Russian Diplomatic Cipher at the time of the Alaska Purchase (1867)

A Cipher Letter in the Negotiations for the Alaska Purchase

A page from a Russian diplomatic cable in cipher at the time of the Alaska Purchase (Wikipedia) is reproduced in Ralph E. Weber (2013), "Masked Dispatches: Cryptograms and Cryptology in American History, 1775-1900" (Internet Archive), p.119. It was a cable of 25 March 1867 (Gregorian calendar) of the negotiations from Eduard de Stoeckl, Russian minister in the United States (Wikipedia), to Alexander Gorchakov (Wikipedia), Russian Foreign Minister. It is preserved in the American archives because it was sent through the State Department telegraph office at a cost of $9,886.50 (45,000 francs). (It is believed that this does not mean the message was encrypted by an American diplomatic code, in view of the diplomatic codes/ciphers used by the US State Department at the time (see another article).)

This was during the last stage of the negotiations and the telegram encrypted the basic conditions for the purchase of Alaska for $7,000,000. A few days later, on 30 March, the purchase treaty was singed at a slightly increased price. (The text of the treaty is found at American Memory.)

Enciphered Despatch of the Russian Minister

The image below is the first page, covering about one third of the whole, juxtaposed with a provisional transcription (different from Weber's), in which identification of pairs 9/g, 0/o, 8/& may need correction and x, v, v indicate some markings in the image.

t5e51ydzs7x2l2kvrrk9te74r6xoykv
j8vwr747n92op5j8l9wy3x7zt8e8t2
dkg&yfzlk3ytde69ssp50yt4krr1lo
kkftx12rg2k5n3etgfnjtrfj1yx6k1
zdlgw3pn55p54y5kzwsf1667dgyset
lkwpjxw8t8xyozggzr4rnjeyts7t6s
ppkkxzoovxx2wrz6ysynvydjxs6onzw
tr6w34zvgfrj8240fp221x28zxrsp5
o8g652y7dg7lro3e26r5e253s7nwds
5w6kfwyy13r4rjrn24xn69p6jv7xkk3
4fopd6j1265040f88w6twj25odgrv8t
zg85xp3dz5twfr804srg378zfekk95
gxps2ko227e57etfxrd7yor11w3xlyd
ktogxkvdgl7r2pvsdlvrg8rwv3zzf2
otpkwo5rt5gfxstnkgf7&elo2xeys3
wzoy9432kxentlw2gpdk&7t1sffp3w

The plaintext of this cable is found at NARA, RG59, T1249 "Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union, 1930-1939", Roll 0029 (fold3, p.249; the table of content on p.127) among the 45 related documents found by the American embassy in Moscow in the 1930s.

K.167 Washington. f.184.
Télégramme recu
De Mr. de Stoeckl.
Washington, le 13/25 Mars 1867.

En chiffres: Négociation terminée. Résultat projet de traité qui suit: Article I, Cession de nos colonies, limite du territoire cédé à l'est, la ligne de démarcation de notre traité de 1825, avec Angleterre, à l'ouest mot à mot la ligne de démarcation qui m'a été fournie par ministère Impérial de la Marine. Article II. La propriété de le couronne cédée aux Etats-Unis, propriété particulière reste aux individus qui la possèdent, les églises orthodoxes resteront complète propriété des individus de ce rit avec pleine liberté d'exercer leur religion. Article III,....
J'expédie ce télégramme sur demande de Seward qui le paie et qui m'a dit qu'il a rencontré grande opposition dans Cabinet à cause de somme accordée et que pour faire réussir l'affaire il faudra se dépêcher et faire confirmer traité par Sénat qui doit siéger encore deux semaines, si je recois réponse dans six jours le traité pourra être signé et confirmé par Sénat la semaine prochaine. Une simple autorissation par télégraphe de signer traité à ce que m'a dit Seward équivaudra à plein-pouvoirs en règles.

Cipher Scheme

The enciphering scheme is yet to be identified.

The relatively even frequency of the symbols indicate polyalphabetic substitution is employed. (The rarity of "&", "0", and "9" may suggest these should be merged with "8", "o", and "g", making the total number of different symbols match 26.)

freq.symbol
50
121
252
163
134
225
176
187
168
79
3&
freq.symbol
16d
15e
18f
20g
12j
26k
12l
freq.symbol
12n
18o
17p
28r
18s
24t
10v
21w
20x
21y
18z

Frequent digrams are: 2k, dg, gf, kk, p5 (4 times), followed by 4r, 8t, dk, et, j8, rg, s7, sp, w3, x2, yd, ys, yt (3 times). The only trigrams occurring twice is 7dg (at 144th and 248th places), the interval of which (104=13*2*2*2) suggests a possibility of Vigenere of keylength 13 but it does not seem to match.

A reader who has found out the scheme is kindly asked to contact the present author.



©2016 S.Tomokiyo
First posted on 10 October 2016. Last modified on 10 October 2016.
Articles on Historical Cryptography

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