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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 Annual)

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 I).8

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

Census Total
Russians Russian
Percentage of peasants
in Russian Population
1719-1722 241 72 169 102 60.3
1744-1745 306 108 198 155 78.2
1762-1763 393 132 261 224 85.3
1781-1782 552 163 389 318 81.7
1795-1796 595 183 412 338 82.0

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 States.

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 Russia.

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. 1999.

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. 39.

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. 264-282.

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. 183 (табл1).

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., 1956, с.

13 For details see: История Русской Америки, 1732-1867 в трех томах. М. 1997-1999.

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