You might have missed the news that the mayor of Yakutsk, Russia, wants Spruce Island back. He claims to have documents that show that the island belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church, and therefore should not have been sold to the U.S. with the rest of Alaska.
Spruce Island, part of the Kodiak archipelago, is only about 18 miles square and has 250 residents. It’s home to Saints Sergius and Herman of Valaam Chapel, which is built on the grave site of St. Herman, the patron saint of North America.
How does this historical connection figure into the ownership of the island? The Russian website RT.com picks up the story: “Mayor Aysen Nikolayev and other officials from Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District have petitioned President Vladimir Putin, the heads of both chambers of the Russian Parliament, and the Russian Foreign Minister requesting the return of Spruce Island to the church.”
And the crucial documents, it seems, were found not in Russia but in the U.S.:
Researchers from Yakutsk went to the Alaskan capital Juneau to study the archive belonging to the Russian bibliographer Mikhail Vinokurov who emigrated to the USA in 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution. They discovered a certificate issued by Russian government commissioner Captain Second Rank Aleksey Peshchurov, detailing the transfer of Russian territories in Alaska to the United States. According to this document, Spruce Island has been granted to the Russian Orthodox Church ‘for eternity’.
Now, although it’s true that Vladimir Putin likes to snatch bits of other countries to which he thinks there’s a historical claim, nobody imagines he’ll come after Alaska, no matter how much fun the Russian press is having with the story. But let’s be clear: There isn’t any historical evidence that Spruce Island wasn’t included in the 1867 deal for what was then called Russian America.
The official report on the sale, transmitted from President Andrew Johnson to the House of Representatives in February 1868, includes a surveyor’s study of the new territory, and Spruce Island is mentioned four times. (Incidentally, according to Walter Stahr’s excellent biography of William Seward, who negotiated the sale, it wasn’t until long after the purchase that the press began calling it “Seward’s Folly”; in the months after the treaty, editorial enthusiasm was widespread.)
The Russian Orthodox Church, the supposed owner of the island, is wisely staying out of the fray. A spokesman, again according to RT.com, “only gave a reserved comment, saying that the discovered papers must be thoroughly studied in order to assess the perspective of the claims in the modern environment.”
Stephen L. Carter is a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama and the novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.