In search of Baranov

Juneau writer travels to the birthplace of Alaska's Russian-American master

Posted: Thursday, December 08, 2005

KARGOPOL, Russia - Not many Russians have heard of the town of Kargopol, the birthplace of Alexander Baranov, who was chief manager of the Russian American Co. from 1790 to 1818.

The small town of 12,000 is located 650 miles northwest of Moscow or 17 hours by train, followed by two and a half hours by bus.

Accompanied by Vladimir Kolychev, the president of the Moscow Historical Society of Russian America, I set off on Nov. 20 in search of the roots of Baranov.

Train travel gives a true impression of the massiveness of the Russian Steppe, as countless waves of land rolled past our window. Bolshaya Zemlya, the big or great land as the early Russians called Alaska, could equally apply to the steppe itself.

There is a certain romanticism to train travel in Russia. While sipping on hot lemon tea, one can almost hear the theme to "Doctor Zhivago," as the winter countryside and the rhythmic sound of the tracks make for a relaxing lullaby.

In my case, the dream was interrupted late in the night by a young woman, who shared our same compartment. She sharply jabbed me four different times to protest the decibel level of my deep sleep.

In the morning, after a fitful rest and a few choice words with my tormentor, we arrived at the small train depot of Nyandoma and found a minibus waiting for the rough trip over the snow-rutted road to Kargopol. To our great delight, we arrived by noon.

Kargopol was founded in 1146 and by the time of Baranov and Catherine the Great, it had become an important trading post on the mail route between St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk. The town sits on the Onega River, which ends several miles away in a large lake called Latcha.

The beauty of the place lies in its historic Russian churches. Twenty-two stood during the time of Baranov, 11 of which remain today. No modern building in the historic center can be more than three stories so the monumental splendor of each cathedral is preserved.

Born in 1746, Baranov spent his youth in Kargopol, regularly attending a little church where it is said he was also married for the first time. The Church of the Nativity of the Virgin still stands today.

In 1765, the wooden town was almost completely destroyed by fire. Catherine the Great gave from her own purse 10,000 rubles, an enormous sum at the time, for the reconstruction of Kargopol. The residents responded by building a large double arch, topped by church bells in her honor. The Cathedral Bell Tower was finished in 1778.

In November of last year, on St. Michael's Day, the tower bells were rung simultaneously with those of the Moscow Kremlin and St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka, in honor of the patron saint of New Archangel. The event had been arranged by Vladimir Kolychev and his Russian America historical society.

Upon checking into the only hotel in Kargopol - a two-story brick structure that offered clean, furnished rooms for $20 a night - we made our way to the city museum, which is located in one of the town's former cathedrals.

After a brief introduction, we were given the red-carpet treatment. Lydia Sevastyanova, the director, immediately set about arranging an official reception for the next afternoon. School classes were let out and local politicians and journalists were invited to our presentation.

Kolychev and I had brought along a video of Southeast Alaska from our previous summer's travel aboard my small boat to Pelican and the outer coast. Also, I presented a copy of the book I co-authored with my father, Elton Engstrom, titled "Alexander Baranov and a Pacific Empire," and Kolychev presented a replica flag of the Russian American Co.

The event was well attended as the town turned out to welcome a rare visitor from far off Alaska and to share their interest in Baranov. In 1996, the citizens of Kargopol erected a stone monument in his honor, and have also renamed one of the shores of the Onega River the Baranov Embankment.

Unfortunately, the Kargopol museum has a very small Baranov collection. A copy of his portrait hangs on the wall as well as two letters that he wrote from Alaska to a Kargopol magistrate.

In a conversation, the director hoped to receive other items from Alaska, perhaps some Russian trade beads or even a small piece of sea otter fur, anything at all to help complete the picture of Baranov's life. I told her I would help in whatever way possible.

Kargopol is truly a beautiful spot. Located on the 62nd parallel, it has the northern charm and small-town hospitality reminiscent of certain places in the Alaska Interior. It is also home to large populations of moose, bear, mink and the many lakes in the region make for a northern fishermen's paradise.

To describe the warmth of the place, there are the words of Baranov himself. In a letter from New Archangel in 1815, Baranov wrote to the magistrate of Kargopol to make sure that his personal taxes had been received.

Although Baranov had already spent 25 years in Alaska, he summed up the depth of his feelings for his birthplace: "To this day, I consider myself a citizen of Kargopol, and it will always be my honor, to forever remain as such."

In my experience, Kargopol is such a place, where even visitors are made to feel honored citizens.

•Allan Engstrom is a longtime Juneau resident and co-author of "Alexander Baranov and a Pacific Empire."

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