Black, Lydia T., Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867. Fairbanks, University of Alaska Press, 290 pages + bibliography + index. Illustrated. $29.95 softbound $65.00 hardbound.
Have a little interest in Russian America? Always wanted to know something about the glory days of Baranov and his successors? If so, this is not the book for you.
This is for the person with a serious fascination with the history of Alaska up to 1867, the one who wants a real discussion of the founding of the Russian American Company or the finer points of the three charters, not to mention the quarrels between Rezanov and Krusenshtern. This person will be delighted.
Dr. Black takes the reader through the conquest of Siberia, the geopolitics affecting the Russian claims to Alaska, the great and highly profitable days of Baranovís administration, and on to the decline and eventual end of the company.
Along the way we are treated to a much more revealing picture of events, most of them translated for the first time from the Russian sources. For example, you may have been aware that the later greatest rival to Gregorii Shelikov and his Russian American Company, Lebedev-Latoshkin, was first a partner of his. However, did you know that the two men met in Kamchatka between 1773 and 1775 and, "...with assistance from the authorities, acquired the use and later the ownership of the Sv. Nikolai, a ship of the bot type, forty-five feet along the keel, then idle in the harbor of Petropavlovsk. (The major shareholders in the Sv. Nikolai, merchants Mukhin and Zasypkin, were in court, ownership of the vessel being disputed.)"
This minute detail permeates the book. Want to know what Old Sitka was formally called? "The settlement was named Novo-Arkhangelísk in honor of the ancient center of northern Russian seafaring and trade, and, like the old city on the White Sea, was placed under the protection of the Archistrategos Archangel Michael." A ceremony to celebrate this included a "procession, an improvised religious service, a quasi-military parade, and a great many volleys from firearms and cannon."
As with all books of this scope and depth, a few people are neglected or ignored. Afanasii Klimovski is mentioned, but his heroic trip into the Interior delivering smallpox vaccine is not noted. Petr Malakhov, well-known Creole explorer and founder of what became Nulato was somehow overlooked entirely.
Various small details are likewise incorrect; Baranovís ceremony and teaching of his famous "Song of Hunters" that inaugurated New Archangel was in October of 1799, not "early in 1800". No Chilkat chief took possession of Yakutat after the Russian settlement there was eliminated.
There are a few contradictions; in one place Demid Kulikalov, a beloved veteran, in 1804 was flogged and "...put in irons and shipped to Okhotsk, apparently separated forever from his family," yet a bit later we read he established an outpost on St. Matthew Island, returning to Unalaska in 1810.
However, in spite of these tiny problems and a rather surprising belief in all the pronouncements and accusations hurled at Baranov and his men by Hieromonk Gideon, this volume adds immeasurably to the knowledge and understanding of the Russian period in Alaska. Dr. Black is to be congratulated, and so is the University of Alaska Press for bringing this book to fruition. The illustrations are wonderful; many hitherto unknown maps and pictures are shown in both color and black-and-white.