Finding enlightenment at Moscow historical society

Posted: Friday, April 29, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

It has a long name. It is called the Russian American Moscow Historical Enlightenment Society. In the days of John LeCarre and his world of intrigue - in the days of the Cold War - you may have thought such a complicated title might have hidden a lair of secret agents.

But it has a more prosaic purpose. It is an active organization located in Moscow, Russia, with the purpose of resurrecting and preserving the cultural legacy of Russia America, which means that it is about us living here in Juneau and in Southeast Alaska and in all the other parts of Alaska, because among our most important beginnings were the explorations of Vitus Bering and the settlement of Alaska by Shelikov and Alexander Baranov.

The society started in 1989 and its present chairman is Vladimir Kolychev.

My son Allan was asked to speak to the group in January of this year. The meeting was held in a museum right next to the American Embassy, in a large house that had once been the home of the famous Russian singer Chalyabin.

Allan spoke in Russian and quoted from some of the talks given by Alexander Baranov 200 years ago to the hunters at St. Paul's Harbor on Kodiak Island. His remarks were well received and he was asked to followup with a speech before the Russian National Academy of Sciences, which was held in early March before his return to Juneau.

While in Moscow, he met several of the leading scholars of the Russian American period, including Alexander Petrov, Nikolai Bolkhovitinov and Svetlana Federova.

When he first met Federova she pointed out her name in the bibliography of Allan's book and asked him if he had ever met that person. Allan answered that no, he had not. "Well," she said, "Here I am."

As an interesting footnote in her personal life, the father of Federova had been an early member of the Russian Communist Party; in fact he held party card No. 1. You might think that this honor would have been reserved for Lenin, but in the early years he was in exile and did not return to Russia until near the end of World War I. During the 1930 purges, Federova's father was shot on Stalin's order.

Part of the fun of working on a book is who you meet. Allan and I are just back from a quick trip north. In Anchorage we did a book signing at Tidal Wave Books and in Fairbanks we spoke to the monthly meeting of the Tanana and Yukon Historical Society.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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