International Law

Russian Lawmaker Says He Wants Alaska Back

Nope, we bought it, jackass (National Archives)

Despite the trouble Russia is having with stealing something from next door, at least one Russian is thinking about stealing something several thousand miles away: Alaska.

Last Sunday, parliament member and longtime Putin flunky Oleg Matveychev said on a Russian news program that the West should have to pay “reparations” for the harm sanctions are causing. These reparations, he said, should include “return of possessions, including possessions of the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and even parts of Russia that are now occupied by the United States.” He wasn’t claiming U.S. troops are occupying some part of what’s now Russia, but that U.S. citizens are currently squatting here on what he says is still Russian property.

He also declared that Russia owns the Antarctic.

This was not so much a “news program” as it was an “obvious government propaganda and general gaslighting BS” program. The show, Sunday Evening With Vladimir Soloviev, is one of several featuring politicians and talking heads who spout the party line. Of course you could argue that we have shows like that too, but these shows are on official state television, and have become steadily more extreme as the war drags on. For example, according to this report, Soloviev recently hosted a discussion on the topic of whether Ukrainian citizens who resist the Russian invasion—which they have every right to do—should be hanged. Turns out it wasn’t much of a discussion, because all the pundits agreed hangings would be necessary.

“Never let morality prevent you from taking correct actions,” said someone claiming to be a political scientist who wanted to hang people. “I understand the importance of a humanitarian component,” she said, “but morality shouldn’t get in the way,” a conclusion that suggests maybe she isn’t 100% clear on the importance of a humanitarian component after all.

An example right out of 1984 was provided by Dmitry Evstafiev, who claimed Russia had just made a peace offer prompted not by Russia’s continuing failure to win but simply because of the Leader’s magnanimous nature. “Right now, President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s third proposal to the Ukrainian leadership is on the table,” Evstafiev said. “This, of course, is a demonstration of his greatest respect and—I would even say—of love by our President towards the Ukrainian people.” Of course, and not just the president, but thousands of other Russian men, whose love for the Ukrainian people is so great that they all drove into Ukraine a month ago in large groups and from several different directions to spend some time with their Ukrainian friends.

Maybe these are comedy shows.

Anyway, when it was Matveychev’s turn, he started blabbing about what Russia will demand “after our victory” (he didn’t say when this would happen exactly). “After Ukraine’s demilitarization is completed,” he said, Russia would demand the lifting of sanctions, the “dissolution of NATO, because the presence of NATO in some countries is getting in our way,” and also “the return of all Russian properties.”

“Are you including Alaska and Fort Ross?” the host said, almost as if they had discussed this very thing beforehand. Yes, Matveychev said, “that was my next point. As well as the Antarctic…. We discovered it, so it belongs to us.”

Was this complete BS? Pretty much.

There were some Russian traders and missionaries in northwestern North America for a while, but not much came of that. Russians built “Fort Ross” (from Rossiya, not some guy named Ross) on the coast of what’s now Sonoma County, California. But starting in the 1850s, Russia started trying to unload it, having decided it needed money more than it needed a wooden fort 8,000 miles away. Ultimately it sold the area to John Sutter, later of Sutter’s Mill fame. According to Wikipedia, “some Russian historians” claim Sutter never paid what he owed, so legal title never changed hands and “the area still belongs to the Russian people.” Nope. Unarmed Russians in small groups are certainly welcome to visit Fort Ross, but they don’t even get a discount on parking.

As for Alaska, Russia even more desperately tried to unload that for years before the U.S. finally agreed to buy it in 1867. We paid good money for it, although frankly not that much: $7.2 million in 1867 dollars (about 2 cents per acre), which would be something like $135 million (37 cents per acre) in today’s money. There’s a signed treaty and everything, and a canceled copy of the check to show we paid the bill. So no, it doesn’t belong to Russia anymore, if it ever really did. (Of course this is setting aside the fact that both places belonged to other people who got there first and had been there for thousands of years.)

In 2014, Putin was asked if there were any plans to “annex Alaska.” He said he was aware of a joke supposedly making the rounds calling Alaska “Ice Krym,” “Krym” being the Russian word for Crimea, which Russia had just stolen from Ukraine at the time. Crimea is warm, but Alaska is cold, so is like place we stole but colder, so “Ice Krym,” yes? Why you do not laugh? Is funny joke. But Putin said no, there were no plans to “annex” Alaska.

Good news, because if he thinks Ukrainians are currently giving him trouble, and they are, wait until he meets some Alaskans. No one there was too impressed with Matveychev’s suggestion, as you can imagine. “Good luck with that!” Gov. Mike Dunleavy tweeted on March 15, according to the Anchorage Daily News. “We have hundreds of thousands of armed Alaskans” who think otherwise, Dunleavy said, and although Alaska’s population is only about 730,000, he’s still probably right.

What about Antarctica? No, Russia doesn’t own that either. It doesn’t even claim to own any part of it. Seven countries do claim parts of it, but neither Russia nor the United States are among them, and nobody recognizes anybody else’s claims anyway. In the Antarctic Treaty, which the Soviet Union signed and Russia later endorsed, everybody agreed Antarctica would be used only for peaceful purposes—and definitely not for setting off nuclear bombs—but agreed to disagree about who might own what. Matveychev’s claim is presumably based on the disputed fact that Russian explorers may have been the first to see Antarctica, in 1820, just three days ahead of a British expedition. And that does mean Russia owns it, if you think the law is that you own whatever you see. And maybe they do think that, but it turns out to be a little more complicated, as they are currently learning.

Matveychev, who fancies himself something of a historian, has also written a number of publications, including a book called “Trojan Horse of Western History,” which, in addition to griping about Western culture, argues that the Trojans actually won the Trojan War. That book, too, is a load of garbage.