"Meeting of Frontiers" Conference
HOME - Program and Presentations - Conference
Participants - About Meeting
Some Results of the Study of the Maritime Colonization
of Russian America and the Continental Colonization of Siberia
Nikolai N. Bolkhovitinov,
Academician, Russian Academy of Sciences
The results of the study of the Russian colonization of
Alaska were reflected in a "History of Russian America,1732-1867" in
three volumes published in Moscow in 1997 - 1999. This work
was based on original documents from more than 20 archives
mainly from Russia, but also from the United States and Western
Europe. The publication of this work coincided with the bicentennial
of the formation of the Russian American Company (the RAC),
which was founded in 1799, and the results of the research
were discussed at the international conference in Moscow
in September of 1999 with the participation of specialists
from the USA, Canada, Western Europe, and Russia. Especially
important, specialists not only from Moscow and St. Petersburg
were present at this conference, but also from Vologda, Kursk,
Irkutsk, Vladivostok, Petropavlovsk-on-Kamchatka, and other
provincial cities where new centers for the study of the
history of Russian America were organized.1 Some
of these centers are very active. For example, in Vologda
ten issues of a new journal devoted to Russian America were
published. The papers of the Moscow conference were published
in a special collection, and some additional materials were
included in a recent issue of the Американский ежегодник (American
One of the most important documentary publications on the
colonization of Siberia and Alaska was prepared by the Oregon
Historical Society in 1985 - 1989. In the introduction to
the second volume, Professor Basil Dmytryshyn correctly pointed
out: "Russian expansion to North America was a natural extension
of her drive across northern Asia", but there also were some "fundamental
differences". The Russian sweep across northern Asia, according
to his opinion, was neither "a grand design", nor "a clearly
coordinated, planned, national undertaking". In the case
of Alaska, the most basic difference "was the full involvement
of the government in the expansion progress".2 A
similar point was stressed in a special study devoted to
this problem by a Canadian Professor, James R. Gibson (York
University). "In Siberia, furs, tusks, gems, and other natural
products were obtained by a host of individuals and companies
competing against each other. Not so in Russian America,
where no individual entrepreneur could afford the expense
of acquiring, outfitting, and manning a ship for a voyage
of several years". The government eventually was obliged
to intervene and the Russian-American Company (RAC) was formed.3
In my opinion, there was no principal difference between
the Russian colonization of Siberia and Alaska. Russia was
an autocratic country, and we must take this into account
both in Siberia and in Alaska. The creation of the RAC was
the result of the initiative both of the government ("from
above") and the merchants, most of all N. A. and G. I. Shelikhov
("from below"). On a more personal level, the main founder
of the RAC, Nikolai Rezanov, was closely connected with the
government in St. Petersburg and in 1795 became the son-in-law
of N. A. and G. I. Shelikhov.4
Since the Russian colonization of the Aleutian islands
and Alaska was a direct continuation of the occupation of
Siberia and the concluding stage in the process of the eastward
expansion of Russia over several centuries, historians have
usually paid attention to common features of the colonization
of Siberia and Russian America. Their main focus has been
the fur rush as well as the activities of Cossacks, merchants,
and hunters. But there were also many differences, and these
differences in my opinion seem quite substantial, even crucial.
The main and defining feature of the Russian colonization
of the American Northwest lies in the fact that it was of
a maritime nature and therefore differed fundamentally from
the continental colonization of Siberia. The maritime nature
of the colonization of Russian America defined the feature
of the colonization of Alaska and in the final analysis,
the future destiny of Russian America.
The seagoing fleet, although it began to play an important
role in the foreign policy of Russia at the time of Peter
the Great, was never the main factor in Russian life and
foreign policy. Even at the height of the Russian Empire
- in the period of the victory over Napoleon - the army continued
to be the principal force of Russia. Fifty years later, the
Crimean War of 1853-1856 clearly demonstrated that Russia
was unable to stand on the sea against strong naval powers
(England and France). It is not by chance that the plans
to sell Alaska to the U.S. emerged just after the Crimean
War. The basic difference between the seagoing colonization
of Russian America and the continental colonization of Siberia
can be defined in two words: the sable and the kalan (sea
otter). At the end of the sixteenth and then seventeenth
centuries, the Russians were led to the endless expanse of
Siberia by the "sable" and later in the second half of the
eighteenth century, the valuable fur of sea otter brought
them to the shores of Alaska. In 1620-1680, according to
P.N. Pavlov, Russian and local fur hunters acquired more
than 7 million sables! In the seventeenth century, the bounty
of Siberian furs (sable, squirrel, beaver, and fox, among
others) accumulated to a total amount of 15 million rubles.5 Siberian
furs went to Moscow, the northern part of Russia, and to
the European markets - to Leipzig, later to St. Petersburg,
as well as to Holland and England, where they were exchanged
for various metal products, fabrics, colonial goods, etc.
