I Khan See Russia From Here

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I stopped into Magus Books and bought all the books they had on the Inside Passage.  This one attracted me particularly, because Sitka is a primary objective for my trip north this summer.

Hector Chevigny begins his book, Russian America, with the invasion of Russia by the Mongols (Ghengis' grandson, Batu Khan) in 1237.  Chevigny describes him as "the world's foremost genius at murder."  For a time roughly equivalent to the American Revolution to now, the Mongols had their way with Russia, enjoying a tenth tribute (in lieu of terror), and furs comprised no small part of this levy.

As Mother Russia reemerged as her own, Muscovy found this ready-made taxation system convenient, and as over-hunting depleted the wealth (and amplified the value) of furs, Russia found it expedient to expand across what is now known as Siberia.   At one point a single sable pelt would buy a 50 acre farm.  Cossack ferocity... then, as now, a mixed blessing, helped bring the expanse of Siberia (5800 miles) within the hegemony of Moscow in the span of a mere sixty years.

In the ensuing 100 years or so,  the resurgent Mongols were marginalized, and Russia and China jockeyed for control of the rich Amur river valley and bickered over trade routes.  China prevailed in the Amur with the signing of the treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, isolating Russia in the north.  But trade routes were granted from Irkutsk to Peking,  and furs retained great export import.  Peter the Great began his rein of enlightenment at this time, and with the help of Germans and Danes, a brief period of outward-looking, science-friendly curiosity prevailed.  Bering's expedition to Alaska was part of the result -- the first, if fleeting, contact with the Alaskan mainland in 1741.  Bering (and a third of his crew) died for his troubles before making it back, the victims of poor leadership and scurvy.  For a fascinating account of this expedition, have a look at Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, by Corey Ford.

Peter died too soon to institutionalize scientific curiosity in the Russian psyche, and by the time Elizabeth, his daughter, became tsaritsa, furs were the only motivation for the view eastward from the Kamchatka Penninsula. Alaska is the only bit of  North America colonized from Asia, but the Russians themselves didn't really colonize so much as exploit.  The Russian word promyshlenniki rounds to 'those with a warrant for unbridled ecological looting' (nothing has really changed, eh?), and this they did. According to Chevigny, there were never more than 1000 Russians strung along some 40 outposts in Russian America.  It was all about the furs.

The distance between Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands is a scant 400 miles, and the promise of wealth in the form of sea otter pelts motivated early entrepreneurs to make the crossing in leather-lashed boats of green wood, more suitable for river travel than open oceans.  Early successes (1745) fanned fur fever, and it took less than 20 years for fur commerce to traverse the 1200 miles of the Aleutian chain to Kodiak Island.  As one would expect, the Aleuts found little benefit in the trade. The otters did even less well, of course, thought to have been hunted to extinction until a small colony was discovered after World War II.

This slim volume, published 50 years ago, is chockablock with context and detail about this strange aspect of our last geographic frontier.  If you're interested, it is available from Amazon for little more than the cost of shipping.  More to say as I read further.


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