Historian reassesses Russian Alaska

Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2004

Lydia Black, Russian-born professor emerita at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is one of the world's leading scholars of Alaska's Russian-American period. Taking advantage of new access to Russian sources and decades of research, she now has written an iconoclastic overview of this colorful epoch of the state's history.

"This book presents to the public a new synthesis, based primarily on archival materials in Russia and the United States," she writes in her introduction. "... A great deal of what I have to say, based on perusal of documents not readily accessible, is contrary to the received wisdom. In a sense, this book is not simply a new synthesis, it is also a reinterpretation."

Black dug through personal correspondence, journals, treaties and contracts to get past traditional legends to the true events at their roots. The result is complex, interesting and sometimes quite surprising.

The reinterpretation begins even with the title. Many date the official beginning of Russia's Alaska adventure to 1741, when Vitus Bering's ill-starred sailors sighted Mount Saint Elias and set foot on Kayak Island. But Black dates it instead to Aug. 20, 1732, when an expedition captained by Mikhail Gvozdev anchored off Cape Prince of Wales in the Bering Strait.

Black invests the first several chapters of "Russian in Alaska" in explaining the origins of Russia's move eastward to America. She details Siberia's conquest, Russia's imperial ambitions, scientific curiosity and political and mercantile interests in Asia. It takes her a long time to move the book's focus from the Old World to the New. But her thoroughness imparts a solid context for Russian exploration.

For example, she says many early explorers and trappers came from Russia's equivalent of the North Slope, a wild area called the Pomory, populated by adventurers, exiles, Old Believers, Saami and Siberian Natives.

"These men were rough and unruly, ready to face any hardship, even death, their physical courage and endurance unquestioned. But they bowed before ancient customs of their northern homeland. They could be generous to family and friends, humble in their faith in God, hospitable to visiting strangers, ruthless to their competitors, and cruel or magnanimous by turn to their enemies. They dreamed of riches and advancement, but above all they cherished their free life," she writes.

When Black considers the mid-18th century forays into the Aleutians and the eventual consolidation of the fur trade into the Russian-American Company's monopoly under Aleksander Baranov's management, she challenges former authors' analysis of Aleut deaths. Citing early census estimates, she asserts that accounts of early fur traders' atrocities in the isles exaggerate death tolls, and that the Aleut culture's downfall occurred later, when the company forced men to leave their villages for prolonged, distant and often-fatal hunting expeditions.

The author tackles the reputations of several leading actors on the historical stage. She downplays the role of Grigori Shelikhov, the Irkutsk merchant who headed the nascent Russian-American Company, and urges more credit to his widow, Natalia, whom Black calls a remarkable woman.

Black agrees with history's judgment that Baranov himself was a complex, contradictory character who basically built the entire colony from scratch, while grappling with horrendous logistical difficulties and an impressive array of enemies. She saves her most pointed criticism for Nikolai Rezanov, the Shelikhovs' son-in-law who worked as lobbyist, critic and general wheeler-dealer for the company.

"Romanticized by Russian historians and authors in Russia and America as a great man, he was in reality ambitious, irresponsible and of very questionable character," she says.

Rezanov's portrayal in "Russians in Alaska" highlights Black's methods. She cites his personal correspondence, noting that it contradicts his public reports and suggests he flat-out lied when it furthered his goals. Restricting herself to decorous academic prose, she nonetheless manages to load the text (and especially her abundant footnotes) with innuendo accusing him of bisexual hanky-panky.

This juxtapositioning of dry and juicy content runs throughout the book and sometimes frustrates the reader.

Black bogs down in piles of detail about influence peddling and financial backing among Russian power brokers, then kicks her story back into high gear with adventurous scenes such as Baranov's confrontations with rival traders. She relegates people's most vivid quotes to the footnotes, yet writes striking and subtle portraits of the colonists' personalities. She jumps around in time and place, yet conveys an overarching evolution of the colony.

Among the themes she elucidates are relations between the Russians and the Natives, the combination of backward and progressive elements in Russian rule, and the shifting conflicts among the stakeholders: the Natives, the Russian-American Company, the Orthodox Church, foreign powers sailing Alaska waters and the Russian government half a world away in St. Petersburg.

"Russians in America" looks back on the 18th and 19th centuries from a personal vantage both 21st century and post-Soviet Russian. The author does not hesitate to offer opinions, pro and con, on everyone from Bering's crew to the Americans who took possession in Sitka in 1867. Some material may be controversial, but Black backs it all up with scrupulous footnotes and a large bibliography.

The story of Russian America has been outlined before, and readers new to the topic may find other books more accessible. But for those whose curiosity is piqued by this unique and exotic period, Black offers rare insight and fascinating new details.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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