Black makes valuable addition to understanding of Alaska history

Posted: Friday, April 10, 2009

With "Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867," Lydia Black has produced a most valuable addition to our knowledge of the Russian period of Alaska's history from economic and sociopolitical perspectives.

The subject matter of this monograph constitutes a continuation and compilation of Black's numerous publications on the ethnohistory and anthropology of the Russian population in Alaska. The focus of this book is on economic and sociopolitical developments from Mikhail Gvozdev's discovery of Cape Prince of Wales and King Island in 1732 to the purchase of Alaska by the U.S. government in 1867.

The most important aspect of the ethnohistory of the people of the high north was the exploration and colonization of Siberia and Alaska by the Russian empire officials. The exploration of the northern territories in the 17th century caused a significant transformation of population, strengthened conflicts between local ethnic groups, and changed modes of production and material culture of the aboriginal population, among other effects. Russian officials did not wish to exterminate the aboriginal northern population, but rather, in cooperation with local Native leaders, to reform them into good and meticulous suppliers of valuable furs.

From the point of view of Russian officialdom, the process of exploring the North American territories presumably had the same rationale as in Siberia; the Russians viewed North America as a geographical continuation of their politics. The Russians used a socioeconomic and political strategy in North America similar to that used in Siberia, imposing the local head tax (yasak) and strengthening their influence.

The colonization of the eastern territories was quite elaborate. One of the peculiarities of the aboriginal populations of Siberia, the Far East and northwestern North America was the absence of any state organization. Lacking an institutional defense against the sophisticated social organization and military superiority of the Russians, the Native population had to accept Russian dominion and consequently agreed to pay them yasak.

Another peculiarity in the Russian population of the eastern territories was the absence of serfdom. Oppressed Russian peasants who had escaped from their landlords in the European part of Russia often fled to Siberia, the Far East or North America in order to attain freedom. The Russian authorities, surprisingly, instead of having them prosecuted, had promoted them into government jobs. When the government had thus established its control over the northeastern territories, the commercial people (promyshlenniki and kuptsy) began organizing commercial companies (artels) and markets (yarmarkas and bazaars), and the Russian Orthodox Church began sending missionaries to the East. Thus, in contrast to peasant movements, which had a spontaneous character, the organized government expeditions to the East already had in place a colonial system, i.e. the imposition of regular yasak and the extension of State territories.

After discovery of the Aleutian Islands and southern Alaska, a series of commercial expeditions to North America from Siberian and Far Eastern Pacific ports (Okhotsk and Nizhne-Kamchatsk) took place. Between 1743 and 1786, the Russian treasury received from North America commercial products -primarily fur and sea mammals - worth 193,798 rubbles. In addition, they collected products worth 42,394 rubbles in yasak. One effect of these enterprises was a significant increase in the Russian population in North America. In 1794, the Russian population in Alaska was over 800, compared to 500 in 1788. In 1799, the population in Russian America controlled by Russians was about 8,000, which included only 225 Russians.

Russians in North America hunted sea mammals, fished, built ships, and attempted to cultivate some crops. Several Russian settlements were established in the Aleutian Islands, on Kodiak Island, on the Kenai Peninsula, and southeastern Alaska. By the end of the 18th century, the Russian-American Company was founded in Alaska. The company monopolized all commercial enterprises in Russian North America and held almost all political power in the region. Until the U.S. government purchased Alaska in 1867, Siberian-North American contact was very close. The Russians' management of Alaska always represented the interests of the tsarist government and was carried out in cooperation with their Siberian partners and supporters.

This monograph could have been further enhanced by the following additions: a concise description of Russian material culture in Alaska and its influence on the native population in the area; maps indicating distribution of Russian settlements for each chapter of the book or for significant historic periods; a glossary of terms and abbreviations relevant for the subject; a transliteration table of Russian words; and statistical tables and graphs presenting data in the text.

Lydia Black, an authority on the Russian period of Alaska's history, passed away in 2007. But her numerous publications, including this book, will remain an invaluable source of information and reference for students of history, ethnohistory, anthropology, and anyone interested in the subject for many generations to come.

• Alexander B. Dolitsky is the director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center in Juneau.

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