Relations between the United States and the Russian Empire and what eventually became the Soviet Union, and then back to Russia, have evolved tremendously since 1776. Even at the height of the Cold War, the relationship was often complex and sometimes involved cooperation. Russia also gave the United States some of its biggest and valuable territories.
The earliest official relationship between the United States and Russia began in 1776, very soon after the Declaration of Independence. Russia was generally positive and supportive of the colonial revolt against Great Britain. Officially, Russia wanted to avoid conflict with Britain and declared neutrality but saw the benefits of weakening Great Britain and supported the revolt in an unofficial manner. Catherine the Great did genuinely feel that Britain was to blame for the war. She created a neutrality declaration in the war that also allowed trade between the warring states and Russia. Great Britain did try to bribe the Russians, by giving them the island of Menorca in the Mediterranean, in joining the war against the Americans, but Russia refused. Catherine did refuse to formally recognize the United States during the war, refusing the request of the American ambassador Francis Dana sent to talk to Catherine to supporting the new United States.
While privately supporting the American Revolution, as a way to weaken Britain, Russia also worried about the effect of the revolution on its population, which was still bound by the strict policies of serfdom. Some historians suggest the American Revolution inspired the Decembrist revolt that took place in 1825, which was a revolt by military officers against Tsar Nicholas I. Russia was generally embroiled in European politics and mostly ignored events in North America, except for expanding its trade presence in Alaska and parts of the western areas of North America because of the lucrative furs and other trade there. Later, in 1917, Russian revolutionaries did also see the revolt of the thirteen colonies as inspiration for their own revolt.
The next major events did not occur until the American Civil War. Before this time and after, Russian immigrants, mostly Jews, did begin to arrive in the United States. The Russian Empire formally supported the Union side during the Civil War, once again as a move to counter Great Britain. The worry for Russia was Britain would join the South and weaken the United States. Russia's formal support of the Union may have swayed the British not to support the South, as Great Britain would have not wanted to start a war with Russia at the time soon after the Crimea War (1853-1856), which was costly to Russia and Great Britain.
In 1868, William Seward, the Secretary of State for the United States, helped organize the purchase of Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars (Figure 1). Russia, at this time, was still recovering from the Crimea War and needed money to finance its recovery. This led to their desire to sell Alaska to the United States. Previously, Alaska had been very important for the fur trade but by this time many otters and animals for the trade were hunted to the point where the trade was not very profitable. Russia also saw it as a way to counter the British because it put the United States in a position to block Great Britain, via Canada, which they ruled at the time, from occupying the region. Already in the 1850s the Russians had considered selling Alaska to the United States. Seward thought trade with Asia would eventually be very important for the United States and he saw Alaska as a base for which to use for trade. Some derided his decision, calling it famously "Seward's Folly." Despite the fact that Russia and the United States now were near each other in Alaska, there were only minor contacts through the early 20th century. Both countries were interested in expanding their interests elsewhere. The United States did get involved in brokering the treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War in the Treaty of Portsmouth.
The Fall of the Russian Empire Period
The United States did not engage significantly with Russia again until the Russian Civil War in 1918, as they now feared the rise of the Bolshevik. The allies in World War I were concerned with the rise of the Bolshevik, where they actively sent support and even volunteers to fight with the so-called White Movement. The war went badly for the White Movement and the Red Army proved victories in most regions it fought, forming what would become the Soviet Union. Using its position in Alaska, the United States send support to the Russian Far East. The situation did not stabilize until about 1922, with the United States still refusing to recognize the now established Soviet Union until after 1922. Although the United States sided with the White Movement due to fears for socialism and communism, the rise of the Soviet Union created the first Red Scare with concerns over conspiracies. The fear of radical movements governed how the United States saw the Soviet Union, with the case of Sacco and Vanzetti being an example of fear prevalent in the United States of anyone it saw as potentially radical.
