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June 18, 08

NEWS / Abraham Lincoln, Russian Czar Focus of Bicentennial Exhibition

Relationship between the two leaders during U.S. Civil War explored

By Jonathan Schaffer
Staff Writer

Washington -- For the next year, portraits, paintings and personal belongings of President Abraham Lincoln and Russian Czar Alexander II will be touring the United States and educating Americans about the roles the leaders and their advisers played in developing U.S.-Russian relations.

The exhibit will open for three months in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on July 12 and then travel to Kansas City, Missouri, in celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday. The collection, consisting of more than 200 objects and artifacts selected from both Russian and U.S. museums, will include a number of communications between the two leaders and between their foreign ministers as they sought to advance different but compatible foreign and domestic agendas.

The exhibit was the idea of the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation and is supported by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission as well as by leading museums in both countries. Among the items to be displayed are letters exchanged during the U.S. Civil War period (1861-1865) between Russian and U.S. foreign ministers, a copy of the czar’s manifesto abolishing Russian serfdom, documents related to the assassination of Alexander and the flag from Ford’s Theatre used to swaddle Lincoln’s head after he was shot.

“Your project’s timely reminder of the cordiality that characterized the correspondence and relationship between President Lincoln and Czar Alexander II resonate well in today’s world where President Bush and [Prime Minister] Putin strive to restore that level of trust and cooperation,” Senator Richard Durbin, chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, said.

The exhibit is an introduction to a brief but strategic period in U.S.-Russian diplomatic history. In 1863, at a time when the outcome of the Civil War was in question, Czar Alexander II ordered his entire Atlantic and Pacific fleets to New York and San Francisco. Russia was the first foreign nation to support the Union. Most historians agree the move was self-serving -- Alexander needed to protect the fleet from England and France, which had threatened intervention on behalf of the Poles engaged at that time in an anti-Russian uprising of national independence. The Russian fleet was antiquated and no match in size or quality to the British and French navies. But Lincoln welcomed the Russian fleet because it sent a message to France and England to stay out of the conflict.

While Britain and France officially were neutral during the Civil War, Lincoln feared that trading interests binding them with the Southern states and mixed Northern fortunes on the battlefield would ally these countries with the Confederacy. The presence of the Russian fleets, even if Russia had no intention of militarily engaging with the South, would be a key deterrent to British and French involvement.

While the arrival of the Russian fleet was a surprise to Lincoln, it was an opportunity he was going to use to his full advantage. On September 16, 1863, Mrs. Lincoln, accompanied by Major General John A. Dix, paid a visit to the Russian frigate Oslyabya. There was tremendous enthusiasm from the American public and press. The implicit message was that the United States would stay out of Russian affairs in Europe.

“Real politick” ruled the relationship, former Congressman James Symington, chairman of the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation, said in an interview.

Russia feared, for example, that a disruption in Russian-American relations and a Union defeat might strengthen England and France and alter the power balance in Europe. “In our view, this Union is not only a substantial element of the world political equilibrium, but, additionally, it represents the nation toward which our Tsar and Russia as a whole display the friendliest interest,” Russian Foreign Affairs Minister A.M. Gorchakov wrote in July 1861 to Eduard de Stoeckl, the Russian envoy in the United States, in a letter displayed in the exhibit. “In all cases, the American Union may count on the most heart-felt sympathy on the part of the tsar in the course of this serious crisis, which the Union is currently going through.”

The exhibition also includes 1863 correspondence between de Stoeckl and Gorchakov following a meeting between de Stoeckl and U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward when Seward reportedly rejected U.S. intervention in the Polish issue.

U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations had been established more than a half century before the Civil War. In 1809, John Quincy Adams, later to become the sixth president of the United States, arrived in Moscow as the first U.S. minister to the country. By 1832, the United States and Russia had signed a commercial treaty and by the mid-1850s, U.S. shipbuilders in New York were constructing warships for the Russian navy.

The exhibit also will highlight the key role each leader played in freeing people from bondage and slavery. On February 19, 1861, more than 20 million Russian peasants were given their freedom. This action was cited by American abolitionists in their fight against slavery. In 1863, President Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation that led to the abolition of slavery in the United States.

The exhibit further shows that prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States hailed actions by Alexander II on a proposed new Russian code that would eliminate the judicial role of the police, eliminate secret tribunals, introduce trials by jury in open courts, elect civil magistrates and implement other reforms that would move Russia along Western constitutional lines.

But just as Lincoln was assassinated April 14, 1865, for his actions on civil rights, Alexander II was killed by a terrorist bomb March 1, 1881.

“This exhibition, focusing as it does on the equivalent initiatives of these seminal 19th century leaders from totally disparate backgrounds, will serve to instruct and inspire the people of both countries, especially the young, to remember and appreciate what Russia and America have meant to one another,” Symington said.

Tags: secretary of state, document,


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