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New Documents on the Russian-American Company

Alexander Petrov
Russian Academy of Sciences

Tremendous progress has been made in the intensive study of the history of the North Pacific. The efforts of scholars from Russia, Canada, and the USA were gathered in the recent 3-volume publication, The History of Russian America. The history of the North Pacific is also the subject of the developing project Meeting of Frontiers, and was the topic during an international conference hosted by the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1999 dedicated to the bicentennial of the formation of the Russian-American Company.

It has become obvious that up-to-date research in the field is impossible without a vast complexity of different sources taken from different repositories in Russia and abroad, together with a profound exchange of ideas between scholars sharing this area of expertise. A new understanding of Russian and American colonization, revealing their differences and similarities, is explored in the project Meeting of Frontiers, which serves as an essential instrument for all who are interested in the subject, scholars and laymen alike. It has been demonstrated that the phenomenon of the Russian American Company can be analyzed from different angles. The most obvious examples are the works of Tikhmenev and Okun. Tikhmenev, who was not only a historian of the Russian- American Company, but one of the major shareholders, formed his work based on extensive examination of documents. His approach, however, was more descriptive than critical or analytical. It is mainly on this point that Okun has criticized the work.

Okun's work can be considered a milestone in the study of the history of Russian America. He asserts that the Russian Imperial Government used the "puppet" Russian-American Company as an instrument for colonization, a thread that in one way or another has been picked up by many researchers in a number of countries. This idea seemed to be borne out in the evidence presented in the book. Since 1939, though, almost every point in his argument has received the criticism of researchers, sometimes even those working in different areas.

Although there are a number of publications of the documents of the Russian-American Company and their analysis, there remains much room for research. By using an interdisciplinary approach, it is possible to shed new light on familiar documents as well as to help find new materials on the subject.

The author proposes a thorough, detailed analysis of the history of the Russian American Company through its economic and financial components. The private and official correspondence between different individuals of the Russian-American Company provides a wealth of insight into the functioning of the company.

Understanding the history of the Russian-American Company through the prism of its financial and economic development leads to understanding the economic development of Russia and of the United States, as well as of Russian-American relations.

The difficulty of using this approach lies in the fact that documents on this subject are scattered in more then twenty different archives in Russia and abroad. Some of the documents discussed in this paper have previously been used by a number of scholars, although they failed to provide a thorough analysis of the full range of financial documentation on the Russian-American Company. For example, it seems crucial to analyze the company's different forms of capital, explore its dynamics, and analyze the changes in the methods of creating different financial documents as well as to reveal the financial reasons behind this or that decision of the Russian-American Company headquarters.

This paper could be seen as an attempt to present archival coverage of balances, trade, and share registers, and Company financial reports as well as to shed some light into a block of interesting documents, many of which have never been published, on Nataliia Shelikhova, who was a Russian-American Company co-founder and is considered to be the first Russian businesswoman. Little research has been done so far on the history of women in Russian America in general.

Presently it is possible to reconstruct the balance history of the RAC from its foundation until almost 1885 (shareholders continued to receive dividends after the company's liquidation with the sale of Alaska in 1867). Many of the balances have been officially published, albeit in abbreviated form. The period before 1840 provides the most difficulties for a reconstruction of balance history. The documents of this formative period for the RAC, marked by the activity of the Golikov-Shelikhov Company and the United American Company, are preserved in different collections of documents (hereafter referred to as F) at the State Archive of the Irkutsk Region (SAIR), f. 70, 380, 447; in the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire (AVPRE), f. RAC. The complete balances of 1799, 1804, 1810, 1812 can also be found in AVPRE, f. RAC. It is more difficult to trace the period from 1812 until 1840, which is represented by the documents mainly from f. 18 and 994 in the Russian State Historical Archive (RSHA).

Balances give the essential and basic idea of the company's financial activity, although in order to correctly interpret certain balance data it is important to examine balances together with other documents. With the balances represented in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and mainly in the AVPRE, and the RSHA, other financial documentation can be found in a number of regional Russian archives.

It is necessary to note that up to the beginning of the 1820's, balances were rarely made a matter of public record. In 1811, the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued a special paper complaining that since its foundation in 1799, RAC had never presented a detailed report of its financial activity. This report was precipitated by a crisis that the Russian-American Company faced soon after its formation. The core of the crisis was that the RAC was not able either to pay dividends to shareholders or service its credit obligations in a timely fashion. This happened because of an incorrect calculation of shares at the beginning of the company's activity (RSHA, f. 1374, 994, Russian National Library, Manuscript Division, f. 542.) Between 1810 and 1820, the situation with the company's capital more or less stabilized. From 1830, the RAC started to publish financial reports on its activity on a regular basis (RSHA, f. 18, 13.) There are certain documents in which the company's directors gave their understanding of the situation in regard to the company's finances. Sometimes, these papers were issued only for a limited number of individuals, as was the case with Prokofiev's and Cramer's reports, currently in the Archive of the Russian Geographical Society, f.99, AVPRI f. RAC, and Vologda State Archive, f. 671.

There are certain archival depositaries that could be invaluable for research on the Russian-American Company, which have rarely or never been used by researchers.

Velikii Ustuyg

The archive of Velikii Ustyg, f. 145, 361, 27, and the Historical Museum f.144, provide materials on the activity of the first General Director of the Russian-American Company (who was coincidentally, Nataliia Shelikhova's son-in-low), Buldakov.

Vologda

The State Archive of the Vologda Region, f. 671, 13 gives information on certain shareholders in the Russian-American Company, as well as essential figures on the price of shares in the Russian market. The Historical Museum gave additional and valuable materials on Shelikhov family activity.

Odessa (Ukraine)

In the State Archive of the Odessa Region, f.1, 88, there are trade registers connected to the Russian-American Company's activity, and materials which could shed more light upon Russian-American relations

Research in regional archives also could lead to further research in other depositories. For example, in AVPRE and the Odessa Region Archive there are documents from which it could be possible to learn that there is a good possibility of finding new documents on the subject in the Kiev Region State Archive (Ukraine) and Kazan' Region State Archive. Even in Moscow and St. Petersburg there is still a good chance of finding documents. For example, the State Historical Archive of St. Petersburg holds material related to the Shelikhovs and Russian-American relations.

The main problem of using regional depositories is the fact that documents are usually not gathered in one particular collection. For example, a few valuable documents can be found sprinkled in different registers (comprised of several large volumes) amongst a majority of documents that had no connection with Russian America.

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  June 23, 2016
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