In the wake of the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, with the Snowden affair and Syrian crisis still broiling and the ongoing Crimean Crisis underway, Russian-U.S. relations have risen to prominence in the world again. Many of today’s points of contention between America and Russia center on human rights, including the controversy surrounding Pussy Riot and new anti-homosexual legislation. Disagreements between the two countries mushroomed into a war of words between Russian and American politicians in the fall of 2013. Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, stating that “millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’” In response, Senator McCain of Arizona wrote an op-ed published by Pravda, a Communist Party sponsored newspaper, stating that “[Putin] has made [Russia] a friend to tyrants and an enemy to the oppressed.”
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Despite the rhetoric between the two nations today — nearing a tipping point with the worsening Ukraine crisis — Americans and Russians have a long history of cooperating on human rights, showing great progress when working together. Together, the two nations defeated Nazi Germany and drafted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Last year, Russian diplomacy helped prevent U.S. military intervention in Syria and American and Russian diplomats drafted a joint plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. So far, the Syrian regime is cooperating, and the destruction of the weapons proceeds. In the wake of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War-era arrival of the Russian fleet in American ports, let us also remember that, despite the Cold War and subsequent disagreements, Russia and America were partners and on friendly terms from the American Revolution until the mid-20th Century.
Tsar Alexander II, the Russian leader who sent a fleet to help the Union in 1863, is known in history as the “Liberator.” His moniker was well earned, most notably for the emancipation of the serfs. Though not technically slaves, Russian serfs could be sold, flogged or exiled to Siberia by their owners. As described by W.E. Mosse in Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia. On March 4, 1861, the day of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, the serfs in Russia learned of Alexander II’s declaration that freed some 23 million people. No longer were landowners able to sell human beings, interfere with the marriages of their laborers or take their property. Alexander II further reformed Russia by promoting schools and education for Russian peasants, ending corporal punishment for military and civilian offenses, promoting intellectual freedom in universities and by making all classes eligible for military service and university attendance. In 1864 he instituted local elected governments in Russia. In 1862 Alexander II authorized a Finnish assembly with limited powers of autonomy, which helped to create a modern Finland. On the day of his death, he had just approved a plan for a Russian constitution that would have allowed for limited voting rights. Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavus Fox, went to Russia on a thank you tour after the Civil War. He praised Alexander II who, “with patience, courage, and uncommon wisdom… made every man within his empire free.”
Alexander II’s moves toward instituting greater rights and ending Russia’s version of the slave system won him admirers in the United States, especially within abolitionist circles. The U.S. Ambassador to Russia in the 1860s, wrote to Lincoln that Russia and America, “were bound together by a common sympathy in the common cause of emancipation.” To understand the context of Russian-American friendship during the American Civil War, it is important to note that Russia was not then ruled by a Stalin-like figure and that Soviet totalitarianism does not characterize the whole of Russian history.
Slavery was the moral crisis of the 19th century. The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment, which freed the slaves, were America’s greatest contributions toward the advancement of human rights in that era. Neither would have been possible had the Union lost the Civil War. The dangerous possibility that Britain and France would recognize and aid the Confederacy was real during the Civil War. British recognition of the Confederacy would have preserved the slave power in the South and the “forces of political liberalism in the modern world would have received a disastrous setback,” as Allen Nevins wrote in The War for the Union Volume II. Luckily for the Union and the cause of human rights, Lincoln had a world leader he could turn to for aid.
Russian support for the Union helped end the possibility of British and French intervention in support of the Confederacy. In the fall of 1862, Britain and France proposed to Russia to join them in helping the Confederate States of America. In response, Tsar Alexander II told the British and French representatives that, “I will not co-operate in such action… I shall accept the recognition of the independence of the Confederate States by France and Great Britain as a casus belli [reason to go to war] for Russia. And, in order that the governments of France and Great Britain may understand that this is no idle threat, I will send a Pacific fleet to San Francisco and an Atlantic fleet to New York.” Russian aid was indispensable in America’s struggle to end slavery. “The despotic government of Russia was more liberal and humane to its emancipated slaves than our Republic was to ours. Each head of a family of slaves in Russia was given three acres of land and necessary farming implements with which to begin life, but our slaves were turned loose without any thing—naked to the elements.” — Frederick Douglass, 1894
Sources and further reading
Stephen Graham, Tsar of Freedom: The Life and Reign of Alexander II
Keven McQueen, Cassius M. Clay, “Freedom’s Champion”: the Life-story of the Famed Kentucky Emancipationist
W.E. Mosse, Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia
Allen Nevins, The War for the Union Volume II…. War Becomes Revolution 1862-1863
Albert A. Woldman, Lincoln and the Russians
Cassius Clay, the cousin of Lincoln’s political hero Henry Clay, was the American ambassador to Russia during the 1860s. Throughout his career he was a vigorous foe of slavery. Before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln wanted to ensure that the border states, predominantly Kentucky, would not object. He sent Clay to the Kentucky legislature to gauge the mood there. Clay informed Lincoln that Kentucky would accept Emancipation. Therefore, Clay, steeped in the heady spirit of Russia’s emancipation of its serfs and agrarian reform, is partially responsible for helping Lincoln make the decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He wrote in his autobiography that he “did more than any man to overthrow slavery.” He made this claim by citing his work in securing Russian aid during the Civil War. Clay credited the Russians with saving the Union by preventing foreign recognition of the Confederacy and thus ensuring the Union’s victory over secession and slavery. “You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina.” — Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the 4th of July?, 1852
When Lincoln issued the proclamation that made Thanksgiving a national holiday, two weeks after the Russian Baltic fleet arrived in New York, he expressed gratitude to God that foreign nations had not intervened on the side of the South despite their temptations. He wrote, “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations.”
