Spanish colonies in the Californias, created in part to forestall Russian expansion, were militarily weak. The military had only a few hundred men in the whole territory, and no ships at all. It was easily outgunned by the two insurgent ships that sacked and burned the capital, Monterey, in 1818. Spain had always had too much going on to invest in developing California.

Enter Russia. It had been expanding eastwards by conquering local societies as it went. Once the empire reached the Pacific Ocean, the Russian-American Company was formally permitted to settle Alaska. It established colonies there, which were perennially short of food, contributing to their eventual sale to the United States. Spanish officials took fright and monitored Russian encroachment, but were unable or unwilling to oppose the installation of Russia's outpost Fort Ross.

After the Napoleonic Wars ended, Russia sponsored several dozen long-range voyages. Officials of the Imperial Navy on round-the-world trips and Russian-American Company ships from Sitka both made contacts throughout California. Several of the Russian visitors who wrote up their experiences noticed the province's inadequate defenses; some, especially Dmitry Zavalishin, suggested that Russia should acquire California.

The Russian-American Company could not have sponsored an invasion nor a settlement of California, but the Imperial Russian Navy could have. This acquisition could have solved the problem of provisionment to the Russian Pacific rim and dramatically expanded Russia's sphere of influence. Spain would not have found out for many months, and would have had trouble retaliating since three viceroyalties were in revolution at once, including the one from which any reinforcements for California would have to be sent. For all its vaunted navy could do, Spain was about to lose nearly all its colonies; Russia was not. Independent Mexico wasn't about to be able to defend California either; there wasn't much of a fight when the United States sent a few ships to take over.

Aware of Zavalishin's advocacy, and already possessing one outpost in the area, Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I could have taken California for Russia between approximately 1815-1845. Why didn't they?

  • 1
    As written this appears to be asking about alternative history, which is off-topic.For example, it leads to other questions, such as "Would Russia really want to start a war with Spain (and risk another European war)?" that can only be answered with speculation and not fact. – KillingTime May 6 '17 at 8:16
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    Oh, the time-honoured Russian habit of "picking up what's lying askew". – Felix Goldberg May 6 '17 at 9:56
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    On my opinion it could not. Sending a substantial Russian fleet into Pacific was out of question before 20th century, and even in 20th century, when they did this they suffered a humiliating defeat. – Alex May 6 '17 at 10:59
  • @KillingTime are "why not" inherently questions alternative history? If so, I erred in asking this. – Aaron Brick May 6 '17 at 22:20
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    @AaronBrick It depends a lot on scope, for example "Why didn't Germany invade Britain in WW2?" is answerable because there was clear intent by the Germans, a clear set of circumstances for invasion and reasons why those circumstances weren't met. However, in this case it's far less clear that there was even intent on the part of the Russians. So in order to answer, one has to construct intent and then reasons why it didn't go ahead. – KillingTime May 7 '17 at 8:18

It was horribly too far away.

One thing is stablishing some minor settlements and trade activities, and a very different one is conducting a military expedition.

Siberia was not developed to support such an effort locally, and most of the southern coastline of what is now the Russian Far East was part of China (which ceded it to Russia as part of the Treaty of Aigun.

So, the options to bring military force were:

  • Send them by land, through Siberia1, to... where? there were some ports, but they were up North and none was big enough to build a fleet.

  • Send them by ship from Saint Petersburg. They will have to go either around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.

    • Going through the Cape of Good Hope would lenghthen the travel,

    • Going through Cape Horn would mean not being able to resupply2 in the Spanish held coastline, since Argentina to California.

    And of couse, the fleet would pass near the Spanish coastline, giving the Spanish fleet a chance to attack3.

  • Same of the above, but from the Black Sea. Pretty much the same, except for the added issue of the risk of meeting the Spanish fleet at the passing of Gibraltar.

I mean, Spain was far from California, but compared with that kind of travel, it was practically next door with it. Spain could move troops to Central America and make a "short" land trip to California, and had troops available in better stablished colonies4.

And all of that5 to grab a lot of far away, completely undeveloped land, of which Russia already had lots.

Add to all of it that the ruling mentality was, until WWII, that Europe was the center of the world and the rest of it was important only as a way of getting resources for the metropoli, and it is easy to understand that such an enterprise would have been considered pointless.

1And not current day Siberia, but a Siberia far less developed, with worse roads, less towns --> lots of supply problem.

2Unless they assaulted Spanish towns... but those were far better developed than California was.

3Of course, Spain at the time was not a maritime power, but neither was Russia, and Spain would have its bases closer.

