Lost Friendship: A Historical Perspective of the Beginning of US-Russia Relations


If one were to look over US-Russia relations, it could be tempting to divide the history into two periods of time: the era of modern Russia starting in 1991, and the Cold War. During these two periods there were years when both countries could find a common interest. This allowed them to collaborate with one another in a variety of fields including child adoption, missile defense matters, as well as other pressing international topics. More often than not, the countries saw each other as rivals not following the rules of international order. With so much attention focused on the Cold War period, it is vital to look into the longer, more complex, timeline of US-Russia relations.

During the early years of the American struggle for independence, one can see a prosperous and amicable time regarding of Russian relations. These two countries appreciated one another’s cultural and intellectual achievements, while aiding each in the international political arena, developing a very promising economic partnership. This train of friendship came to a halt with the arrival of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, paving an entirely new pathway for Russia leaving achievements and prospects behind. Reflecting this relationship, there are three areas which illuminate the potential for a better relationship within the present global spectrum

Cultural and Scientific Connection

The kinship between Russian and American scholars started long before America became an independent state. As Nikolav Sivachev argues in his book ‘Russia and the United States’, it began when M.V. Lomonosov and other noted Russian scholars, appreciated the work of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin’s reputation in Russia gained momentum rapidly, and by the time of American independence, B. Franklin was one of the most highly regarded individuals within Russian intellectual society.[1]

The American Revolution received a notable place within Russian intellectual circles. This was partially due to how Russian society reacted [with enthusiasm] to the struggle for independence from the British empire. A newspaper Moskovskie Vedomosti openly took the side of the insurgents, assuring its readers of the inevitable victory for freedom.[2] The newspaper welcomed the establishment of civil liberties in the United States, and criticized Russian serfdom. A. Radischev, a revolutionary ideologist, in his ode “Liberty” praised the American Revolution and its leaders, George Washington. He welcomed the constitutional law established through the revolution[3], something Russia was lacking during the time of Catherine II.

However, not every aspect of American life was equally praised in the intellectual circles of Russia. Most notably, Russian society was critical towards the institutions of slavery and racism.  This is why Harriet Beecher’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was exceptionally popular in Russia. The magazine Sovremennik (translated to “The Contemporary”) even distributed the book for free to all of his subscribers[4].

On the American side, the ruling class saw imperial Russia as a powerful state but lacking in terms of democracy and basic human rights/needs. J. Kennan and Mark Twain both publicly strongly criticized Russia’s prison conditions.

Trade and Economic Relations

First commercial ties between the two countries took place long before the 1832 Russian American Commercial Treaty. Russians colonized the territory that later became known as Alaska, and commercial ties between the two countries became more affordable.  In 1824, the Agreement on the Regulation of Russian-American Trade and Territorial Disputes was signed. It was the first official agreement of its kind between the two countries. The agreement solved two problems: it agreed upon free trade in the northern Pacific, and solved future territorial disputes between the countries.[5]

The most important agreement between the countries was the 1832 Russian-American Commercial Treaty. The treaty allowed citizens of the two countries to enjoy all the civil rights in acquiring personal property in the other territory[6]. This was the first treaty between the two countries of its kind.

With trade ties implemented, the American government developed a substantial interest in Alaska’s territory. Tsar Alexander II realized that Russia overextended itself, and the economic benefits of Alaska began to disappear[7]. In 1867 an agreement was made that sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. With Alaska officially an American territory, a different type of relationship between the countries began.

With the purchase of Alaska, the penetration of the Eastern Hemisphere began, and ushered in a new chapter in US-Russia economic relations. The most important of these economic relations included businessmen involved in the railroad industry, specifically the Siberian Railroad. In Russia interest lay in obtaining American loans. During the years of 1901-03, average annual exports of American goods to Russia reached a volume of 45,000,000 rubles, and the United States continued to occupy a prominent place in exports to Russia; 4th in 1910 and 3rd in 1911.[8]

After the denunciation of the 1832 Russian American Commercial Treaty by the US in 1911, commercial ties suffered a short-lived, disadvantage. In 1916 the American-Russian Chamber of Commerce was formed, bringing back American investment interest in Russia. American exports to Russia continued to grow at an astonishing rate from $31 million in 1914 to $555 million in 1916[9].

