21 January 2016

When the Russians came to San Francisco

A Soviet postage stamp featuring Admiral A. A. Popov

I recently finished reading a book, Friends in Peace and War, by Dr. C. Douglas Kroll. The subject is the visit by Admiral Andrei Aleksandrovich Popov’s Pacific squadron of the Imperial Russian Navy to the San Francisco Bay at the height of the Civil War, as a display of Russian amity with the American Union and as a warning to other European powers – namely France and Britain – not to get involved on the Confederate side. It is not a very well-known subject, and I was grateful to Dr. Kroll for having introduced it – that said, I do wish the book had been written better, and had lingered with greater depth and attention on the grounds for this goodwill between the two nations. The reigning mood that Lincoln and Tsar Aleksandr II had similar motives and stood in similar positions with regard to the liberation of servile classes in their respective nations is one intriguing hint. As, indeed, is the more classically-realist motive for Russia’s stance, on which more below. Unfortunately, in this narrative they remain merely hints. Even so, the book is remarkably entertaining, involving intrigues and plots, high-stakes trials, earthquakes, fires, heroism, intercultural romance, a fancy ball, and more descriptions of naval ‘wessels’ (sorry, couldn’t resist) and their equipage than the non-military layman ever wanted to read.

Dr. Kroll does a very good job of setting the stage, with San Franciscans and Californians generally feeling isolated from protection by the federal government, underequipped and vulnerable to intrigue, attack and plunder by Confederate forces during the entire first half of the war. These fears were not groundless. Confederate raiders certainly saw California gold (and the Union’s dependence on it) as a tempting target. San Francisco was protected for most of the war by one single Revenue Cutter Service steamer, the USS Shubrick. Confederate sympathisers even attempted, during this time, to use a small schooner, the Chapman, to commandeer the Shubrick, load her up with Mexican guns, and use her to raid Union gold and silver shipments on the Pacific coast. Though the plan was thwarted, it still drove home to most San Franciscans the vulnerability of their port.

Enter the Imperial Russian Navy. At that time, the Russian Empire was facing a situation largely parallel to the American one. The Poles were revolting against Russian rule, and France and Britain stood poised to intervene on behalf of the Poles in Russia’s conflict, much as they stood poised to intervene on behalf of Dixie in the hemisphere opposite. Though they were marked by dramatically disparate political systems and governing philosophies, Russia and America stood at that time as de facto allies. And they stood so for the same reasons, in fact, that Russia and Syria stand allied today. Lincoln had refused to countenance a Western intervention in the January Uprising on the grounds of Russia’s territorial sovereignty and on the principle of non-intervention in foreign affairs. When the Civil War happened, the Tsar sent two squadrons – one in the Atlantic to New York City, and the one under Admiral Popov in the Pacific to San Francisco – as a show of support for the same principle of territorial sovereignty on behalf of their ally in Washington. Popov was willing to go even further than his government was in his support of the Union cause, and remarked on multiple occasions that he was prepared to fire on Confederate vessels that made a threatening move against San Francisco.

One thing I truly appreciated about Friends in Peace and War was that even in its brief and cursory treatment of the background to the informal wartime alliance between Russia and America is that it was not ideologically pinioned to one explanation or the other. In truth, abolitionist elements in the United States had been watching and indeed supporting from afar the Slavophil enthusiasm for the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, and it appears this interest was very much reciprocated, particularly in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is not difficult at all to believe that the Slavophils would have had an immediate and visceral sympathy for the cause of black emancipation in the Americas, given the idealism with which the likes of Yuri Samarin and Ivan Aksakov approached the subject of the liberation of the serfs. And indeed, Tsar Aleksandr II and Abraham Lincoln were personally on the warmest possible terms even up until the end of Lincoln’s life. But neither does Dr. Kroll deny or overlook or conveniently elide the conservative, classically-realist and national-sovereigntist principle which Russia found it in her own best interests to support on the world stage, and how the mutually-reinforcing interests of American union and Russian territorial integrity worked to each others’ advantage.

The two ideological camps of Civil War historiography each conveniently elide their own favoured side’s true motives for fighting, which in one case is an ugly travesty, and in the other case is almost worse: a wasted opportunity. It is the height of bad faith to argue that the Confederacy as a whole was fighting its war for something other than the continuation and expansion of chattel slavery, when the documents of secession themselves demonstrate otherwise. The defence of slavery deployed by the Confederacy – as stated prior to the war by Calhoun, Harper, Dew and Fitzhugh, among others – was largely on terms which were utilitarian and ‘scientific’. In short, it was very much a continuation of the ideological revolutionary state. Likewise, the triumph of power-realism in the North can be understood as a Thermidorian reaction against the nation’s wonted idealism.

But there are various reasons which serve to obscure both these understandings. Firstly, Americans are often lazy in their historical characterisations. Secondly, pride and cultural temperament on each side demand more idealistic, less cold-blooded and less prosaic causes for war than political self-preservation (on the Northern side) and pro-slavery economic calculus (on the Southern side). Thirdly, because the national myth demands some level of continuity, the justification of the Civil War had to be retrospectively recast in terms of a narrative of progress which was only nascent at the time. Between 1861 and 1863, the North fought for the preservation of the Union – and nothing else. This cause they justified by what was, from the beginning of the American republic, the most realistic, most restrained and least utopian mode of governance that was publicly allowable in the United States – to wit, the federalism of Adams and Hamilton: the least revolutionary of the revolutionary ideas of the New World.

As I have before mentioned, this stance makes an unwelcome sound in many traditionalist ears. But Tsar Aleksandr II of Russia deserves the credit – as consecrated head of a conservative, autocratic religious monarchy bridging two hemispheres – of understanding which of the two sides in the American Civil War was more amenable to cooperation.

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