Prince of Alaska

In 1867 the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire. But before offering it to the Americans, Russia tried to sell Alaska to the Prince of Liechtenstein.

Johann II of Liechtenstein
Liechtenstein Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Liechtenstein is a tiny country wedged between Switzerland and Austria. When I visited many years ago, I took a train to the border and just walked from there to the capital city Vaduz. The entire state is just 160km2 – making it the 6th smallest independent country in the world. But if a proposed land purchase had gone through in 1867, it would have been ten thousand times larger. Liechtenstein could have controlled Alaska.

Alexander II, the Emperor of Russia, had a big problem. In 1856 Russia had lost the Crimean War to an alliance of France, Sardinia, the Ottoman Empire, and the United Kingdom, and consequently the Russian Empire was very concerned about Russian Alaska.

While the area was technically part of Russia, very few Russians actually lived there; the vast majority of the population were native Aleut (and that made Alaska not really Russia’s to sell, although that’s another story). It shared a huge border with Canada, at the time still a British colony. Alexander was concerned that a future war would see Alaska easily conquered by the British, and then only the Bering Strait would separate them from the Russian mainland.

The solution: sell Alaska before Britain would have a chance to take it. In 1867 the United States famously bought Alaska for a ridiculously cheap 7.2 million dollars – the equivalent today of 132 million, less than the net worth of the musician Enya – but apparently the United States was not Alexander’s first choice.

Last decade, a couple of European news outlets reported that in 1867 the Russian Empire offered Alaska to the Prince of Liechtenstein, Johann II. It sounded like a wild rumour, but the current ruler of Liechtenstein, Hans-Adam II, confirmed that this offer was made – he remembers the royal family still talking about it a hundred years later! Johann II could have easily afforded it, he was a friend to Russia, and Liechtenstein-controlled Alaska would have presented no threat to the empire. There is no record of why Johann II turned them down.

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