Russian America: The Great Alaskan Venture, 1741-1867



I've just finished Hector Chevigny's history of the Russian American Company, Russian America: The Great Alaskan Adventure, 1741-1867.  This book is dense with geopolitical context and the cultural underpinnings of Russia's eastern expansion into the Pacific (go east, young man, go east!).  Written by a scholar, one might imagine such a tome to be dry with the friction of dates and Russian names.  It certainly is a dense history, with antecedents in the Mongol invasion of Russia in the 13th century, the expansion of Russia across 6,000 miles of Siberia, Sino-Russian trade, and the irresistible catastrophe of the fur trade (and Russia is far from alone in its culpability here).

But it is the story of individuals that compels this history, a cast of characters worthy of the great epics of literature and history. 

The entrepreneur and charlatan, Grigorii Shelikhov, with his wife and his business partner,  envisioned and launched a worthy competitor to The Hudson Bay Company.  Had Catherine the Great endorsed their venture more strongly, as it once appeared she might, Pacific geopolitics would be vastly different today.

Alexandr Baranov, a self-made man of low birth, arrived as The Russian American Company's leader prone in the bottom of a baidarka, brought low with pneumonia. A landlubber who escaped a bad marriage in Russia, effectively husbanded The Company's interests for decades, protected the interests of natives, assured educational and spiritual attention on their behalf, and was ultimately ignobly cast aside.  His bigamous marriage to the daughter of a chieftain helped assure the security of the colony, and bore children that grounded his life.  He founded New Archangel (now Sitka), rebuilt it from the ashes after the Tinglets burned it down, and helped it become the cultural nexus of South East Alaska.  He is honored in the name of the island that is the backdrop of Sitka.

Prince Nikolai Rezanov, a director of The Company, fell in love with the beautiful Concha Arguello, a vivacious, 15-year-old Spanish damsel in California, and lost his life trying to return to her.  She never married, and eventually entered a Dominican convent at the age of 60.

Father Ioann Veniaminov, a paragon of virtue and industry, devoted his life and energy to the spiritual foundations of the Colony.  A man who could make clocks of wood at his workbench, the remnants and dividends of his work remain today in the Orthodox churches of Alaska.

The strange tale of the sale of Alaska to the US in 1867 remains inscrutable.  In Chevigny's words:
A nation having small desire to sell did so to a nation that was not eager to buy, their motives the belief they would please each other.  History does not invariably make sense.
And having gotten what surely is among the greatest bargains in the history of commerce, Congress did its level best to welch on its promise, both to Russia with slack payment, and to the people who became its newest citizens, taking 17 years to replace the lost governance.  Then, as now,  congressional minions wore proudly the mantle of shamelessness.

The story has shipwrecks, insurrections, betrayals, epic journeys, impossible loves, political intrigues, alliances (broken, and honored), and unlikely heroes throughout.  It is hard to imagine 275 pages that could so succinctly and satisfyingly chronicle the formative events of a such an expanse of geopolitics and natural discovery.  It is no accident that this book remains readily available 50 years after it was first published.  Someone ought to write the screenplay!


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