image of shaman

In the Beginning Was the Word


The Russian Church and Native Alaskan Cultures


The text and images in this exhibit are for the personal use of students, scholars,
and the public. Any commercial use or publication of them is strictly prohibited.

The coming together of a renowned scholar and a rich, but relatively unknown and unused archive of historically significant documents is a rare phenomenon. Last winter the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington, asked Dr. Vyacheslav Ivanov, one of the foremost linguists of our day, to review and evaluate the Alaskan Russian Church Archives, and to select some items for an exhibition. This installation is the direct result of that encounter, and it offers a rare opportunity to witness the insights that such an exchange can produce.

In the space of little more than a month, Dr. Ivanov scoured hundreds of documents in the Archive, probing deeply for the vital, historical truths that lay within them. The results of that remarkably intense experience were an evaluative essay written by Dr. Ivanov about the Archive; an oral presentation of his findings and observations, shared with Dr. Billington and interested Library staff; and this exhibition -- based on objects Dr. Ivanov selected and commented upon while reviewing them, day after day, in the Manuscript Division, whose staff generously provided a room and brought forth box after box of documents.

In confronting these documents, mostly written in Russian but some in the Alaskan Native languages of Aleut, Eskimo, and Tlingit, Dr. Ivanov has resuscitated the vibrant, incredibly moving human exchanges that took place between the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska and Native Alaskans, during the years 1794 to about 1915. These remarkable priests, intrepid heroes such as the Russian "giant" Ioann Veniaminov and the Creole Iakov Netsvetov, were not merely essential to the success of the colony established by the Russian American Company in 1784, they were also the agents through which much of the culture and languages of Native Alaskans were preserved. Only in recent years has the magnitude of their achievement been recognized -- and most appropriately during this 200th anniversary of the founding of the first Orthodox mission in North America in 1794.

This exhibition is made possible through the generous support of Messrs. Lloyd Cotsen and Plato Malozemoff, members of the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress.


Crown & Commerce in Russian America

The Russian discovery of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands by Vitus Bering (1681-1741) and Aleksiei Chirikov (d. 1748) in 1741 was inspired by Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725). For half a century thereafter, adventurous frontiersmen and fur traders, the promyshlenniki, ranged from the Kurile Islands to southeastern Alaska, often exploiting Native seafaring skills to mine the rich supply of sea otter and seal pelts for the lucrative China trade.

One of these daring traders, Grigorii Shelekhov (1747-1795), encouraged by Tsarina Catherine the Great (1729-1796), established the first colony in Alaska, in 1784, at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island. Shelekhov's colonial administrator, Alexandr Baranov, ruled so long (1790-1818) and effectively that he came to be known as "Lord" of Russian America. In 1794, the Tsarina fulfilled Shelekhov's pleas to establish an Orthodox mission in Alaska, and in 1799, Tsar Paul I (1754-1801) awarded Shelekhov's Russian American Company monopolistic control over trade and government, thus inextricably entwining the Company and the Church. The Company financed the Church in its missionary and educational work, while the Church became the custodian not only of the colony's morals -- often in opposition to Company practices -- but also of the spiritual and intellectual nurturing of the Native Alaskans.

Although the initial confrontation of Russians and Alaskans was sometimes bloody, with the coming of the Orthodox priests relations generally became more harmonious and mutually beneficial. Before long, however, in 1867, Alaska was taken over by the Americans, for whom gold was, initially, a primary concern. Despite the radical changes wrought by Americans, the deep impression of Russia and Russian Orthodoxy remain to this day in Alaska.

Engraved map. Map of the Marine Discoveries of Russian Navigators in the Pacific and Icy Seas, Accomplished in Various Years. Compiled at His Imperial Majesty's depot of charts, corrected by the latest observations of Foreign navigators, and engraved in the year 1802. G4371.F35 1802 .M Vault Oversize, Geography and Map Division (1)

Photograph of a lithograph. [Catherine II]. Biographical File, Prints and Photographs Division (2)

Photograph of a lithograph. [Grigorii Shelikov]. From, General Collections (3)

Manuscript document. Order to the Citizen of Rylsk and Companion of the Northeastern American Company Mr. Shelekhov, from Her Imperial Majesty Catherine II, May 12, 1794, p.7. Box 1, Yudin Collection, Manuscript Division (4)

Color photocopies. [Ainu Woman and Man]. From the facsimile edition of Atlas to the Voyage around the World of Captain Kruzenshtern, 1813. Tokyo: Tenri Central Library, 1973, pls. 77, 78. G1036.K7 1813a Vault, Geography and Map Division (5a,b)

Manuscript report. On the report of the Kamchatka Ecclesiastical Consistory with a presentation on the agreement made with the Toen, June 29, 1794, p.1. D27, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (6)

Photograph copyprint, from a lithograph, die cut. Nikolai Petrovich Resanov. Biographical File, Prints and Photographs Division (7)

Photograph from a lithograph. Alexander Baranov. Biographical File, Prints and Photographs Division (8)

Holograph document. This copy of secret instructions left by me upon departure from America to Mr. Baranov, signed by Nikolai Resanov, July 20, 1806, Article 17, pp.34,35. Box 1, Yudin Collection, Manuscript Division (9)

Holograph chart. Confessional list of the Kurile Islands, Simusira and Urup, for 1846, compiled by Fr. Andrei Miloradovskii on August 30, 1846, pp. 2,5. D27, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (10)

Broadside. St. Petersburg current price no. 76, published by the Ministry of Finance at the Department of External Trade every Tuesday and Friday during times of navigation..., December 29, 1811, pp.l,4. Box 2, Yudin Collection, Manuscript Division (11)

Manuscript letter. To his Reverence, the Very Reverend Lavrentii Salamatov, Atka St. Nicholas Church, from Toen of the Andreanov Aleuts Feodor Didiukhin, confidential letter, October l, 1863, p.1. D35, Alaskan Russian Church Archives, Manuscript Division (13)

Color-lithographed map. Colton's Map of the Territory of Alaska (Russian America) ceded by Russia to the United States. San Francisco: H. H. Bancroft & Co., 1868. TC Alaska 1868 Colton, Geography and Map Division (14)

Color-printed map. The Klondike Gold Fields Map of Alaska and a Portion of the Northwest Territory, Showing Routes to the Gold Fields. Chicago: Poole Bros., 1897. TC Alaska 1897 Klondike Region Poole Bros., Geography and Map Division (15)

Chromolithograph. Map of the Klondike Region Showing Routes, Distances, etc. by Rail and Water. New York: Brown, 1897. TC Alaska 1897 Brown, Geography and Map Division (16)

Manuscript memoir. The Harriman Expedition: Chronicles and Souveniers, May to August 1899, by Edward H. Harrison, et al, pp.70,7l. Box 1034, Vault, Harriman Collection, Manuscript Division (16a)

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