A Russian parliament member has called for the return of Alaska to Russia, prompting a quick dismissal from Alaska politicians and others.
The statement came as Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to rewrite history in an effort to explain away his war in Ukraine. But Russia has not seriously considered reclaiming Alaska since the territory was sold to the U.S. for $7.2 million in 1867, and Putin himself indicated in 2014 that he had no interest in retaking Alaska.
Still, on a Sunday news program in Russia, parliament member Oleg Matveychev included Alaska in a list of demands in response to the war in Ukraine and the economic harm caused to the country by U.S. sanctions.
“Let’s think about reparations. The harm these sanctions caused us cost money. Return of possessions, including possessions of the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and even parts of Russia that are now occupied by the United States,” Matveychev said in the interview.
“What about the return of Alaska and Fort Ross?” the host asked, a reference to a former Russian outpost on the California coast north of San Francisco.
“This is my next point – recognizing Alaska, Fort Ross and Antarctica,” he said. “We actually discovered it, so it rightfully belongs to us.”
Historians point out that Russia’s hold on Alaska was not very strong even before the territory was purchased by the U.S., and Russia was eager to get rid of the land in the 19th century as the Russian Empire faced economic downturn and struggled to defend the territory.
Alaska and Fort Ross made up what was called Russian America. The largest number of Russians in the territory never exceeded 600 people, according to historian Stephen Haycox, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“Alaska was simply too far away and too expensive to think of defending,” Haycox said.
Andrei Znamenski, a historian at the University of Memphis, said this type of demand is brought up occasionally by Russian politicians because of its nationalist appeal, rather than any rooting to reality. Similar comments have been made previously by Russian politicians during periods of Russian aggression, Znamenski said.
“Some Russian still do believe that somehow Alaska had been rented to the United States for 99 years,” he said. “It’s a bunch of urban folklore.”
Such myths get attention among the uneducated who have “a defensive sense of injustice,” said Haycox. But they have “no hold for the Russian economic or political elite.”
“For Russia, having Alaska today would be more problem than it would be worth,” Haycox said.
Still, such comments are helpful to Putin, Znamenski said.
“He does not discourage this talk,” Znamenski said. “It gives him power.”
Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski turned to Twitter to emphasize the implausibility of Alaska returning to Russian hands, posting a meme featuring singer Taylor Swift and the words, “That will never, ever, ever happen!”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy wrote on Twitter “Good luck with that! Not if we have something to say about it.”
And he snuck in an implied threat: “We have hundreds of thousands of armed Alaskans and military members that will see it differently.”
The State Department did not comment on Matveychev’s comments, but in a statement provided to the Anchorage Daily News, a spokesperson reiterated that the U.S. has issued “unprecedented and devastating sanctions that will impose immediate and long-term costs on Russia’s financial system and economy, cutting off Russia’s access to critical trade and Putin’s ability to project power.”
“Putin is the aggressor and he must pay the price. He cannot pursue a war that threatens the very foundations of peace and stability and then expect to benefit from it. Putin’s cronies must also feel the pain,” the spokesperson said.