Russian meddling in American politics. Fake stories planted in the media. Accusations of financial doings under the table. Stolen correspondence, which becomes public. Unless it’s a forgery.
It was the fall of 1871. The parallels to today are nowhere near exact — President Trump said Saturday he was assured again by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia did not tamper with the U.S. presidential election — but they sure resonate.
Washington was in an uproar, and in the end Russian Ambassador Konstantin Catacazy was declared persona non grata for attempting to sway the policies of the U.S. government under President Ulysses S. Grant.
He was told to leave. But the Russians insisted he stay, so that he could usher the czar’s son, the 22-year-old Grand Duke Alexis, on a highly publicized and much anticipated tour of America. So the man Grant wanted to give the boot to came to the White House. Grant gritted his teeth, refused to speak to Catacazy, and declined to offer a meal to the grand duke, in what was an abrupt departure from protocol. The royal visit to the commander in chief lasted all of 15 minutes.
Russia had been counted among the staunchest friends of the United States. The empire of the czar was the only major European nation that openly backed the Union during the Civil War. Americans had sold gunpowder and rifles to the Russians when they fought the British, French and Turks in the Crimean War of 1853-56 — except that, actually, wasn’t quite the way it went.
An American named Benjamin Perkins had arranged the sale, and delivered the munitions, but after the war the Russian government claimed he didn’t have a valid contract and refused to pay. Perkins took his case to Washington and, when the United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, Perkins’ widow argued she should take what he was owed out of the sale price. That didn’t work, and by 1871, with interest, the debt amounted to $1 million.
You can imagine how annoying the Perkins case must have been to officials in Washington: an irritant in relations with Russia, an amount of money that, even all those years ago, wasn’t that much, compared, for instance, to the $3 billion cost of the Civil War. Yet it wouldn’t go away, and the Perkins family hired lobbyists and found backers in the press who kept the complaint alive, 16 years on.
By the spring of 1871 the United States had begun talks with Great Britain to settle claims arising from the Civil War, when a British shipyard built a raider for the Confederates called the Alabama. Americans’ hostility to Britain was a fact of life through much of the 19th century, but especially so in the years following the war.
But here came Ambassador Catacazy. He feared the talks would lead to an improvement in relations between the United States and Britain. Russia’s interest, he believed, was in stoking bad feelings between the two, setting each against the other, as Russians today are accused of trying to stir up trouble between blacks and whites in the United States. Catacazy set out to torpedo the negotiations.
He wasn’t very subtle about it. His previous diplomatic experience had been in the Balkans, where Russian interference in internal affairs went without saying. Now, in Washington, he launched a campaign in the press and, shockingly for the time, began importuning members of Congress. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish complained about his “abusive and vituperative language toward very many persons.”
The New York Sun enthusiastically took up Catacazy’s cause, running a long front page story accusing Assistant Secretary of State Bancroft Davis of taking money from the British to settle the American claim in their favor. In those days, newspapers typically used honorifics with names, like Mr. Fish or Mrs. Grant. The Sun awarded the assistant secretary what might be called a dishonorific: He was frequently styled “Bribe-Taker Davis.” The paper alleged further that Davis stood to gain personally if the Perkins claim was allowed. It called Davis a “cunning and coldblooded … scamp.”
(Though there was plenty of graft in Grant’s administration, Davis by most accounts did not partake in it.)
The State Department was not pleased, and that wasn’t the worst of it. A letter from Catacazy to his superiors in Russia, about Perkins’ claim, alluded to Fish “in the most insulting manner,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Somehow the letter found its way into the hands of President Grant.
Catacazy had a complicated defense: Yes, he said, he had indeed written such a letter, but not this letter precisely. And the real letter, he said, had been stolen from his desk in the embassy. Expose the forger, thundered the New York Herald. The paper leapt to Catacazy’s defense. It quoted a subsequent note the ambassador wrote to Fish expressing “a feeling of disgust and indignation at the view of such abuse.”
The Chicago Tribune, no friend of Catacazy, eventually reported that the letter in fact appeared to be a forgery — but that it was written by a Russian serving under him in the embassy. It was designed to force the resignation of the ambassador, who was deeply unpopular among his underlings, the paper reported — but it also accurately reflected his true sentiments about Fish.
And there were other letters. The New York World had published correspondence under a pseudonym aimed at derailing the talks with Britain. Catacazy, the New York Times wrote, had been unmasked, “first dictating and then revising, in his own handwriting, a letter published in a New-York journal some months since, in which the foreign policy of the Government was misrepresented, and in which numerous false and malicious statements respecting public affairs and public officers were made.” The newspaper called this “mischievous intermeddling.”
Finally, Grant insisted that Catacazy had to go. Later, in his State of the Union address, Grant said: “It was impossible, with self-respect or with a just regard to the dignity of the country, to permit Mr. Catacazy to continue to hold intercourse with this Government after his personal abuse of Government officials, and during his persistent interferences, through various means, with the relations between the United States and other powers.”
In December, Catacazy departed for Europe. Grant was angry at the Russians (though his granddaughter later married a Russian prince). And Catacazy had failed in his mission — the following year the Alabama claims were settled, and a treaty restored friendly relations between Britain and the United States.
And the Grand Duke? After leaving chilly Washington he had a fine time, especially enjoying the company of stage actresses in New York. He went West that winter, as a guest of Gen. Philip Sheridan. They were joined by a colonel by the name of George Armstrong Custer, and they went hunting for bison. Their guide was Buffalo Bill Cody.
The Americans were amused by the way Alexis tucked his pants into the tops of his boots, and his inability to hit a bison at a distance of 20 feet. Switching from a pistol to a rifle, he finally downed an old bull from 10 feet away. The Russian entourage immediately popped the corks on champagne bottles. That was the end of the hunt for Alexis, who turned his attentions, Cody said, to an attractive young Indian woman who was accompanying the party.
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