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150 Years Ago, The U.S. Bought Alaska From Russia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now a story about relations between the United States and Russia. This is a very old story. It's not about election hacking or Crimea. We're talking about a deal struck 150 years ago today when Russia agreed to sell Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million.

LISA MURKOWSKI: It was involving a senator, involving a secretary of state, involving a Russian ambassador and the exchange of millions of dollars. So it gets people's imaginations going about, what are we talking about?

SHAPIRO: That's Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. We caught up with her at a commemorative event today in Washington. The history of Russia in Alaska goes back to the 1700s. Russians settled on the Alaskan coastline to trap sea otters, foxes and seals for their fur valuable for keeping warm during long Russian winters.

Eventually, though, Russians sensed the British wanted to seize the territory, so they sold it off to the fledgling United States. One-hundred-fifty years later, the Russian influence in Alaska is still alive and well. Here's Alaska's other senator, Dan Sullivan.

DAN SULLIVAN: You know, you see the onion dome small churches, and there are still, you know, Russian Orthodox communities in the state.

SHAPIRO: Americans didn't always think of this as a wise purchase. In fact, at first, it was called Seward's Folly after Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the deal. Of course over time, Americans have warmed to it. Here's Alaska's First Lady Donna Walker.

DONNA WALKER: We think we live in the most magnificent place on the planet. And you know, we have vast natural resources, and we have, you know, great strategic location. We think we're a real benefit to the United States.

SHAPIRO: The reasons to love Alaska are so varied that Russia has expressed some seller's remorse. Senator Sullivan said this actually came up a few years back in a meeting with the Russian ambassador.

SULLIVAN: And at the end, he jokingly mentioned to me about, hey, the Russians wanting to buy Alaska back.

SHAPIRO: Sullivan's response...

SULLIVAN: We're not interested.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Sorry, Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO SONG, "EXZEBACHE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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