The Russian-U.S. Relationship Goes Way Back to John Quincy Adams

Before he became president, Adams was the nascent country’s first ambassador to Russia

Outside the Winter Palace stands a column honoring Alexander I, who took kindly to the presence of the Adamses when they lived in St. Petersburg. (Alamy)
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A statue of John Quincy Adams stands outside of Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow. In 1809, President James Madison asked Adams, at age 42 already one of America's most seasoned diplomats, to serve as the first American ambassador to Russia. The President needed a man with the prudence and the tenacity necessary to persuade the young Czar Alexander to respect the interests of the United States, a neutral power in the colossal battle between England and Napoleonic France. Adams would justify that faith, and earn that statue.

This was not Adams' first trip to a country most Americans viewed more in the light of legend than history. Almost 30 years prior, when Adams was 14 years old, his father, John Adams, sent him to serve as the secretary to Francis Dana, who was being dispatched to Russia to seek aid for the revolutionary cause. Catherine the Great refused to receive the American emissary, and neither diplomat nor secretary had much to do. But this remarkably perspicacious boy paid close attention to the world into which he had been cast. “The Sovereign,” he wrote to his mother Abigail, “is Absolute, in all the extent of the word. . . .And the nobility have the same power over the people, that the Sovereign has over them. The Nation is wholly composed of Nobles and Serfs, or in other words, of Masters and Slaves.” The system, he wrote, is disadvantageous even to the ruler, for the nobles continually rebel against absolute power.  Young though he was, Adams was very much a republican in the land of absolutism.

The Adams of 1809, the future president and son of a former president, was a man of wide experience. He had served as minister in The Hague and Berlin, and had represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. Adams knew Europe well, but Russia was not Europe. Adams thought about Russia much as many Europeans thought about America—as a vast, dynamic, semi-civilized and almost dream-like place.

Even among the aristocrats who represented the nations of Europe in the Russian court, Adams cut a commanding, and quite forbidding, figure. “He sat in the frivolous assemblies of St. Petersburg like a bull-dog among spaniels,” as a British visitor put it, “and many were the times that I drew monosyllable and grim smiles from him and tried in vain to mitigate his venom.” Adams was not nearly so venomous towards other nations as he was towards America's former colonial master, but he was a stubborn and single-minded advocate. We know from Adams' own journal entries that he continually pressed Count Rumiantsev, Russia's foreign minister, to break with Napoleon's so-called Continental System, a series of embargos that kept English goods, whether carried by English ships or neutrals like the U.S., out of the ports of Europe. Russia had been compelled to enforce the system after suffering humiliating defeats by Napoleon’s army in 1806. Dozens of American ships had been bottled up in the Gulf of Cronstadt, outside of St. Petersburg.

Adams had an unexpected advantage over the much older men of the court, who had left their families at home: he had his young wife Louisa, their two-year-old son Charles Francis, and a pretty sister-in-law. While the 31-year-old Czar Alexander trained his wandering eye on Louisa’s sister, he and his wife Elizabeth were also much taken with Charles Francis. They had lost two children before the age of two, the last one only 18 months before the Adamses arrived, and they practiced their English with Charles Francis, though the boy was more comfortable in French and German.

Whether because of Adams' relentless prosecution of his country's cause, or the Czar's fondness for his family, or perhaps even Alexander's partiality to the United States, it had become clear by late 1809 that Russian policy was tilting away from France and towards the U.S. and other neutrals. On December 31, 1810, the Emperor issued a ukase lifting all restrictions on exports from Russia and on imports coming by sea, while at the same time imposing a heavy tariff on goods arriving overland, most of which came from France. Alexander thus broke decisively with the Continental System. This was a tremendous diplomatic triumph for the U.S., since most cargo carried to Russia by ship came in American vessels, whether the cargo was American or English. Napoleon concluded that he could not subdue Europe unless he invaded Russia, which he would do, ill-advisedly, 18 months later.        

In the early 19th century, when correspondence traveled no faster than a horse and carriage or a sailing ship, diplomats had a great deal of time on their hands. Adams engaged in learned banter—always in French—with his fellow ministers, several of whom were as erudite as he. (One of Adams' colleagues whiled away his time translating Horace's Latin Odes into Greek.) He went on long walks even in the blinding white winters, often meeting no one save the Czar himself, out with his carriage.

The most painful rituals were social. Adams and Louisa were invited to lavish dancing parties, balls, masquerades, luncheons and winter carnivals where ladies shot down ice hills on sleds. Everyone gambled, at cards and dice. Louisa was even more shocked at the debauchery than was her husband, who by now felt that he had seen everything. However, Adams barely survived on a modest American salary, and could reciprocate nothing, a source of great embarrassment.

Adams was deeply impressed by Russian piety, noting that even the gentry fasted for the 40 days of Lent—and then gorged themselves on the stupendous feats of Easter. Everything was strange and outsized. Men wagered on which day the ice on the Neva would break; and when, in mid-May, it finally it did so, the governor of St. Petersburg brought the Czar an ice-cold glass of river water, and the Czar rewarded him with a hundred ducats. The Russian palaces were vast, the furnishings dazzling. At Catherine's Winter Palace, the magnificent decorations were decaying from wanton neglect. But Adams found the gravestones of three imperial greyhounds—"Sir Tom Anderson, Duchesse, and Zemire"—with inscriptions written in impeccable French verse.

Adams never lost his fascination with Russia; nor did Czar Alexander's fondness for the United States flag. But the bond between the two nations, the one the defender of autocratic orthodoxy, the other of republican liberty, was not a natural one. After Russia defeated Napoleon and humbled France, the Czar placed himself at the head of the Holy Alliance, a league of princes dedicated to stamping out all traces of republican thought in Europe. In 1817, Adams became Secretary of State in the administration of President James Monroe. He was the chief intellectual force behind the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which stipulated that since "the political system of the allied powers"—the Holy Alliance—was "essentially different" from that of the United States, the U.S. would "consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety." The New World, that is, would be republican, and the U.S. would be its guarantor. The ideological struggle that would come to define U.S. relations with the Soviet Union in the 20th century was thus prefigured by the friction between republican America and autocratic Russia.

Adams himself delivered a version of Monroe's speech—in the form of a note verbale—to Baron de Tuyll, Russia's minister to the U.S. He wanted Russia to understand that the United States would not tolerate any attempt to transplant authoritarian rule to North or South America.

The Adams of 1823, like the Adams of 1781, was a zealous patriot and a passionate republican. He would never permit his partiality towards Russia to supersede his defense of liberty.

James Traub is a Foreign Policy columnist, a lecturer in international relations at New York University and the author of John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. 

He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

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