US-Russian relations continued to prosper until the ideological movements of the 20th century.  This movement had direct consequences on the economic process, and overall economic relations. The Bolshevik Revolution not only effected trade relations, but removed the opportunity for Russia to become a fully developed capitalistic power. From the beginning of the 19th century until approximately 1918, American-Russian economic relations represented one of the most historically impressive trade relationships. With the arrival of the Bolshevik Revolution, this partnership declined directly influencing the course of current US-Russia relations.

Political Relations

Political relations between Russia and the US began in the early times of American Independence. One of the first pieces of evidence is that tsarist Russia supported American colonies for independence. Tsarist Russia signed the Declaration of Armed Neutrality in 1780, which was a great symbol of support for the American Colonies.[10]Another example took place in 1804, when Russia helped free an American crew taken captive in Tripoli. This interaction forged a relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander I, where they could exchange messages in a spirit of mutual respect[i]. During his 1811 State of the Union address, President Madison commented that relations with Russia were “on the best footing of friendship[11]”.

Another indicator, and factor, of friendly relationship between the US and Russia was the idea that both had a mutual enemy in Britain.  As Sivachev argues, the political interests of both countries were so close, that America informed the Russians of a planned attack of an Anglo- French fleet against Russia’s ports in the Pacific.[12]

Another important event indicating friendly relations occurred in 1863 and involved military actions. Russia received permission from America to dispatch two of his squadrons to the shores of the United States; one in New York, the other in San Francisco. This event prompted a slew of rumors and speculations, but ultimately the Russians were greeted with enthusiasm at the highest level of government.

The most politically active years between America and Russia took place in 1916-17. During these years the USA succeeded in sending three different organizations to Russia: The Root mission, Red Cross mission, and the Railway Stevens mission. Aside from their core humanitarian mission, each was designed to improve ties across sectors, and prepare for huge financial assistance from the US in the following years.

These missions took place during the second half of WWI when the humanitarian and economic situation of Russia were in bad shape.   This created mass confusion, and dissatisfaction among the population allowing the Red Revolution to bring the Bolsheviks to power once again. With the Bolsheviks in power, all the political and economic prowess became debunk, and Russia lost its chance to become a strong capitalist power.

It has been nearly two centuries since the first official event of US-Russia relation[13]. During this time, there are been both positive and negative period of relations. Since the Cold War period, when the US populations was instructed to be fearful of Soviet power, it was tempting to think that a hostile relationship between the US and Russia was normal.

Relations have continued to decline since the Bolsheviks came to power. Anti-communist propaganda was created identifying the USSR as the principal target, and reciprocally the USSR created an idea of America as the main global protagonist.  This ideological contest has created an ongoing idea that the US and Russia are natural competitors. Taking into consideration actual history, specifically prior to the Cold War, a different type of relationship can be      identified indicating that relations between the US and Russia can be improve and be beneficial to the overall global spectrum.


[1] Russia and the United States, NikolaySivachev and NikolayYakovlev. University of Chicago Press.p.1

[2] Ibid p.2

[3] Ibid p.2

[4] Ibid p.10

[5] Ibid p 7

[6] Stanley S. Jados, Documents on Russian-America relations: Washington to Eisenhower. P8-11

[7] The foreign policy of Russia, Robert H.Donalson, Joseph L. Nogee, New York 1998,  P12

[8] Ibid p.21

[9] Ibid p 26

[10] Ibid p 5

[11] Ibid p 5

[12] Ibid p 9


[i] Ibid p 4

Image source: wikimedia.org

About the Author 

Alexander Osadta holds an M.A. in Administrative Sciences with a focus on Administrative reforms on Former Soviet countries from University of Craiova. His research is focused on Russia and East-European Studies.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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