Building Commercial Relations with Russia
When Francis Dana, America’s first diplomat assigned to Russia, arrived in St. Petersburg, he wrote that the city “far exceeds all my expectations.” He said it alone immortalized the memory of Peter the Great. Unlike European diplomats who considered the assignment to St. Petersburg as a place of exile in comparison to Paris or London or Amsterdam, Dana was hopeful that he could build constructive relations with the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, who was lauded all over Europe by the leading writers of the Enlightenment.
Catherine’s hostility toward the new American republic and her unwillingness to receive Dana on an equal footing with diplomats from other nations made the experience for the Puritan statesman a painful one. Dana was not a flamboyant person; he was the stereotype of a Puritan lawyer with a judicial temperament and a deep devotion to his country. He was not particularly interested in forming a political alliance with Russia, but rather pursued trade negotiations which he felt were “the surest basis of common interest between a great dynastic state and a struggling republican commonwealth,” according to Dana’s biographer.
When Catherine the Great refused to grant him an audience, Dana took advantage of this free time and studied the details of Russian commerce. He carefully listed the exports from Russia and highlighted the products that he felt the Americans could import. Rather than continuing to import many products from Great Britain, Dana proposed that Russia become one of America’s principal suppliers.
Unlike other American statesmen who were trying to figure out how the new American republic would fit into the European balance of power and its system of alliances, Dana prophesied that America’s greatness would be based on its commercial relations. Free trade was his priority, not political entanglement.
Catherine the Great’s Opposition
Dana was frustrated by the unwillingness on the part of the Empress to even grant him an audience because he was convinced that if he could discuss the formation of a commercial relationship between America and Russia, she would be an enthusiastic supporter. Catherine’s top officials also refused to meet with him. Largely ignored by the elites in St. Petersburg, Dana and his assistant, John Quincy Adams, endured the disrespect for over two years.
While many Americans, including members of the Congress, saw Catherine the Great’s “League of Armed Neutrality” as proof that she was devoted to “freedom” and “liberty,” Dana saw an Empress who was after power and prestige. He had no patience with the respectful adulation of other diplomats and neither hoped for favors from her nor feared her country as a potential enemy. He saw bribery in her court, favoritism toward certain lovers and their schemes, as well as a vacillating foreign policy which began to increasingly focus on the Black Sea and the expansion of the Russian Empire toward the east.
In a letter to his mentor, John Adams, Dana outlined his growing conviction that America needed to withdraw from European affairs. “We have a world to ourselves,” he wrote, and “we may form a system of politics to ourselves.” His prophetic statement helped to shape the foreign policy system that developed under the leadership of Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Monroe. He argued against any “entangling alliances” and the bribes demanded by the Empress’ money-hungry officials.
Back in the United States, the Founders were drawing their own conclusions from Dana’s miserable experience in St. Petersburg. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison ridiculed the kings of Europe and argued that America’s true interest required her to stay away from Old World entanglements, a sentiment famously expressed by President George Washington in his farewell address in 1796.
A Difficult Start
The experience of the first American minister to Russia was a failure. He was never granted official recognition and never had an audience with Catherine the Great. The Empress expressed her hostility toward the new republic and its “Sons of Liberty,” and chided the British for failing to prevent the colonies’ successful drive to independence. But the relationship between these two countries dramatically changed as a new Romanov, Alexander I, came to power in 1801. But that’s another story.