Russia Watch: Back to the Future: 2012 US-Russia relations echo 1832

The U.S. Ambassador labored to get Congress to ratify a trade treaty that would grant “favored nation” status to Russia. Washington’s leading newspaper harshly criticized Russia for human rights violations. Russia’s secret police were reading all the Ambassador’s mail. The Czar was convinced that Washington was fomenting democracy rebellions inside his empire.

Sound like last week’s news? No, this is not about U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, the Magnitsky Act, President Vladimir Putin, ‘color revolutions’ and US-Russian relations in 2012.

It is 1832. It is US Ambassador James Buchanan trying to negotiate the United States’ first free trade treaty with Russia, under Czar Nicholas I.

My trip back 180 years started on Thanksgiving, a family day in the United States. On Thursday, I gave the family tree a good shake. Down tumbled Buchanan, a family ancestor who became the 15th president of the United States.

My paternal grandmother was the granddaughter of Edward Buchanan, a younger brother of the President. Ok, that’s a bit tenuous. It might get me a free cup of coffee the next time I stop by the James Buchanan Pub and Restaurant on North Main Street in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.

James Buchanan the future president of the United States serveed as Ambassador to Russia. Here, he stands for her presidential portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1859 — 26 years after sailing out of St. Petersburg. Photo: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

My father had a few books around the house signed by Buchanan. Unfortunately, his is not a hot presidential autograph. American historians routinely rank Buchanan as one the five worst presidents of the United States.

In the last two months of his Presidency, seven southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. On March 4, 1861, President Buchanan handed over power to president-elect Abraham Lincoln. Five weeks later, the opening shots were fired in the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history.

Complicating the ancestor claim is the fact that Buchanan never had any children. Through the 1970s, history books diplomatically referred to him as America’s only bachelor president. Now, he is more often referred to as America’s only gay president.

Before he became president, Buchanan shared a house in Washington for 15 years with Alabama Senator William R. King. President Andrew Jackson, an army general who fathered 10 children, lampooned Buchanan and his Washington housemate as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”

Historians differ on why Jackson dispatched Buchanan, then a former Congressman, to St. Petersburg. Some say it was a reward, some say it was a punishment for a political slight.

It is known that in January 1832, days after the Senate ratified his posting to Russia, Buchanan wrote a letter to an influential friend in Washington, hinting that “London would be a pleasant exchange for St. Petersburg.”

But his destination was to be Russia.

Relations between US and Russia have changed – and have not changed, if one is to judge by old letters and a 1962 book, “President James Buchanan: A Biography” by Philip Shriver Klein.

Transport and communications have changed, but a values trench still separates Russia and the United States.

The transatlantic sail from New York to Liverpool took 25 days from New York to Liverpool. Buchanan wrote home that he was seasick almost the entire way.

In Liverpool, he was met by a Mr. Ogden, the American consul. According to Klein, Ogden warned the neophyte ambassador “of the need for security in diplomatic activity, and gave him a special cipher” to code his letters.

Many of the Russian issues and attitudes that US Ambassador Michael McFaul grapples with today were confronted 180 years earlier by his predecessor, James Buchanan.

Happy to see the world at Washington’s expense, Buchanan visited London and eight other British cities. He took his first ride on a railroad, traveling from Liverpool to Manchester at the giddy speed of 30 kilometers an hour. Finally, he set sail for Lubeck, Germany and on to St. Petersburg.

In St. Petersburg, he found an American legation that, in these days before the international telegraph, had not received mail from Washington in one year. He raised their spirits by renting a large mansion at “Grand Neva 65.” The villa was furnished with bronzes and marbles and the pantry had enough silver, porcelain and crystal for dinner parties of 30.

On June 11, two months after leaving New York, Buchanan presented his credentials to Czar Nicholas I.

Klein writes: “The monarch rather surprised the new envoy by coming forward, shaking hands with warmth and cordiality, and wishing him a happy stay in the city.”

Czar Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia from 1825 to 1855, approved the first trade treaty with the United States, negotiated by James Buchanan, US Ambassador to Russia 1832-1833. At the time this oil portrait was painted by Franz Kruger, in 1852, the Russian Empire was near its geographic zenith. Photo: Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

The Czar’s wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, proved to be very talkative, repeatedly stressing one point: “She thought the Americans were wise to keep out of European troubles, because they had enough of their own at home, especially with the Southern states.”

This sounds like advice Russia’s Foreign Ministry could have offered yesterday.

