‘Did he mean Alaska?’ Obama wrongly blames Russia for ‘trying to reclaim lands lost in 19th century’

‘Did he mean Alaska?’ Obama wrongly blames Russia for ‘trying to reclaim lands lost in 19th century’
Barack Obama has opened himself to widespread ridicule in Russia after making a history gaffe in a keynote speech in Estonia. Accusing Moscow of imperial ambitions, the US President suggested Russia is trying to reclaim some lands it “lost” 150 years ago.

“Reaching back to the days of the tsars, trying to reclaim lands lost in the 19th century is surely not the way to secure Russia’s greatness in the 21st century,” Obama said to the rapturous applause of his Estonian audience in Tallinn hall, where he was promising to defend the Baltic States from the Kremlin.

It was a neat and dramatic soundbite – contrasting the ages of monocles and crowns with that of drones and iPhones – and a callback to US Secretary of State John Kerry, who accused Russia of acting in a “19th century fashion” in Crimea back in spring.

There was one problem, though: the quote made little sense.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry was quick to gleefully point out Obama’s gaffe.

As a matter of fact, Russia did not “lose” any lands on the Eurasian continent in the 19th century. A side-by-side comparison of maps of the Russian Empire showing 19th- and early 20th-century borders would easily confirm this.

What the Russian Empire did do, however, was sell its overseas territories in North America to the US. The Russian Fort Ross settlement in California went to the US in 1842, while in 1867 Alaska was sold for a paltry $7.2 million (just over $100 million in today’s money).

A map of the Russian Empire in 1829-1830

A map showing subdivisions of the Russian Empire as of 1914

Yet, unless Russia is sneakily preparing a run for Anchorage, it is unlikely that Obama meant these, making the meaning of his words rather mysterious.

Closer research shows that the Russian Empire was forced to give up some of the land it occupied near the mouth of the Danube after it lost the Crimean War in 1856. Part of that land, known as Bessarabia at the time, returned to Russia in 1878.

However, in Crimea itself, the Russian strategic port of Sevastopol was rebuilt and thrived as a trade and tourist center, and no parts of the peninsula were lost as a result of the conflict.

A final guess would be that Obama’s speechwriters visited the Novorossiya page on Wikipedia, which states that this was an administrative area of the Russian Empire, which approximately encompasses current-day eastern Ukraine, “between 1764 and 1873.” Since the militias in Ukraine are calling for its restoration, one could assume that Tsar Alexander II lost it due to some poorly-documented war prior to 1873.

Yet nothing of that kind happened – the name change occurred for formal administrative reasons – and the area remained part of the Russian Empire, and subsequently of the Soviet Union, all the way up to 1991, when Ukraine declared independence.

The remark immediately created a wave of outrage, headshaking and repartee on hundreds of Russian blogs and Twitter accounts, with Obama taking the role usually occupied by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki or former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Some users sarcastically wondered if Obama was “afraid that the Kremlin decided to claim Alaska back.”

Others posted pictures showing made-up dialogues between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with one of them saying:

“Obama: Give Crimea back to Ukraine!
Putin: Give Texas back to Mexico, Alaska back to Russia, and the rest of the territory to the American Indians.”

Some may dismiss the entire brouhaha over what may have been a misguided rhetorical flourish or mistake – but in a sensitive situation when cross-border disputes remain unresolved, any sign of ignorance combined with overseas sanctimony is apparently not going to go down well with Russians.