The recent annexation of Crimea back to Russia has sparked a semi-serious discussion about Russia’s claim to Alaska on social media networks.
A recent petition to the White House for the return of the Alaska territory to Russia was met with mixed feelings, ranging from outrage to barely concealed sympathetic sarcasm. Some went so far as to “offer” Alaska to Russian President Vladimir Putin if he would also take former governor Sarah Palin with him, but no comment has been issued by Pres. Putin’s office.
Russian ambassador Vladimir Chizhov made a passing reference on the matter on the March 23 episode of BBC One's Andrew Marr Talk Show, joking that Senator John McCain should “watch over Alaska, it used to be Russian.”
The White House has made no comment on the petition, as it has yet to reach the required 100,000 signatures to receive a formal response. Since its creation on March 21, over 38,000 signatures have been gathered, with only 15 days left until it expires.
The origin of the petition is currently under debate. The petition itself lists “S.V.” of Anchorage as the original author, but according to The Moscow Times, the pro-Kremlin organization Government Communication G2C has claimed responsibility for initiating it, though not for the petition’s declared reason.
"The objective of the petition is not to bring Alaska back to Russia," said Alexander Zhukov, the assistant to the company’s director, in a phone interview with Moscow Times reporter Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber. "Our goal is to show the White House that its petition system is a flawed democratic tool that allows anybody to ask for anything. We understand that this is not plausible."
While most agree the petition will not fulfill its stated goal, some believe that Russia harbors a long standing regret at the loss of such a mineral-rich resource. After claiming the land under Russian naval officer and explorer Vitus Bering, the Alaska territory was mostly forgotten by all but trappers and missionaries.
Russia lost interest in its North American claims following their defeat in the Crimean War in 1856, prompting the sale of Alaska to the U.S. in March 1867 for $7.2 million, or roughly $2 per square mile. The discovery of gold in 1896 turned the public’s initial outlook on the sale from disdain into a maddening fever as hundreds trekked north in the search for wealth.
However, nearly 150 years after the sale, the Russian Orthodox Church believes it still has a rightful claim to a parcel of land in south central Alaska.
Researchers from Yakutsk studying the transfer of Alaska to the U.S. discovered among the sale documents a certificate issued by Russian government commissioner Captain Second Rank Aleksey Peshchurov, which outlines the specifics of the sale and includes the gift of Spruce Island in Kodiak Island Borough to the Russian Orthodox Church “for eternity”.
As mayor of Ouzinkie, Spruce Island’s largest community, Dan Clarion told Farber he didn’t realize such a possibility could exist.
"There is a Russian Orthodox monastery on the other side of the island, but I have never heard claims that the whole island belongs to the Church," Clarion said in a phone interview with Farber.
The 17-square-mile island was once home to St. Herman the Hermit, a patron saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. Many devout worshipers still make the pilgrimage to Spruce Island to visit the ancient church located near Ouzinkie.
Aysen Nikolayev, mayor of Yakutsk, says he has been investigating the issue for some time now.
"I have been working on this since 2008," Nikolayev said during a phone interview with Farber. "We found in the archives that Spruce Island belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church and that its ownership of the land was immune to any sale and territorial transfer. I have not proposed that Spruce Island be returned to the Russian Federation. I have only proposed that it be returned to the Russian Orthodox Church, which is active in many countries.
“2014 we will mark the 220th anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church mission to North America and this is a perfect time to pay attention to the Russian America. I stand for the restoration of historical justice -- the return of Spruce Island to its lawful owner -- the Russian Orthodox Church."
A spokesman for the Yakutsk mayor’s office said the documents would need further evaluation before any determination could be made on the political standing of such claims today.
Other references to the possible annexation of Alaska include a viral photo of penguins marching for the cause, holding signs written in Russian that say "Crimea is ours", "Only Putin", and "Alaska is next". Amusingly, Alaska is not home to penguins, which are native to southern hemisphere locations like Antarctica and Chile.