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Alt histories

What we can learn from re-writing the past

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September 21, 2020

Imagine that in 1867 Alexander II of Russia did not sell Alaska to the USA for $7.2 million (roughly one-third of the budget of Avengers: Endgame in today’s money). It’s easy if you try: just shift the gold rush of 1896 back in time 30 years and suddenly the Tsar has a strong incentive to hang on to his American territories.

From this point we can construct an alternative timeline for the territory, which retains the name Russian America, while Novo-Arkhangelsk remains the administrative capital. Prospectors arrive en masse, along with religious nonconformists seeking to practice their beliefs free of repression. Thus, the region quickly becomes home to thousands of Skopts, members of a millenarian sect whose goal was to hasten Christ’s return by initiating 144,000 people into the “fiery baptism” of castration.

Then comes the Bolshevik coup of 1917. Lenin publishes his American Theses in which he argues that “Soviet America” will serve as the spearhead of the (imminent) world revolution as it spreads to the Americas. Instead, civil war breaks out and the White Army seizes control, forcing the indigenous population to dig for gold to fund weapons purchases. The Whites remain in power until Mikhail Frunze, fresh from his victories over Kolchak and Wrangel, overthrows their regime in early 1921. Refugees pour across the border into Canada, among them thousands of Skopts, who seek new candidates for castration in the Yukon and British Columbia.

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Russian America now becomes the American Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) within the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The indigenous peoples are promised equal rights, Novo-Arkhangelsk becomes a naval base, and the inland Skopt settlement of Oskupitel becomes the new capital. It is renamed Londonsk in honour of Jack London, one of Lenin’s favourite authors. Chekists are everywhere.

Following the abortive San Francisco uprising of 1922, Warren G. Harding demands that Lenin stop sending his agents into the US to foment revolution; while dictating his official denial of involvement, the Soviet leader suffers a debilitating stroke. In the following months, Lenin’s would-be successors deliver speeches on the crucial role the American ASSR will play in the coming global revolution. Stalin reissues his Marxism and the National Question with a new postscript on the indigenous peoples of Soviet America. When Lenin dies in 1924, Trotsky is in Londonsk.

By 1927 Stalin has established absolute power over the USSR. He upgrades the American ASSR to a full union republic and nation-building begins in earnest. Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism is translated into Aleut, Tlingit and other local languages. Londonsk acquires broad avenues, theatres, factories (including a Ford auto plant), a university and a circus while Le Corbusier designs a never-to-be-completed House of the Soviets.

Anti-US provocations are of course a major part of Soviet foreign policy. In 1929, Stalin establishes the Nat Turner Autonomous Oblast, named in honour of the leader of the 1831 slave rebellion, in the southwestern ASSR as a new homeland for the descendants of slaves; Svoboda —“Freedom” — is its capital. Stalin invites all who endure racist oppression in the US to start new lives there, promising them full participation in a “prosperous and cultured society”. Tens of thousands of black Americans take him up on the offer, only for many to find themselves enslaved in the Arctic gulags of the John Reed oblast a few years later.

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Stories of the terrible sufferings of the ASSR’s black émigrés first appear in the foreign press around 1933, but the US — still a deeply racist country — shows little interest in their fate. Meanwhile, Western journalists and useful idiots provide cover for the Soviet regime. In 1935 Walter Duranty of The New York Times wins a Pulitzer for his article proclaiming the success of the “Turner Experiment”; that same year George Bernard Shaw pays a visit and declares that he has never heard so many joyful songs sung so exquisitely as he did in the factories of Svoboda.

The ASSR’s close proximity to the US exacerbates Stalin’s paranoia, and he attempts to turn Canada into a buffer state. When prime minister William Lyon McKenzie King dies suddenly in 1937 and is replaced by a pro-Moscow politician, the US protests vociferously — and suddenly takes an interest in the fate of the black émigrés to the ASSR. By 1941 war appears imminent, but when Hitler invades the USSR Stalin turns away from Canada to focus his attention on the Western Front. In 1942, Japan bombs Pearl Harbour and the two rival powers find themselves fighting alongside each other.

