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Russian America in Russian and American historiography.

Dawn Lea Black and Alexander Yu. Petrov, eds. and trans., Natalia Shelikhova: Russian Oligarch of Alaska Commerce. xlix + 237 pp. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1602230736. $29.95.

Mitropolit Kliment (Kapalin), Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov" na Aliaske do 1917 goda. 607 pp. Moscow: OLMA Media Grupp, 2009. ISBN 978-5373016186.

Sonja Luehrmann, Alutiiq Villages under Russian and U.S. Rule. xx + 204 pp. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1602230231. $19.95.

Gwenn A. Miller, Kodiak Kreol: Communities of Empire in Early Russian America. xvii + 216 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0801446429. $55.00.

Ilya Vinkovetsky, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867. xiii + 258 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0195391282. $49.95.

The five books reviewed here investigate the history of Russian America, which was sold to the United States in 1867 and became Alaska. Before that date, Russian America was a part of the Russian Empire, which extended to the North American continent. Works on the subject must thus deal with both Russian and American aspects of the area. Few specialists possess equal expertise in both contexts; and this, combined with language barriers and the peripheral location of Russian America/Alaska to both Russian and American national historiography, has hindered scholarship on the region.

Yet with the publication of the three-volume Istoriia Russkoi Ameriki (History of Russian America), edited by the late N. N. Bolkhovitinov, and the increasing attention the field is receiving from serious Russian and Western scholars, the field is definitely progressing. (1) Even so, it continues to be marred by some historians' nationalist sentiments. Russian nationalists have been increasingly attracted to Russian America's history, which they see as a tragedy for Russia. (2) Similarly, there is an American nationalist narrative in some writing on Russian America, which criticizes the Russian period and celebrates the American presence in Alaska, in what is nearly a mirror image of Russian nationalist historiography. (3) Such authors tend not to know the Russian language or Russian history. The flaws in both bodies of work underline the need for serious scholarship on the topic to navigate between two national and historiographical extremes. The books under review here do begin to fill this need, although with varying success.

The first book under consideration, Dawn Lea Black and Alexander Petrov's Natalia Shelikhova: Russian Oligarch of Alaska Commerce, is a collection of primary sources on the wife of Grigorii Shelikhov, who established the first permanent Russian settlement in what would become Russian America. She accompanied Shelikhov on his conquest of Kodiak between 1783 and 1786 and played a key role in securing the approval of the Russian American Company (RAC) as a monopolistic trading company in 1799 after Shelikhov's death in 1795, as has long been acknowledged. However, she has not been studied in her own right and is shown here as a canny businesswoman who protected her company from a host of ill wishers after her husband's death. These primary sources, including many of Shelikhova's letters, as well as petitions, reports, and the like, are important for scholars because they enrich our understanding of the early history of the RAC and deepen our appreciation of the difficulties Shelikhova had in defending her interests. The conflict between Shelikhova's company and its rivals is apparent in the sources, as is her mobilization of a broad range of contacts to prevail over them. It is useful to have these materials together in one volume.

The introductions to the book as a whole and to the documents, which are chronologically arranged in six chapters, however, are somewhat diffuse and give footnotes only for direct quotations. Even paraphrased archival sources lack references that would allow scholars to find the original source in each case. Other problems with citations include footnotes that do not correspond to the numbers in the body of the text. Russian secondary sources on the Shelikhovs are barely mentioned, and even Petrov's own works on the subject are not included, perhaps indicating that historians of Russia are not the intended audience. The documents also need more context than is provided by the chapter introductions, although a short essay after the documents arguing that the Shelikhov clan was dominant among RAC shareholders until 1835 is better sourced and cited. Yet for all this, although Natalia Shelildaova still awaits her biographer, Black and Petrov have provided a service by collecting materials on her life and presenting them in convenient form.

