It happened today - August 14, 2015

Three Saints BayThe Russians are coming. The Russians are coming.

Actually that’s old news where Alaska is concerned. The first permanent Russian settlement there, Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island, was established by fur trader Grigori Shelikhov back on August 14, 1784.

Today it seems like a pretty no-hope venture. But the Russians got as far south as northern California by 1812, before being firmly dislodged by the British and Americans. Eventually Moscow gave up on Alaska and, desperate for money, sold it in 1867.

If that result doesn’t surprise you, it’s worth considering why it doesn’t. After all Russia, like France and Spain, was no slouch at expansion in its heyday which, in all cases, lasted some centuries and which in the Russian case the sinister Vladimir Putin is trying to fan back into flames. Russia managed to grab Siberia, a prize largely deserving of Voltaire’s unfair “quelques arpents de neige” jibe about Canada and then some. But in all three cases, France, Spain and Russia, the heavy hand of government, so apparently useful in pushing a colonial venture forward, has the paradoxical effect of draining it of vitality, turning it into a source of weakness not strength.

In the 18th century, many nations’ colonies looked more impressive than Britain’s. But the big coloured swaths of New France, New Spain and so on, at least on a map, were substantially empty of committed settlers and swarming with officious bureaucrats. Meanwhile Britain’s colonies, from Canada to Virginia to Australia, were dynamic.

Sometimes so much so that they revolted. But of course that story ended happily, with Britain and the United States shoulder to shoulder in the great conflicts of the 20th century, and Canada, Australia and New Zealand right there with them. There is no equivalent French or Spanish breakaway flourishing ally. To say nothing of Russia’s recent squalid annexation of Crimea and its designs on Ukraine, neither of which it has any idea how to govern decently.

So yes, a permanent Russian settlement in Alaska and into North America was never probable. And a good thing too.