Biography brings Russian Alaskan to life

From the bookshelf

Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2004



Alexander Baranov — a Pacific Empire

By Elton Engstrom and Allan Engstrom

Elton Engstrom and Allan Engstrom

$39.95 (hardcover)

Alaska's colonial period gave rise to events just as wild, wicked and wonderful as those of Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, conquistadors seeking lost cities of gold or wagon trains fending off hostile tribes. Too bad so few citizens of the United States, or even of Alaska, know the stories of Alaska's early adventures.

To fill that gap, Elton and Allan Engstrom, a father and son with long and distinguished careers in Juneau, have created a new popular biography of Alexander Baranov, the first head of Russia's American colony.

Between 1790 and 1818, this small-town Siberian merchant shaped a chaotic mix of isolated wilderness, besieged Natives and fur-hunting desperadoes into a major political and mercantile force in the North Pacific. Before him, Russian ventures into Alaska were sporadic, anarchic raids by greedy exploiters. After him, Russian managers were naval officers on short-term assignments producing scripted reports for headquarters. Baranov nearly single-handedly built a society from scratch using little but his wits and elbow grease.

"Baranov was unique," the Engstroms write in their foreword. "... He had an exuberant personality that led him to express himself forcefully to superiors and subordinates. He was unafraid to face the perils of life, whether encountering an attack by Indian warriors, or sailing on the wild waters of the Pacific Ocean, as he navigated his small personal sailing boat for thousands of miles along the Alaskan coastline. He was magnanimous, both in victory and defeat and was a friend to the unfortunate."

The Engstroms trace Baranov's career in Alaska by going back to records and memoirs by the man's contemporaries, some of which became accessible to American scholars only recently. Using their expertise in Russian and German, the Engstroms go beyond English-language materials and sometimes include their own translations. They draw extensively on historians and travelers who actually met Baranov, and they frequently quote his own correspondence.

When he arrived at his post, Baranov wrote to his boss, Grigorii Shelikov, "Privation and boredom I can bear with patience and I shall not rant at Providence, especially when I sacrifice to friendship."

Baranov remains a controversial figure for historians. He made enemies during his tenure in Alaska, and some scholars have criticized him as dictatorial and corrupt. The Eng-stroms, however, paint Baranov in a favorable light. They support their admiration with quotes from his

colleagues and documented facts showing how the manager weathered extraordinary difficulties, chose diplomacy over revenge in confrontations and built productive trading relations with diverse people, including foreign seafarers and several Alaska ethnic groups.

The Engstroms keep close to their sources in telling Baranov's tale, and they minimize analysis and editorializing. This approach sets the book apart from many others dealing with Alaska's Russian period. The Engstroms structure the biography in a sequence of threads, not always chronological, following a particular source (such as the travels of John D. Wolf) or theme (merchant-fleet ships).

At its worst, this is confusing, as the sources contain tangents, inconsistencies and overlaps. For example, the ship "Phoenix" sinks on page 63 and again on page 93. But at its best, this approach conveys an intimate and realistic view of Baranov's world that animates the biography and provides a rich cast of secondary characters. Readers are treated to scenes such as Baranov entertaining foreign guests with fish, berries and his stash of fine brandy, or of the aging manager brandishing his cane to fend off a would-be assassin.

The authors also point out significant nuances, such as the Russians' progressive views on racial equality and the reasons the Tlingit reacted so differently to European incursions than did the Aleut and Chugach Eskimo. One of the book's particular strengths is its portrayal of Natives as notable individuals who played active roles in the region's history.

The Engstroms' straightforward prose summarizes the adventures of 200 years ago with clarity and authority. Its big flaw, however, is the lack of proofreading. Minor errors of fact, erratic spellings of names and wandering commas are petty irritations that distract from the compelling narrative.

The book is far from seamless, perhaps due to the collaboration of two authors. At times the text comes across as a patchwork. Yet, like a fine quilt, each piece is well-crafted and contributes to an impressive whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

Adding to the authors' accomplishment are the unusually handsome reproductions of historic maps, landscapes and portraits which illustrate the volume. With its sewn binding and attractive cover, the book sets a high standard for what a self-published book can be.

As a biography, "Alexander Baranov — a Pacific Empire" has some shortcomings, but its strengths far outweigh them. It is a well-crafted work that both entertains and informs us with the deeds of one of Alaska's most influential and unlikely heroes.

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

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