On the other hand, sea otters were especially prized in
China. They were imported into China mainly through Kiakhta
and exchanged for tea, silk and other Chinese goods. To a
certain extent, as Gibson has concluded, the furs of sea
otters, which were so highly prized by the Chinese aristocracy,
promoted to a great extent the development of the Russian
tradition of drinking tea. He has also enumerated a number
of differences connected with the hunt for sable and sea
otter.6 In Siberia, the hunt for sable and other
continental animals took place during the winter, which left
enough time to work in agriculture during the summer. It
is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of the Russian
population of Siberia was very active in the field of agriculture,
especially field crops. But in Russian America, the hunt
for sea otters and seals began in April and lasted all summer,
which naturally inhibited agricultural work.
The fur hunt, and especially the hunt for sea animals,
however, was successful and brought significant income to
the RAC. In 1797-1821, according to data from P.A. Tikhmenev,
sea otters, fur seals, and other furs brought the RAC more
than 16 million rubles.7 During the fur rush in
the North Pacific, plans to expand the regional influence
of Russia were put forward, but failed to receive the support
of the government in St.Petersburg. The fate of the Ross
colony in California remained uncertain from its foundation
in 1812. In 1818-1819, Aleksander I and the Russian foreign
minister, K. V. Nesselrode, categorically refused to ratify
an agreement to establish Russian protection over the Hawaiian
Islands (Dr. Schaeffer on his own initiative occupied Kauai
Island and signed a treaty with King Kaumualii to take the
Hawaiian Islands under the protection of Emperor Aleksander
At the same time, we must take into account that it was
extremely expensive to deliver food supplies and other necessary
goods for the colonists in Alaska by way of Siberia. The
RAC and the government tried to solve the problem by setting
up round-the-world voyages from St.Petersburg to Alaska.
According to a modest evaluation in the XIXth century (up
to 1867) more than 70 circumnavigation and long voyages to
Russian America were organized. Many of them were of a great
scholarly importance, but in the final analysis, failed to
solve the problem of food supplies for the Russian colonies
in America. Trade connections with "American ship men" ("The
Bostonians", as they were called in the colonies), with the
Hudson Bay Company (Canada), Spanish California, and the
Hawaiian islands were more successful. But at the same time,
competition from foreign countries was growing stronger:
first Spain, then England, and by the end of the eighteenth
century the United States later began to dominate the entire
North Pacific region. In the final analysis, Russia was unable
to consolidate its supremacy in the North Pacific and Alaska,
and the power of the RAC in fact never extended over the
entire population of continental Alaska. In the nineteenth
century (up to the sale of Alaska, 1867) the number of Russians
remained at a level of 400 - 800 (the peak was 823 in 1839).
According to the official Alaska population data of I. Veniaminov
- 10,313 (1838) - we must add 12,500 (population known but
not included in colonial register). The number of local residents
totally unknown to the Russians was estimated at approximately
17,000. So the whole population of Russian America can be
evaluated at 40,000.9 The best hunters for sea
animals were Aleuts. Veniaminov called them "sea cossacks".
A comparatively insignificant part of the Russian population
worked in the hunting and fur trade, as nearly the whole
portion of this difficult work fell on the local population,
especially Aleuts. More than 80% of the Russians were involved
in the fields of management, technical maintenance of the
trading fleet, and the organization of defense for the colonies.10
We can see quite a different situation in Siberia. The
following table shows the population growth in Siberia in
the eighteenth century (males in thousands).11
|Percentage of peasants
in Russian Population
The Russian male population in Siberia rose from 169,000
in 1719-1722 to 412,000 in 1795-1796, as the number of Russian
farmers went from 182,000 (60,3%) to 338,000 (82,0%). So
the great majority of the Russian population in Siberia was
occupied in agriculture (especially field crops). At the
beginning of the eighteenth century, Russian peasants in
Western Siberia resolved the problem of food- stuffs, most
of all the production of grain. As S. Remizov wrote, the
Siberian soil is rich in grain, vegetables, and livestock
(буквально: земля хлеборобна овощна и скотна).
According to the calculations of V. I. Shunkov, Siberian
peasants at the end of the seventeenth century annually produced
approximately 4 millions poods of different corns, including
2 million poods of rye.12
In Russian America, the picture was quite different. The
foodstuffs were acquired mainly from trade with foreigners
(although experiments for the development of livestock breeding
were conducted in the Russian-American colonies, with swine
and sheep multiplying especially rapidly). The Russians also
taught the natives to grow vegetables, especially potatoes.