The United States has always been more advanced than Russia in terms of political rights, but Russia at times has been more progressive in terms of social rights. Newly freed Russian serfs were, unlike newly freed American slaves, given some property of their own when they were liberated. Tsar Alexander II, in an interview said, “I am at a loss to understand how you Americans could have been so blind as to leave the negro slave without tools to work out his salvation… Without property of any kind he cannot educate himself and his children. I believe the time must come when many will question the manner of American emancipation of the Negro slaves in 1863.” The freed slaves in America never got their 40 acres and a mule, which they desperately wanted and needed. Had this measure passed, America’s black citizens would have been afforded a greater degree of self-sufficiency, which may have allowed them to preserve their newly won rights — including voting rights — after Reconstruction. Congressional champions of agrarian reform (such as the “40 acres and a mule” bill) included Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, both pro-Russian. Stevens introduced the Congressional Resolution that authorized Gustavus Fox’s “thank you” tour of Russia. See WEB DuBois on agrarian reform.
Some American abolitionists looked at the Russian model as a way to improve the lot of the newly freed slaves. Henry Charles Carey was an American economist and a trusted adviser to President Lincoln and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. Carey believed that the economic system in Russia favored freedom and promoted economic independence for individuals. He noted that Russia prepared for the emancipation of the serfs by allowing them to buy plots of land and work them independently even before they were freed. Serfs, prior to emancipation, were also allowed to engage in manufacturing. Carey also noted how Russian economic policy gave women greater economic self-sufficiency and made them less dependent on fathers, sons and husbands for their survival.
To this day America has not solved the problem of wealth disparity between blacks and whites. In 2009, a survey by federal officials found that African Americans have, “a nickel of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by the median white family.” Political rights alone have not been sufficient to overcome slavery’s legacy in America. Perhaps Alexander II was right about the manner of American emancipation after all.
Modern day American perceptions of Russia are shaped by media reports that feed on Cold Era prejudice rather than the history of American-Russian relations. As an example, U.S. mainstream media have used LBGT rights to demonize Russia, but a closer look at the issue will reveal that this is motivated as much by anti-Russian bigotry as honest attempts to advance LBGT rights. See white paper from Brian M. Heiss. Controversial Russian laws limit free speech in support of LBGT rights, it is true, but similar laws do the same thing in eight U.S. states. Statistically, there are far more anti-LGBT hate crimes reported in the United States than in Russia. Sodomy has been legal in Russia since 1993. It is still on the books as a crime in Idaho and 11 other U.S. states. In Idaho there is no law that prevents employers from discrimination based on sexual orientation, while Russia prevents such discrimination in the workplace. “Prohibition of discrimination on any grounds except business qualities is the fundamental principle of the Russian labor law… As a result, an employer may not dismiss an employee solely because of the employee’s sexual orientation.” Thomas McDonald and Natalia Yefanovay In terms of labor law, Russia, “added the words,” a long time ago. This is not an apology for Russia’s LGBT policies but rather a demonstration of how inaccurate a picture media reports can paint about other countries. Rather than point fingers abroad, perhaps, the controversy surrounding anti-gay laws can become a way for both countries to improve equal opportunities for all.
The video below, from RT (Russia Today), shows a view of anti-gay policies in the U.S. from a Russian perspective. The RT television network is supported by the Russian government.
Recognition of Russia’s aid to the Union’s cause would help America move on from Cold War stereotypes and thinking that continue to distort American perceptions of Russia. Russia is not an enemy of the United States. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Americans should remember, “Who was our friend when the world was our foe.” Russia is not perfect, neither is America, but both political and social rights advance faster when America and Russia work together as friendly nations.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.