Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unhappy Anniversary

This year marks the 200th anniversary of official relations between Russia and the United States.

Of course, the two nations had relations that preceded 1807. Benjamin Franklin was in correspondence with Russian scientists about his theories of electricity and magnetism. Trade relations were also established early, with the first U.S. merchant ship arriving in Russia in 1783. Perhaps the most famous date in the years preceding official relations is Sept. 23, 1776, when Catherine the Great denied King George III of England's request to provide military assistance to quell the American Revolution, forcing him to hire the Hessian mercenaries of which every schoolchild learns.

The negotiations may have begun in 1807, but it was two years before the first official U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Quincy Adams, arrived in St. Petersburg. He had been assigned there before as a 14-year-old boy, chosen because his French was so good. Adams, who went on to become the sixth U.S. president, was friends with Tsar Alexander I, and his dispatches written during Napoleon's invasion are read to this day. His infant daughter died and was buried in Petersburg.

Another ambassador to Russia, James Buchanan, also went on to the presidency. Others of distinction include George Dallas, after whom the city in Texas is named, and Cassius Clay, after whom the boxer Muhammad Ali was originally named. Clay, a southern emancipationist who freed his own slaves, served twice in Russia, from 1861 to 1862 and 1863 to 1869. He was sent the second time to keep Russia from siding with the Confederacy. The Russian Navy ultimately paid calls to San Francisco and New York in 1863, causing jubilation in the war-weary North. There were giant parades in New York and the secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, wrote in his diary, "God bless the Russians."

The reality was a little less exalted. Fearing the outbreak of war, the Russians wanted their fleet out of European waters. They were killing two birds.

The United States was the first country to recognize the provisional government in 1917. Once the Bolsheviks took over, it was a different story. The United States had no ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1933. Franklin D. Roosevelt played an important diplomatic role, initiating the idea of summits by meeting with Stalin at Tehran and Yalta.

George Kennan may be the best known of all the ambassadors to Russia, but he served less than a year in 1952 before incurring Stalin's displeasure.

In any case, his famous "Long Telegram" positing the concept of containment was written in 1946, well before he became ambassador.

What this little retrospective of the 200-year relationship reveals is that the two countries are hardly bound to any one paradigm. Relations are always a function of circumstance and self-interest, with passions clouding judgment.

It is unfortunate that relations are so slack and nasty in this bicentennial year, but they are not as bad as they sometimes seem and could be improved quickly, if not greatly. The principals must, however, have some fairly definite idea what they want from each other and what they can reasonably expect.

Russia will remain Putinesque after the March election whether Putin himself retains a position of power, operates from behind the scenes or withdraws altogether. The Leningrad KGB alumni will continue to run the show. Russia will remain a country with more social than political freedom. The price of oil will keep the economy strong.

It is the realities of business more than diplomatic maneuverings that will bind Russia to the West and Western ways. U.S. diplomacy should focus on economic relations in the hope that a Russian judiciary that grows used to dealing fairly with economic issues will in time expand its scope to the political. Democracy may have failed in Russia, but the rule of law has yet to be tried.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."