Only a very small segment of the population was engaged in
agriculture, however, with the exception perhaps of the Ross
colony in California. On the whole, the differences between
the continental colonization of Siberia and the maritime
colonization of Russian America in the end determined their
respective fates: Siberia became an integral part of Russia,
and Alaska in 1867 passed into the possession of the United
By selling her possessions in America to the United States,
Russia became the first European power to relinquish her
overseas colonies. The final result of the activities of
the RAC was the failure of plans to build a Russian empire
in the North Pacific and Alaska. At the same time, there
were some positive results of Russian activities in the North
Pacific region and Alaska - geographic discoveries, ethnographic
research, the organization of the first schools, hospitals,
and libraries, as well as the construction of shipbuilding
facilities and the development of various trades.13 Russian
seamen were able to study the coast of Alaska, the Aleutian
Islands, and other areas of the North Pacific, including
the Russian Far East, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands. Land
expeditions of the RAC ( I. Ia. Vasil'ev, E. L Kolmakov,
A. K. Glazunov, and L. A. Zagoskin, among others) which covered
the far northern part of Alaska, also made a contribution
to the development of geographic knowledge. It is significant
that the first schools, libraries, and hospitals in Russian
America were intended to serve not only Russians but also
other residents of the colonies - Aleuts, Tlingits, and persons
of mixed origin (the so-called "Creoles").
An important contribution of the Russians in Alaska (as
well as in Siberia) concerned the activities of the Orthodox
church, which from the beginning served as the protector
of the local population from the cruelties and exploitation
of Russian colonizers. It is not by chance that the monk
Herman, a member of the first ecclesiastical mission to Alaska
who stayed there until his death in 1837, became the first
Orthodox saint in the Western Hemisphere. It is also necessary
to mention the life and activities of Ioann Veniaminov (later
Bishop of Kamchatka, the Kuriles, and Aleutian Islands),
whose selfless work continues to arouse general admiration
and who is still remembered both in the United States and
1 История Русской Америки,
1732-1867, т. 1-3. Под редакцией Н. Н.Болховитинова. М., Международные отношения,
1997-1999; Русская Америка,
1799-1867. Отв. ред. Н. Н.Болховитинов. М., И-т всеобщей истории РАН.
2 To Siberia and Russian America. Three Centuries
of Russian Eastward Expansion 1558-1867. Vol. 1-3.
Edited and translated by Basil Dmytryshyn, E. A. P. Crownhart-Vaughan,
Thomas Vaughan. The Press of the Oregon Historical Society.
Portland (Oregon), 1985 - 1989. Vol. 2, p. XXXI.
3 James R. Gibson. "Russian Expansion in Siberia
and America: Critical Contrasts," Russia's American Colony.
Ed. by S. F.Starr. Duke University Press. Durham, 1987, p.
4 Н. Н. Болховитинов. "К 200-летию Российско-американской компании (некоторые итоги исследований)," Русская Америка,
1799-1867. М., ИВИ, 1999, с.
6-23; его же. П.Резанов и образование Российско- американской компании Проблемы всеобщей истории. СПб.,
2000; его же. Предисловие к книге: Петров А.Ю Образование Российско-американской компании. М., Наука.
2000, с. 3-10.
5 П. Н. Павлов. Пушной промысел в народном хозяйстве Сибири ХУП в. Автореферат докторской диссертации. Новосибирск.
1993, с. 15, 19. Подробнее см. Его же. Пушной промысел в Сибири ХУП в. Красноярск.
1972, с. 342.
6 J. R. Gibson Op. cit., p. 34-35.
7 П. А. Тихменев. Историческое обозрение образования Российско-американско й компании и действий ее до настоящего времени Ч.
1. СПб. 1861, с. 239.
8 For details see: N. N. Bolkhovitinov. "The
Adventure of Doctor Schaeffer on Hawaii, 1815-1819" Hawaiian
Journal of History. Vol.7, 1973, p. 55-78; Его же. "Выдвижение и провал проектов Добелла," Американский ежегодник,
1976 М., Наука, 1976, с.
9 И.Е. Вениаминов. Записки об островах Уналашкинского отдела, ч.
1-3. СПб., 1840, ч. 1, с. У-УП, ч.2, с.14, и др.
10 С.Г. Федорова. Русское население Аляски и Калифорнии. Конец ХУШ века – 1867 г. М.,
1971. с. 246. In this connection, the assertion that
90% of Alaska's Russian males were probably fur traders (Gibson.
Op. cit, p. 35) seems to be an evident mistake.
11 В М. Кабузан, С.М. Троицкий. Движение населения Сибири в ХУШ в. Сибирь ХУП-ХУШ вв. Новосибирск.
1962. с. 146 (таблица 3),
153 (таблица 5); История Сибири., М.; Наука 1968, с.
12 В.И. Шунков Очерки по истории колонизации Сибири в ХУП - начале ХУШ веков. М.-Л.
1946, с. 172- 173; его же. Очерки по истории земледелия Сибири (ХУП век). М.,
13 For details see: История Русской Америки,
1732-1867 в трех томах. М.