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Local father and son publish Baranov biography

Engstroms blend their areas of expertise to present a fresh picture of this historical figure

Posted: Sunday, September 19, 2004

"Alexander Baranov and a Pacific Empire"

By Elton Engstrom and Allan Engstrom. Hardcover. 227 pages. $39.95.

Aleksandr Andreevich Baranov (1746-1819), chief manager of the Shelikhov and Russian American Company settlements in North America from 1790 to 1818, is sometimes casually and speedily dismissed by modern historians as a drunken megalomaniac, a no-count, a bumbling puppet.

But that is not Baranov at all, as revealed in this brand new, enviably thorough biography Alexander Baranov and a Pacific Empire by Juneau authors (and father and son) Elton and Allan Engstrom. It is likely to be greeted by researchers concentrating on Russian-America with open arms and a vodka toast, and lovingly shelved next to other valuable resources such as the Limestone Press series that Richard A. Pierce has nursed along so gallantly.

Baranov was no bungler. He took censuses, he personally inspected outposts, he had boats built to meet his needs. In fact, as the Engstroms systematically describe his activities nearly three decades of dedicated activity in Russian America, he seems to be a perfect leader of men in a strange, often hostile land. He knows when to do things himself and when to delegate. He knows when his superiors are talking through their hats - and disobeys their orders. He rises from the merchant class and is occasionally considered insubordinate - or naval officers, rising from the nobility, challenge him - the empire builder - with insubordination. He can digest the Native foods, drink the Native grog, sleep in wet conditions, be seriously injured yet treat himself and recover. He knows enough to help the long winter pass with dancing and singing. He knows enough not to disallow mistresses for his lonely men (or himself). With no phones or regular contact with the mother land, he pens long letters to explain his actions.

As we grow to know him better through these pages, we see Baranov as a visionary who likes challenges. His health suffers, his vision suffers so that he needs to use a magnifying glass to read or write in his later years, but he goes on, undeterred. He gets little help from the Russian American Company and few orders from Moscow, but he proceeds toward the goal of controlling the fur trade on these shores. The Engstroms describe him as "exuberant," "unafraid," "magnanimous" and generous.

As far as I know they are the first to unravel the linguistic mystery of why the Tlingits called Baranov "Nanok." This, they show, is actually Wan Yan' Ok - or how "Baranov," with the Russian pronunciation, might sound to listeners who did not speak Russian.

The Tlingit first attacked Baranov's forces on a night raid in 1792 in Prince William Sound, and in 1802 successfully conquered the fort he founded in 1799 at Novo Arkhangel'sk (Old Sitka). Yet Baranov did not give up. One wonders, in fact, if Russia would ever have gained a foothold in Southeast Alaska without his gritty determination, without the fact that he was willing to move his headquarters from Kodiak to Nova Arkhangel'sk. They might have settled for trading with company vessels on annual summer voyages. Baranov, on the other hand, in the same year (1804) he used cannon to retake Sitka and built a new fort on the site of present-day Sitka, cannily made a profitable share agreement with Americans - allowing the "Boston men" to share the risks as well as the profits. He also made an agreement (1809) with John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company.

The Engstroms' education and areas of expertise mesh nicely in this biography. Elton Engstrom studied German at the University of Freiburg in the winter of 1956-57. His son Allan graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1991, majoring in Russian studies. Allan, a fluent speaker of Russian, studied in Russia and has traveled to the Historical Archives Institute in Moscow. Many documents about Russian-America have never been translated, but their training and knowledge make it possible for them to read primary sources in the original languages. Their sources include the Yudin Collection and the Records of the Russian American Company, as well as all Baranov's correspondence.

To accompany the portrait of Baranov, the authors have written brief treatises on the sea otter, Alaska as a bountiful frontier, William Hunt, Martin Sauer, Ivan Kuskov (an assistant to Baranov who was given the job of leading the Russian effort to California), Joseph O'Cain and others.

Alexander Baranov is beautifully produced with full-page, full-color reproductions of period maps and engravings. For example, the authors have reproduced a watercolor of Sitka published in London in 1814 from Lisianski's Voyage Round the World from the collection of the Alaska State Library, and just a few pages further on they show a slightly earlier view of Sitka by George Langsdorff, from the collection of the Bancroft Library in California. For both beauty and content, this biography is sure to be an instant collector's item.



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