Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Russia, Russia, Russia!

Russia, Russia, Russia!

Russia has been getting enormous attention in the American media in the past year or so.  What did Russia do in the 2016 election?  What is Russia doing now to interfere in the United States?  What are Putin's intentions?  Did members of the Trump team collude with the Russians in the course of the campaign?  And so on.

As an American historian with an interest in "invasions", "incursions" and "interference" I am fascinated by the too-often forgotten history of American invasions of Russia AND Russian invasions of America.

In the Russia chapter of America Invades ( we wrote about the Polar bear expedition of 1918-19...

"In 1918, Woodrow Wilson ordered American forces to form part of the Allied North Russia Expeditionary Force that was being readied to support the White forces that were battling the Bolshevik Red forces in Russia. American sailors  first landed in Murmansk from the USS Olympia on June 8, 1918.

Wilson had, for one of the few times in our history, granted authority to allow American troops to serve under foreign leadership. In November of 1918, just as the war in Europe was coming to a close, British Major General Edmund Ironside took over command of our force, what became known as the Polar Bear Expedition—great name, but not such a great outcome. In his diary, Ironside expressed doubts about his mission comparing the advance into Russia to sticking your hand into a huge sticky pudding.

Eventually, about  five thousand American troops served in Northern Russia alongside British, Canadian, Australian, and White Russian forces. Some of them would not return to America. On the Dvina front on September 16, 1918, Private Philip Sokol from Pittsburgh was the first American to be killed in combat in the Russian campaign.

After initial success, stiffening Bolshevik resistance rapidly put the intervention forces in an increasingly desperate situation. Throughout the bitter Russian winter of 1918, General Ironside had to order his forces to retreat into a smaller and smaller area until ultimately they would be fighting just to survive.

Nevertheless, as in almost all wars, there were occasional brief, happier interludes. Godfrey Anderson was a Michigan farm boy who served in the 337th Field Hospital Unit in the Polar Bear Expedition. He describes a Christmas dinner in Shenkursk that featured fricassee of rabbit and chocolate layer cake. A balalaika orchestra and a dozen or so Russian girls were invited to attend and dance with the troops. On occasions, fraternization could lead to more; Private Joseph Chinzi of the 339th Supply Company married a Russian bride in Archangel.

A further eight thousand American soldiers were sent to Vladivostok, along with a variety of other Allied troops, including Japanese. US General Graves had more modest, and perhaps more realistic, ambitions than some of the other Allied generals in Siberia, and our troops ended up protecting the Trans-Siberian railroad from Bolshevik raids. Nevertheless, the intervention in Siberia proved ultimately as pointless as the intervention in Northern Russia, as chaos and conspiracy weakened the White Forces and the Red Forces advanced.

Wilson feared that the presence of American troops in Russia after World War I had ended could impede settlement of the Versailles Peace Treaty where he sought the creation of the League of Nations. The war to end all wars was finished. The Americans wanted all their boys to come home, and there was a growing feeling in the United States that the Russian intervention was a disaster that had failed to achieve anything very positive. Eventually, we did pull our boys out.

Polar Bear Memorial
White Chapel Cemetery, Troy, MI 

Today, though you can find a polar bear sculpture in a Detroit cemetery, the Allied North Russia Expedition is largely forgotten in the United States. In Russia, a visitor to Archangel will find several memorials of Russian resistance to the expedition."  (Source:

Americans have fought in Russia but it is also true that Russians have fought in and invaded America too.  In America Invaded: A State by State Guide to Fighting on American Soil we explored Russian invasions of territory now occupied by several American states.  In the Alaska chapter we wrote...

Onion Dome Church
Sitka, AK

"In the eighteenth century, it was Russian traders who arrived in Alaskan waters in pursuit of seals and fur-bearing animals...In 1732, Mikhail Gvozdev was the  first Russian to investigate Alaskan waters. Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer who served in Czar Peter the Great’s navy, explored the coast of Alaska in 1741. He died, probably of scurvy, on the voyage, and is buried on Bering Island. In 1784, the Russians established their first settlement in Alaska, at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island...