Gwenn Miller's Kodiak Kreol is a comparative work that places Russian America and the creation of the creole estate (soslovie) within the context of the colonization of the American continent. Broadly speaking, creoles were the offspring of Russian men and native women, although I have found sources that show that Siberian and American indigenous men were also fathers of creoles. This was different from the Spanish usage, which referred to full-blooded Spaniards born in the New World. Miller knows the North American historiography well and draws extensive, if not always persuasive, parallels among the Russian, British, and Spanish empires. Beginning with an overview of the history of Russian America in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the book then turns to the issue of mixed marriages, differences between Russian and Alutiiq views of marriage, problems of education and of provisioning the colonies, and finally of the creation of a "kreol generation." Running through the book is the assumption that the creoles were a racial group whose existence forced the creation of a new estate. However, little evidence is provided to show that the RAC saw such children as a problem in and of themselves. In fact, archival material I have examined for this period presented the creole children as potentially useful additions to the RAC workforce and hoped that, in the future, orderly monogamous creoles would improve the way of life of both native and Russian workers. (4) The author does cite a great deal of literature on the British Empire but does not engage in sustained comparison of the creoles with similar groups such as the "Countryborn" children of the Hudson's Bay Company. (5) Thus the assertion that the RAC saw the creoles as a racial category remains only an assertion.

These problems stem from one potential pitfall in comparative work. Although comparison can be valuable, the existence of practices in one society does not support arguments for their existence in another, especially if the two societies were quite different in their structure, as were the Russian and British. Comparative histories of empire make clear that the British were unusually averse to mixing with indigenous populations, and their policies reflect that. The Russians, French, and Spanish accepted a higher level of mixing than the British. Thus to argue that the Russians were following certain policies or ideas, and then to support these claims by citing work on the British Empire, is problematic. Often Miller makes statements in the body of the text that are supported only by a footnote listing comparative works for the British or other empires.

In addition, the comparison needs a firmer grasp of the Russian case than is evident here. Claims about Russian policies or intentions should be backed up by sources dealing with Russia, not with other empires, as comparison is a framework that must first deal with the specificities of the case in question before going on to compare with other cases. When done well, comparison can make connections and clarify what is common and what is unique in a given situation. However, differences are as important as similarities, and to assume similarity is as problematic as to assume difference.

This approach also makes room in Miller's account for a considerable number of factual errors. For example, the author sometimes presents two events in reverse chronological order, thus confusing cause and effect. One example concerns Nikolai Petrovich Rumiantsev and the State Council (126-27), where Miller speculates that Rumiantsev made a proposal to allow Russians to stay in Russian America in response to an RAC petition on the same topic. What Miller presents as Rumiantsev's response to the already rejected petition is actually his statement in support of the petition itself, which he presented to the State Council. The discussion of the 1821 charter, which legally created the category of creoles, is also misleading, as it refers to creoles as colonial citizens (139-42). The 1821 charter defined creoles as members of the townspeople estate, not as colonial citizens. Some translations raise questions. For example, Miller states that Elizaveta Terent'eva, a creole, was learning "Russian words" and that the family must have spoken only Alutiiq at home (133). However, the original source states not that Terent'eva was learning words (slova) but rather literacy (slovesnost, in the old sense of the word). (6) In addition, because there was no girls' school at the time, Terent'eva was most likely learning how to write at home. At times, the author engages in speculation without drawing on the specifics of sources she cites, as is the case with her discussion of the marriage of Kondratii Burtsov and Matrena Kuznetsova (131). She also uses the diary of Juvenaly, a source widely considered to be forged, as if it were genuine, and suggests that those scholars who questioned its validity were motivated by the Cold War (84). Ivan Petroff, who provided the diary to the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, was a known fabulator; and we even have his confession from a later period, dated 11 November 1892, in which he admitted to the State Department, where he was working on providing translations for the Bering Sea arbitration, that "I hereby acknowledge that ... in making the translations I was guilty of gross inaccuracies and interpolations, amounting to falsification." (7) Miller's disproportionate attention to comparisons and her insufficient regard for the specificities of the Russian case ultimately makes her book deeply problematic.

