details a conversation in which Monroe conveyed the wish of President Thomas Jefferson to establish official diplomatic relations between the two countries. Archives also contain the Russian reply, directing Alopeus to convey to the American side the consent of Emperor Alexander I.

Two years later the first official representatives of Russia and the U.S. were appointed - Andrei Dashkov and John Quincy Adams, later elected as the sixth president of the United States.

From the beginning, Russian-American relations covered various spheres of activity: trade, culture, the arts and geographical exploration. One has to mention the notable contribution Russian pioneers made to the development of America's Pacific Coast. The strait that separates Asia from America is named after Vitus Bering, a Russian navigator, who discovered it. In 1812, the first Russian settlement in California was founded. In 1867, the U.S. acquired a slice of Russia by purchasing what was to become the 49th state, Alaska, together with the Aleutian Archipelago and several islands in the Pacific. To this day, many districts and communities in the United States have Russian names, including the prestigious residential area called Russian Hill in San Francisco. Wine connoisseurs will be familiar with the products of the Russian River Valley in California.

Many Americans know the names of Russians who chalked up outstanding achievements in various fields. They include aviation pioneer Valery Chkalov, who 70 years ago accomplished the first ever non-stop flight from Moscow to the U.S. over the North Pole, and numerous Russians who lived and worked in America: the famous poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, writer Iosif Brodsky, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, artist Mikhail Shemyakin, composer Igor Stravinsky, helicopter designer Igor Sikorsky, and many others.

Over the years, the two countries have made terrific advances and encountered serious obstacles. Our relations have indeed gone through ups and downs.

There were periods when diplomatic relations were severed. It took the U.S. 16 years to recognize the Soviet Union after the October Revolution.

In spite of the serious ideological and political differences of the time, the threat of Nazism instantly turned us into allies during the Second World War. Those years saw brotherhood in arms on the battlefields and American supplies of military equipment, weapons and food under the Lend-Lease program. A memorial to Soviet-American cooperation under that program was opened in Fairbanks, Alaska in August 2006. The meeting of the Soviet and American troops on the River Elbe near the German town of Torgau in April 1945 represents probably the greatest triumph in the history of our bilateral relations. Half a century later, a memorial plaque was erected at the Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. to commemorate that event. War veterans place flowers there every year.

Unfortunately, following the victory in WWII, the wartime alliance deteriorated into ideological confrontation and a debilitating arms race, which brought the U.S. and the USSR to the brink of catastrophe during the Cuban crisis of 1962.

The dangers of such confrontation prompted a rethink in both countries in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which marked the start of détente. A number of key bilateral and international agreements on disarmament, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and arms reductions were signed.

The new conditions opened up opportunities for cooperation in many areas. One of the most important achievements was the development of mutually beneficial ties in space exploration, crowned with the Soyuz-Apollo project. On July 19, 1975, history was made when Alexei Leonov and Thomas Stafford shook hands in space. A little over 20 years later Russian-American space cooperation was elevated to a new level with the launching of the International Space Station.

The break up of the USSR and the start of democratic reforms in Russia finally removed the ideological barrier to cooperation between the two countries.

The past few years have seen growing cooperation in the settlements of complicated international and regional conflicts, the solution of energy problems, and making the world secure from terrorism and organized crime. Bilateral trade is growing at a brisk pace, topping $24.5 billion in 2006. Investments are on the rise, and the process is gradually becoming more mutual. Contacts between people, parliaments, cultural figures, scientists and students are broadening. However, the full potential of bilateral cooperation has not been realized yet

Of late there has been much talk about a deterioration in Russian-American relations. People who make such claims cite differences over a number of international problems. We believe that it is wrong to place emphasis on differences, which naturally occur between sovereign states. Both Russia and the U.S. have their national interests, which do not always coincide. The important thing is that the two countries should overcome their differences in a constructive way, taking into account their respective legitimate interests and proceeding on the basis of mutual respect and equality.

A series of events is being held to mark the 200th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. Some have already been held, including one seminar sponsored by the Russian Academy of Sciences' Global History Institute in Moscow and another organized by the U.S. State Department on Soviet-American relations in the years of détente (this conference, incidentally, saw the launch of a collection of documents on bilateral relations from the period published jointly by the Russian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department), and meetings of the ambassadors of the two countries.

An exhibition called "Art in America: Three Hundred Years of Innovation" was staged at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in Moscow, a roundtable on space cooperation was held in Washington, and the Bolshoi Theatre toured the United States.

The 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. is a good opportunity to take a critical look at the lessons of the past, and to draw the necessary conclusions for the future. One thing is clear: there is no sensible alternative to the fostering of sound partner relations between our countries and peoples. Russia and the United States have a vast potential for cooperation.

It is important to make good use of it.

Alexey Isakov is Head of Division, Department of North America, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

Highlights of Russian-American cooperation

Russia-U.S. trade has been growing by nearly 30% a year since 2004, exceeding $25 billion in 2006.

In 2006, U.S. investments in Russia increased by nearly 50%.

There are now more than 800 U.S. companies operating in Russia. They have created over 100,000 jobs.

Russia is the second largest buyer of American Boeing 787 aircraft after Japan. In turn, the Boeing Corporation intends to buy titanium from Russia.

In 2007, the United States issued nearly 20% more visas to Russian tourists and businesspeople, and 30% more to students, compared to last year. Over 90% of Russian applicants were granted US visas.

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