The Soviet Union
With the rise of Fascism in the 1930s, and the entry of the United States in World War II, Fascism became the enemy. The United States and the Soviet Union toned down their rhetoric against each other and the United States actively sent military supplies. Even before the war ended, however, in 1944, the Americans began fearing the rise of the Soviets in eastern Europe. Some even called for the United States to immediately start a war with the Soviets, fearing that Stalin would continue his conquest of Europe. Truman decided against this and instead chose to create an alliance with the Western European states in the form of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. The Cold War was now in full swing, but already in the 1960s, in 1964, the United States signed a formal treaty with the Soviets, establishing consular services. The Cuban Missle Crisis in 1962 highlighted the high of fear in the Cold War, as both countries came close to starting a nuclear war, but quietly resolved the issue when each country withdrew nuclear missiles that were stationed near each other, with the United States withdrawing missiles from Turkey and the Soviets withdrawing from Cuba (Figure 2). They also agreed to prevent similar crises in the future by creating the so-called red telephone.
During the Nixon era, a new policy of Détente attempted to ease relations with the Soviets. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) talks began the eventually led to the first arms control treaties that limited nuclear weapons. Détente eventually ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and rise of Ronal Regan, who campaigned against Détente, where he saw it as a one-way benefit to the Soviets. The Cold War, in the early 1980s, had once again picked up, with movies and propaganda on both sides depicting the other in a negative light. Interestingly, Regan did allow farmers to trade with the Soviets, as the trade having been stopped by Carter hurt American farmers. Regan famously called the Soviet Union an 'evil empire' and began a policy of military expansion, in the hopes of bankrupting the Soviet Union. This, along with the rise of Gorbachev, did lead to new developments, including the Perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union. By this time, the Soviets began losing control with open revolts and eagerness for people to break away from the Soviet's hold on power in eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union became inevitable. 
Post-Cold War Period
During the period of Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999), the now newly created Russian state experience widespread corruption and economic weakness. Russian initially opened itself to the United States and other countries, seeking economic assistance. With privatization, corruption only increased as the so-called oligarchs and others began to take hold of Russia's major economic assets, initially at very low prices. In the United States, much of the period was seen as euphoric as it ended the Cold War, but problems in Russia required a new political change, leading to the rise of Vladimir Putin in 2000.
Since 1990s, the United States increasingly took unilateral actions that had begun to provoke Russia. This increased after September 1lth, with the Iraq War in 2003 and other issues becoming major sources of dispute between the countries. The expansion of NATO had also been a constant source of tension. In 2010, Obama and Medvedev did begin to mend relations, signing new treaties to limit nuclear weapons. Tensions once again increased after 2012, with the War in Syria, the Edward Snowden Affair, accusations of violations of the nuclear agreements, and general increased Russian assertiveness internationally and in its immediate region being among the issues of tension. Sanctions since 2014 have been also instigated against Russia for its intervention in Ukraine. In 2016, things may have taken a new twist with accusations of Russian tampering in the United States election. However, since 2016, tensions have sometimes been hostile but also positive, with the United States even calling for Russia to rejoin the G-7. Russia has denied interfering the United States election, but within the United States disagreements between Congress and the President have also created sometimes contrasting views of Russia.
Russia and the United States have had some relations since the American Revolution. Things became highly negative between the two countries during the Cold War, but even then the relationship was somewhat complex as both saw that the other could create great harm. Since the end of the Cold War, the initial euphoria in the United States has given way to negativity in diplomatic relations, while Russia attempts to reassert itself as a great power, often in conflict with the United States.
- For more on early Russia-US relations, see: Saul, Norman E. 1991. Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas.
- For more on the Russian Empire and its fall, see: Riga, Liliana. 2012. The Bolsheviks and the Russian Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- For more on the World War II period, see: Weeks, Albert Loren. 2010. Russia’s Life-Saver: Lend-Lease Aid to the U.S.S.R in World War II. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
- For the Cold War period, see: Westad, Odd Arne. 2017. The Cold War: A World History. London: Allen Lane.
- For a summary of the post-Cold War period, see: McFaul, Michael. 2018. From Cold War to Hot Peace: The inside Story of Russia and America. London: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.