The work by Metropolitan Kliment (Kapalin), Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov" na Aliaske do 1917 goda, focuses heavily on the "Russian" side of Russian America. The work is a massive institutional history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian America and Alaska and consists of two parts. The first part gives a history of the ecclesiastical mission from 1794 to 1824 and the activity of Ivan Veniaminov, later Innokentii (Innocent), bishop of Kamchatka, the Kurile Islands, and the Aleutians (he later became metropolitan of the church and was canonized as St. Innocent in 1977), as well as histories of individual parishes, from Kodiak to Kvikhpak (now Russian Mission, Alaska). The second part discusses the difficulties of the church after the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, as many of the new U.S. authorities were prejudiced in favor of the Protestant churches that proselytized through the public schools with the approval of the U.S. government. It also details the institutional development of the church in Alaska and brings the individual parish histories up to 1917.

The great strength of Kliment's book is its extraordinary mastery of the archives, which include not just Russian depositories but those of the Orthodox Church of America in Syosset, NY, and materials held in Alaska. Kliment integrates these archival materials with a wide variety of Russian-language sources, particularly 19th- and early 20th-century Orthodox publications (though very few English-language materials). Yet the work has weaknesses despite the impressive source base, as it focuses on the Russian dimension of Russian America to the exclusion of the American. The pre-Christian values and beliefs of the natives are presented as being of little worth, and cultural mixing is ignored. Kliment gives more attention to Russian clerics than to creole ones. Sergei Kan has noted the existence of different kinds of Russian missionaries: ones that were more tolerant of other cultures and ones that were less so. (8) Even though Kliment writes extensively about Veniaminov, one of the important examples of the first kind, he himself is in the second group, as his book makes clear. The focus is on the Russian-born clergy, not their creole counterparts, and on the institutional life of the church more than the life of its parishioners.

Ilya Vinkovetsky's new work, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a ContinentalEmpire, 1804-1867, is more balanced in its treatment of Russian America than the other works surveyed so far. Placing his book within the larger framework of the new imperial history, Vinkovetsky offers an impressive overview of the thoughts and actions of naval officers, the administrators of the Russian American Company, and state actors. Although the focus is on Russian groups and individuals, he does pay attention to natives and creoles. Like Bolkhovitinov, Vinkovetsky stresses the differences between Siberia and Russian America and notes that the RAC was an entirely new departure for the Russian government. Placing Russian America within the history of the Russian Empire allows it to be examined as a case study in the history of empires and be more integrated into the larger field of history. Vinkovetsky deals with the larger historiography on empires as well; and although this is not his main focus throughout the book, he is more successful at comparative analysis than Miller due to his greater mastery of the material.

Vinkovetsky's narrative deftly shows how practices in Russian America were variations on time-tested ways of administering the Russian Empire. Vinkovetsky continues the work of Bolkhovitinov by arguing that Russian America was indeed different from Siberia in significant ways, and he analyzes how the RAC worked within the governmental system. Vinkovetsky emphasizes the role of the Tlingit in retarding Russian expansion in the Pacific Northwest and outlines how the RAC attempted to use the labor of "dependent" natives such as the Aleut by the use of force at the same time as it co-opted the Tlingit through less violent practices honed over centuries of absorbing such elites as the Baltic German and Tatar nobilities. Another means of social control was the use of paternalism and Russianization (obrusenie) as applied to creoles and natives. Vinkovetsky makes a useful distinction between Russification, which arose later in the 19th century and was more aggressive toward non-Russians, and Russianization, which arose earlier and was less confrontational. The last chapter, which is the finest one, explores the role of Ioann Veniaminov in creating a colonial diocese. Vinkovetsky breaks new ground in this chapter and provides a complex picture of Veniaminov as both a defender of natives and a champion of the colonial system. Vinkovetsky's portrayal of Veniaminov places him within a complex and shifting society, while Kliment's portrayal of the same figure deals more with his institutional role in building the church in Russian America. Vinkovetsky's material on creoles, however, is not as strong as the rest of the book, partly because he largely sees the creoles through the eyes of Russian naval officers, who regarded them differently than did the RAC administrators, not to mention creoles themselves. Overall the book is an important contribution to the historiography of Russian America.

Sonja Luehrmann's Alutiiq Villages under Russian and U.S. Rule is a small jewel of historical scholarship and provides the best example of balancing the Russian and American sides. Focusing on Kodiak from the Russian conquest to the early 20th century, Luehrmann aims to move beyond works that have argued for the superiority of either Russian or U.S. rule on various grounds. Instead, she provides an analysis from the ground up, by examining where the Alutiiq and creoles lived, how their labor was organized, and how family relations were regulated. Although the conclusion emphasizes the similarities between Russian and American rule, the body notes that Russian labor practices, although coercive, engaged Alutiiq communities as political units, while the U.S. system, especially toward the end of the period in question, when canneries were dominant, disempowered Alutiiq and creole communities both economically and politically.