After the war, relations between the USA and the USSR are frostily cordial until 1949, when the Soviets successfully test an atomic bomb in Kazakhstan; the uranium comes from a mine on Mayakovsky Island in the American SSR. The US enters a period of profound existential crisis and Senator Joseph McCarthy leads a mass purge of communist intellectuals and other “enemies of the state” that meets with broad public support.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, hopes of a thaw are dashed when the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev, denies that the USSR has any nuclear missiles in North America, although Stalin has been stockpiling them since 1949. Khruschev presents himself as the heir to Lenin, and even the independently minded Mao Zedong (grudgingly) falls in line behind this strong horse. Identifying the American SSR as the most significant showroom for what “full communism” will look like, Khruschev pours resources into the region, with the intent of turning Londonsk into the “most advanced, most communist” city in the world. The Yankees, he declares, will “cry like tiny babies” in their jealous rage. Khruschev also permits black émigrés to return to the Nat Turner Autonomous Oblast, although he will not allow repatriations to the US or communication with their families.

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When the hapless JFK is assassinated in 1963, it seems that America may be on the losing side of history. The USSR has put a man in space, extended its influence in Latin America and it also has a large nuclear arsenal in the American SSR. The explosion of the Apollo 11 rocket on the launchpad in 1969, killing everyone on board, set against a background of civil unrest and the disastrous war in Vietnam, becomes a bitterly potent symbol of a nation that has lost its way. A year later Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, becomes the first man to walk on the moon.

In 1971, the ailing Khruschev successfully manages a transition of power to the youthful 57-year-old KGB boss, Yuri Andropov, who has a long track record of quelling dissent both within the USSR and among its satellites. Andropov curtails spending on the “showroom” of the American SSR and redirects that money towards the USSR’s defense capabilities. The Nixon and then Carter administrations make various overtures towards Andropov which are rebuffed. The humiliations of the US reach an apex with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which ends with Andropov sending in Soviet forces to install the communist Tudeh Party in power and then magnanimously freeing the hostages held hostage by Islamic radicals in the US embassy. The rage against Jimmy Carter is overwhelming; hardline anti-communist Ronald Reagan is elected with a landslide on the promise that he will reverse two decades of decline and restore America’s honour.

Restoring that honour, of course, entails ramping up weapons production to face the threat (almost) next door. Reagan delivers speech after speech denouncing the USSR for its crimes against the African-Americans it lured to its territory in the 1930s, for its interference in Canadian politics and its belligerence. Andropov, startled by this sudden change in tone from a US that was previously always seeking to strike some kind of deal, responds in kind, and is backed by a wave of op-eds in the elite media from American intellectuals who blame Reagan for stoking tensions between the two superpowers. This reinvigorated cold war turns suddenly hot in 1983, when a siren rings at a base in the American SSR, indicating that the United States has launched a missile strike on the Soviet Union.

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Now when a similar event happened in our timeline, Stanislav Petrov, the steely-nerved officer on duty thought that it was likely a false alarm and decided against informing his superiors. But we should not allow survivor’s bias to seduce us into thinking that our escape from fiery Armageddon was inevitable. In this alternative timeline, a different man is on duty, and, obeying protocol, he reports the missiles to his superiors. Andropov — who is chronically ill and on the verge of death — launches a retaliatory strike, leading to a full-scale nuclear war. This moment coincides with the Skopts in Canada achieving their long-desired goal of castrating their 144,000th convert. Alas, Christ does not return.

When we imagine alternative outcomes we base our speculations on things that we have seen before, and everything in this essay up to this point is inspired by an event or action that actually took place in the USSR or the US throughout their long rivalry. Soviet propaganda highlighted American racism from its earliest days, and the Nat Turner Autonomous Oblast is based on the Jewish Autonomous Oblast that Stalin established in Russia’s far east. Khruschev’s challenge to US global economic hegemony is imaginatively explored in Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty. The Skopts persisted in their millenarian quest for over a century. Russia’s need to establish buffer states predates the USSR — and continues to this day. Each superpower saw the other as its shadow; how much more intense would the rivalry and paranoia been had the two rivals been de facto neighbours? If anything, war might have broken out earlier.

But nuclear war? We have never seen that, other than in science fiction. So as much as I am tempted to introduce talking apes or telepathic dogs into the narrative, such phenomena have no analogues in our species’ experience. What happens next, in truth, is unimaginable. And so, we reach the End of History — and not in the Francis Fukuyama sense, either.

Join the discussion


  • October 17, 2020
    Actually the most likely outcome would have been British Empire takeover of Alaska and incorporation later into Canada, alternatively (less likely) take over by Japanese Empire following Battle of Tsushima - Alaska was a logical addition together with Korea and Manchuria, or for that matter US... Read more

  • September 23, 2020
    Counter-factual history is invariably fascinating, but I take great solace from the thought that as the consequences multiply trough the generations it seems likely that most of us, including me, would not have been born to enjoy the fruits of this alternative reality. Read more

  • September 21, 2020
    Red Canada? How - Communism never got anywhere there. Read more

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