At the palace reception, Buchanan did not argue with the Empress. He said his mission was to negotiate the first trade treaty between the United States and Russia.

While getting acclimated to Russia, Buchanan studied French, then the language of diplomacy and of Russia’s upper class. Buchanan had grown up in Pennsylvania, a state where the second, unofficial language was German.

“What a dunce I was not to have learned the German language!” he lamented in a letter to a friend back home. “It would have been almost as useful here as the French. I now understand the latter tolerably well, but it will be long before I shall speak it fluently.”

German would have been useful in 1830s St. Petersburg. Not only was the Empress a Prussian princess by birth, but the Ambassador’s key interlocutors on the trade treaty were four Baltic Germans working for the Czar: Count Nesselrode, Russia’s foreign minister; Baron Von Stieglitz, banker to the Czar; and Barons Krudener and Sacken, who served successively as Russia’s ambassadors to Washington.

To an American born in a log cabin, Buchanan wrote Russia’s titles and aristocratic pomp grated on “the Republican simplicity of my country.”

He wrote that if the folks back home in Lancaster could see his coach with four horses, “I would soon have a mob of men, women and children in my train.”

“What is most ridiculous of all is the Chasseur, who stands behind me,” he wrote in a letter. “He is decked out in his uniform more gaudy than that of our Militia Generals, with a sword by his side & and a large chapeau on his head, surmounted by a plume of feathers.”

Noting that passersby were supposed to doff their hats as his coach passed, he wrote: “I feel ashamed of myself whenever I pass through the city.”

In his letters, Buchanan also had some undiplomatic remarks about Russian food and drink.

“The Russian employed the best French cooks,” he wrote. “But usually ate a sour soup that would have repulsed a Delaware Indian.”

Here he probably refers not to borscht with sour cream, but to shchi – a vegetable soup based on cabbage or sauerkraut.

“Russian ladies were of high caliber, beautiful and educated,” Klein wrote. But Buchanan apparently preferred what he called ‘stag parties.’ Writing 180 years before St. Petersburg’s City Council passed a law banning “gay propaganda,” Buchanan apparently followed local tradition by keeping things discreet.

But, in general, Buchanan wrote of St. Petersburg aristocracy: “Too quiet for me!”

James Buchanan from a daguerrotype taken by Mathew Brady in the early 1850s.

In contrast, the American envoy found Russia’s ‘lower classes’ were more convivial and drank “a species of white brandy strong enough to kill the Devil.”

Presumably, he was talking about vodka, a spirit largely unknown to Americans for another century.

The Ambassador felt free to be undiplomatic in his outgoing letters, because he personally handed them to American ship captains sailing out of St. Petersburg.

But, he repeatedly warned friends to be careful in their letters to him.

“When you write, do not say anything which would be offensive to the Government,” he once wrote. “They are not very delicate about opening letters here.”

One day his secretary, Captain Barry, rushed to the ambassador, saying he had just seen a Russian servant of the legation going through official papers. Buchanan later wrote that it was no surprise to him.

Klein, his biographer, wrote: “He had known, before he ever got to St. Petersburg, that there was no security of information in Russia, and he made it a point never to put in writing anything that could give offense or disclose a secret. In practically every document he wrote official and private, he included some comments highly complimentary to the Emperor.”

Instead, Buchanan focused on his mission — negotiating the trade treaty. American unrefined sugar would be traded for Russian hemp, iron and sail cloth. Just the way Russian and American businessmen today lobby Congress to grant preferential trade status to Russia, Buchanan enlisted the help of von Stieglitz, the Czar’s banker, who maintained a large trading office in New York.

A separate maritime treaty failed. Russian shipping companies feared that their seamen would jump ship in American ports, leaving their ships stranded.

In behind the scenes court intrigue, Russia’s Ministers of Finance and Interior nearly persuaded Czar Nicholas I to scrap the trade treaty with Washington.

In a last minute move, an aide to the Russian foreign minister went to the American legation and coached the ambassador changing the language to win the Czar’s approval. (Only one year ago, American diplomats were coaching their Russian counterparts prepare their ultimately successful application to join the World Trade Organization.)

On Dec. 18, 1832, at a court reception for foreign ambassadors, Czar Nicholas announced that he had approved the trade treaty with the United States. The treaty, which awarded each nation “most favored nation” trading status, was believe to the first that Russia signed with a foreign power.

In a snub to the British, the Czar then turned to the British ambassador, a Mr. Bligh, and ordered him to translate his remarks for the linguistically challenged American ambassador.