A strength of Luehrmann's work is the wide source base, which includes archeological as well as textual records that see Alutiiq communities as part of broader Russian and American tendencies. The chapter on the location of Alutiiq villages is a fascinating piece of research that shows the consolidation of villages and suggests some of the social changes that occurred as a result. The last chapter, on social categories, is a lively and stimulating look at the Russian and American ways of categorizing native and creole groups, which points out some similarities, particularly dealing with patriarchy and gender, between the regimes. While she points out differences in dealing with race, Luehrmann does not draw as stark a contrast as is found in the earlier historiography and instead gives a sense of the fluidity of these categories. At the same time, we do get a sense of lived experience. The smallpox epidemic of 1837 comes up several times as a turning point, as the deaths of so many Alutiiq meant that Kodiak had become "a more thoroughly colonial place rather than a Russianized one: a society was taking shape whose constituent parts were profoundly shaped by Russian colonial policy but developed their own patterns of interaction, in which Russian administrators did not necessarily play a central role" (46). The "American" was not swallowed up by the "Russian."

The works reviewed here show significant progress in creating a history of Russian America that deals with both the Russian and American dimensions of the territory, although the books are successful in this regard to varying degrees. Despite some scholarly weaknesses and some remaining one-sidedness, these works bring together a wide range of sources to advance our knowledge of Russian America. Even so, it is clear that the Alaska native part of the story is more difficult to access, because of the smaller numbers of sources, which makes careful attention to what we have all the more important. Bringing together the two sides will enrich our understanding of both Russian and U.S. history, as well as that of Alaska, where they came together.

(1) N. N. Bolkhovitinov, ed., Istoriia Russkoi Ameriki, 1732-1867, 3 vols. (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye omosheniia, 1997-99),

(2) Andrei Znamenski, "History with an Attitude: Alaska in Modern Russian Patriotic Rhetoric," Jahrbiicher fur Geschichte Osteuropas 57, 3 (2009): 346-72. For an excellent recent overview of serious Russian scholarship, see Andrei V. Grinev, "A Brief Survey of the Russian Historiography of Russian America of Recent Years," Pacific Historical Review 79, 2 (2010): 265-78.

(3) Although not a historical work, James Michener, Alaska (New York: Random House,1988) draws on many such works and stands as the most complete summation of this argument.

(4) Susan Smith-Peter, "'A Class of People Admitted to the Better Ranks': The First Generation of Creoles in Russian America, 1810s-1820s," Ethnobistory 60, 2 (2013), forthcoming.

(5) A good example of Russian-British comparison is Roxanne Easley, "Demographic Borderlands: People of Mixed Heritage in the Russian American Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, 1670-1870," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 99, 2 (2008): 73-91.

(6) Terent'eva "obuchaetsia Rossiiskoi slovesnosti i zakonu Bozheiu" (Arkhiv vneshnei politiki Rossiiskoi imperii [AVPRI] f. RAK, op. 888, d. 251, I. 5 ob.).

(7) Cecil Robe, ed., Documents Relative to the History of Alaska (College, AK: n.p.,n.d.), 4:122. For more on this episode, which effectively ended Petroff's career, see Richard A. Pierce, "New Light on Ivan Petroff, Historian of Alaska," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 59, 1 (1968): 8-9. A detailed refutation of the authenticity of the Juvenaly journal may be found in Lydia T. Black, "'The Daily Journal of Reverend Father Juvenal': A Cautionary Tale," Ethnohistory 28, 1 (1981): 33-58.

(8) Sergei Kan, "Russian Orthodox Missionaries at Home and Abroad: The Case of Siberian and Alaskan Indigenous Peoples," in Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia, ed. Robert P. Geraci and Michael Khodarkovsky (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 173-200.


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Author:Smith-Peter, Susan
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Date:Jan 1, 2013
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