In 1799, the Russian-American Company, a joint stock company, was founded. From 1804 to 1867, it enjoyed a monopoly on fur trading in Alaska.  The Russians built forts, intermarried with some of the native people, and attempted to convert them to Orthodox Christianity.

Resistance by the indigenous people to Russian colonization dated nearly from the Russians’ arrival. In 1802, the Tlingit tribe destroyed a Russian settlement at Redoubt Saint Michael. In 1804, the Russians won a victory at the Battle of Sitka, which was really more of a skirmish. At least twelve Russians were killed, and Governor Baronov was wounded. Tlingit casualties are unknown.

The Tlingit did not surrender after the battle. In 1805, the tribe wiped out a Russian settlement at Yakutat Bay. In spite of Russian pacification efforts, Tlingit resistance continued until 1858.

In 1867, Czar Alexander II, recognizing the growing power of the United States and unable to defend Russia’s overseas empire, sold Alaska to the Americans. American critics were quick to condemn “Seward’s folly,” which added nearly 600,000 square miles to the Union at a bargain price of $7.2 million.  The first American troops began arriving in Alaska in October of 1867. Regardless, Russian in influence on Alaska is still felt today, with the onion- domed churches of Sitka and the predominance of Orthodox Christianity among the native people."  (Source:

The Russians even probed south as far as California.  We wrote about Fort Ross in the California chapter of America Invaded...

Fort Ross, CA

Czarist Russia made a serious bid for California, which left a legacy that endures to the present. In 1806, officials of the Russian-American Company first visited San Francisco.  They sought mainly a source of food to supply their colony in Russian Alaska. In 1812, the same year that Napoleon invaded Russia, the Russians ”invaded” northern California, establishing Fort Ross in what is today Sonoma County.  e Russians already had an important colony established in Alaska, where the harsh climate made agriculture problematic. Eighty Aleuts and twenty-five Russians helped build a stockade.  The cannons of Fort Ross were never fired in anger. Today Fort Ross is a California state park.

The Russians traded with the native Kashaya people who had inhabited the land around Fort Ross for thousands of years. Some Russian colonists intermarried with Kashaya women.  The Russians and their Aleut allies pursued sea otters and planted orchards, growing peaches, apples, and pears.  They built a Russian Orthodox church. An outbreak of smallpox in 1837 decimated the indigenous people, and by the 1830s, the sea otter population had been greatly diminished (only about 2,500 otters remain in the twenty-first century).  The Russians opted in 1841 to sell Fort Ross to Captain John Sutter, a Mexican citizen of Swiss extraction, who later became famous for igniting the California Gold Rush of 1849.

Guns of Fort Ross

The Russian departure from Fort Ross in 1842 did not mean the end of Russian influence on California. A Russian Orthodox cathedral was built in San Francisco in 1881. The Russian River, popular with kayakers, cuts through Sonoma County. Fictional Russians would return to Northern California (doubling for Massachusetts) in 1966 to  film  The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming near Fort Bragg. In 2016’s Hail Caesar, a Soviet submarine is met o  the California coast by a boatload of leftist Hollywood screenwriters."  (Source:

We noted the Russian interest in the Sandwich Islands in the Hawaii chapter of America Invaded...

"The  first threats to the independence of the Hawaiian kingdom did not come from Britain or America. Astonishingly, they came from the Russians and the French. Georg Anton Schäffer, a German doctor working for the Russian-American Company, led an attempted invasion of Hawaii in 1816. Schäffer ordered the crew of the Myrtle, a Russian vessel, to build a fort near Honolulu Harbor. He also built Fort Hipo on Kauai. King Kamehameha had Schäffer and the Russians evicted from Hawaii in 1817.  The ruins of Fort Hipo are visible on Kauai today."  (Source:

Soviet Hydrophone
Ballard, WA

In my home state of Washington I took a photograph in front of a Fishing supply store in Ballard (reproduced in  The photo depicts a Soviet hydrophone that was caught in the nets of a Washington state based fishing vessel during the Cold War.   Though it is labeled "Putin's Hearing Aide" it really belonged to Brezhnev.

Americans have invaded Russia.  Russians have invaded America as well.  It really should be no surprise that Russians in the 21st Century continue to have an strong interest in the United States of America .

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