With Czarist approval coming just before Christmas, Buchanan suddenly became the popular man about St. Petersburg. He was invited to the best winter season balls. The Emperor would stop him on a snowy street and loudly address him as “Buchanan.” The Empress praised him as fine dance partner.

It took a while for Buchanan to realize why he was the flavor of the season. The British and French had come to an agreement over Belgium and were moving toward an entente. The Russians were hedging their bets, cultivating United States.

In 1832, Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna gave the U.S. Ambassador what is now perennial advice from Russia: stay out of European affairs. This oil portrait was painted by A. Malyukov in 1836, three years after she danced with Buchanan during St. Petersburg’s winter season balls of 1833. Photo: Hermitage Museum

Fueling tensions, British and French newspapers were filled with reports of Russian atrocities in the Czar’s repression of the Polish uprising of November 1830. Buchanan had avoided taking sides in the Polish conflict, ducking any statement that today would be called advocating “human rights.”

But the Czar saw a hidden American hand at work in restive Poland.

“America was its home, American was its spokesman,” Klein writes of the Czar’s view of Poland’s ‘color revolution’ of the early 1830s. “If America saw mitigating factors, it would moderate the frenzy of European revolutionaries on the subject.”

Foreign Minister Nesselrode complained to Buchanan that The Washington Globe, a newspaper that backed President Jackson, “had been reprinting from the French and English journals some of the worst attacks against the Emperor.”

Klein summarized: “Would Buchanan not write to Jackson and request to him to have the editor of the Globe stop printing this kind of material and to direct him to publish some compliments about the Emperor?”

Buchanan tried to explain that the U.S. Constitution guarantees an independent press, ruling out the possibility that presidents would order newspaper editors to print articles. Perhaps Buchanan suspected that President Jackson, a tough, two term president nicknamed “Old Hickory,” was not likely take advice from a man he had dispatched as far from Washington as possible.

Why not, Buchanan suggested, have Russian newspapers print rebuttals to British and French stories? Then, translations of these can be supplied to American newspapers to give Americans the Russian side of the Polish question.

Buchanan apparently thought this pioneering foray into international public relations was successful.

But back in Washington, the Russian Ambassador was now Baron Sacken, an elderly, ill-tempered Baltic German who had commanded Russian troops in Poland. Sacken accused President Jackson of hypocrisy: “He claimed friendship for Russia in his messages to Congress, but encouraged the Globe to print articles abusive of the Emperor.”

At the time, Buchanan knew what Washington and the State Department were thinking – weeks after his Russian counterparts. Buchanan later complained that he never received a letter in St. Petersburg that had not been opened by the Russian police.

“The letters have been sent to me either almost open, or with such awkward imitation of the seals as to excite merriment,” he complained in a letter to the State Department.

What did get through to the State Department were his appeals to be relieved of his post before the onset of winter. While waiting for a response, he did some tourism in June of 1833, visiting Moscow and the Sergiyev Posad, the 16th century monastery outside of Moscow.

On his return, he found that Washington has granted his wish. On August 5, he had his last audience with Czar Nicholas I. By then, the U.S. Senate had ratified the Russia-US trade treaty. The U.S. ambassador was back in the good graces of Czar Nicholas I.

“Whilst we were taking leave, he told me to tell General Jackson to send another Minister exactly like myself – he wished for no better,” Buchanan wrote proudly of their last meeting, at Peterhof, the summer palace on the Gulf of Finland. “Thus has my mission terminated.”

Then, with no one in Washington to check his expense accounts, Buchanan turned his trip home into a leisurely four-month Grand Tour of Europe, paid for by US taxpayers. After sailing from St. Petersburg to Lubeck, Germany, he visited Hamburg, Amsterdam, the Hague, Brussels, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, and Liverpool. The stop in Paris included a meeting with the Marquis de Lafayette, the hero of the American Revolutionary War, then in the last year of his life.

By December, he was back in Pennsylvania, preparing to run for the US Senate. After 12 years in the Senate, he served as Secretary of State, then as ambassador to Great Britain.

During his term as President, he seemed to have carried with him the advice given him one quarter century earlier in St. Petersburg by Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. He avoided European entanglements, focusing instead on such bizarre ideas as purchasing Cuba from the Spanish and turning Mexico into a protectorate.

It is too bad he failed to act on the second part of her advice: Take care of problems at home, “especially with the Southern states.”
For the next chapter, go watch Steven Spielberg’s new hit movie “Lincoln.”


(Photo: Josef F. Stuefer from Europe)



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.