4At the time they were pretty busy fighting independentist movements, though.

5Well, and the risk of getting in trouble with some other power.

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    Distance was part of the equation. The other part was that at the time, there was little profit to be had in the area. Prior to the discovery of gold, the primary resources one would expect to get from Northern California was lumber and furs, things which Russia already had in abundance. – Gort the Robot May 7 '17 at 2:47
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    I'm not sure about "Spain at the time was not a maritime power, but neither was Russia". They were both in the top 5 world naval powers at the time, behind Britain and France. – KillingTime May 7 '17 at 8:13
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    @StevenBurnap Russia's colonies from Okhotsk to Kamchatka to Kodiak to Sitka were all short of food, and Russian ships came to California repeatedly to buy grain and tallow from missions and ranchos. That was the resource attraction. – Aaron Brick May 7 '17 at 14:57
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    FWIW, shipyards were operating in both Okhotsk and Sitka. – Aaron Brick May 8 '17 at 3:31

TL;DR: Russia was not interested.

Fort Ross did only sea otter hunting; all attempts to grow food on any reasonable scale failed. California in general was a desert with half-wild grazing and no arable land, except maybe some of New Helvetia (which started wheat production only as late as 1840, and even that was barely sustainable). Of course lumber was great, but I doubt Russia has any interest in more lumber.

Mexico was equally uninterested. When in 1836 von Wrangel talked to Mexican government about legitimization of Fort Ross, they agree on the only condition that Russia would establish diplomatic relationship with Mexico. Tzar Nicolas said that he'd never recognize this ungodly Republic. So much for the either side interest.

I don't even want to start on the ghastly logistics of a military expedition to California.

PS: Russia had a small window of opportunity to expand into Oregon Territory before 1805, but Paul was preoccupied with the Maltese knighthood.

  • I agree. Still, the Russian-American Company bought wheat in California from 1806 on. – Aaron Brick Mar 20 '18 at 6:35

Russia had no Pacific fleet until after the Americans came to California and Oregon. It only obtained the area around Vladivostok in 1860, the future base of the Pacific fleet.

In fact, Russia had no navy until the time of Peter the Great (1690s). Even then, it was far behind the fleets of Britain and France in the 18th century.

As late as 1905, Russia had a terrible time sending its Baltic fleet to the Far East (for the battle of Tsushima Straits). This was in an era of coal and steam powered ships, and when the Suez Canal was in use. It would have been very difficult to send sail-driven ships around the Cape of Good Hope (or Cape Horn, through Spanish held waters) and from there to Alaska, which is why Russia didn't try.

Russia sold Alaska to the United States because its grip on it was tenuous at best. California was even further south (that is, away from Siberia) and harder to manage. Even if Russia could somehow "seize" California, it couldn't hold it very long against Spanish, American and British pressure. Assuming that Russia had somehow gotten hold of, and held California, it would probably have been included in the "Alaska" sale.

  • In 1905 Russia couldn't use the Suez Canal. That made the journey of the Baltic fleet to the Pacific an unexpected achievement. Furthermore, it wasn't easier for steamships (which need coal stations) than for sailing ships. – Pere Dec 6 '18 at 12:28

Did you ever hear of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars?

A generation of on and off conflicts that devastated Europe and killed millions and changed everything. Wouldn't you expect that people and even their rulers were just a wee little bit tired and frightened of killing and war after that?

Thus the governments of Europe adopted the Congress system or Concert of Europe in 1815 which continued until at least the early 1820s and did not totally break down until the Crimean war of 1853-1856. They were reluctant to risk major European wars for most of the period before Russia sold Alaska to the US in 1867.

And of course if Russia did decide to risk war with Spain by attacking Spanish colonies, how could Spain and any allies retaliate? They could send a fleet through the Mediterranean and Black Sea to attack and maybe destroy the Russian naval bases in the Crimea. And they could have used another tactic from the Crimean war of the 1850s and sent a fleet to the Baltic. What was the worst that a Spanish fleet in the Baltic could have possibly done? Captured the city of Saint Petersburg that just happened to be the Russian capital, that's what!

After Mexico became independent in 1821. Russia could have invaded and taken over California. But if the Russians landed a brigade or something in California the Mexicans could have sent a division or two to recover California. And possibly Spain and other European powers might have sent ships and soldiers to help drive the Russians out of California.

In the 19th century Russia and the USA were often on good terms. But if the Russians conquered California they would soon lose American friendship and suspect that the US government as interested in sending an army overland to take over California.

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