BOOK REVIEW

Engstrom, Elton and Allan, Alexander Baranov : A Pacific Empire. Illustrated. Self-published.

This is a handsome book. It’s well laid out and the large size guarantees that the many illustrations are shown at their best.

The Engstroms, father and son, are to be congratulated on compiling a new biography of one of the most fascinating actors in the drama of Alaska under the Russians.

Baranov had a couple of businesses in Siberia that failed. One was to have huge consequences in his later life. It was a trading fort where his men traded liquor and firearms in addition to general stock. Local Natives, angered by his cheating storekeepers, drank the alcohol and used the firearms to loot and burn the store while he was absent. From then on, Alexander would never sell either to Natives.

Recruited by Gregorii Shelikov, founder of what became the monopolist Russian American Company (RAC), Baranov came to Kodiak in 1791 as the new chief manager.

He was shipwrecked at Unalaska, but, typical of him, whiled away the winter by taking a census of the island.

Alexander’s greatest strength was his intuitive knowledge of Native psychology. He was ready to fight, but also magnanimous in victory. He was also a shrewd merchant and usually an excellent judge of character.

He moved the Kodiak settlement to a better location and founded Sitka and Claifornia’s Fort Ross and became known as "Lord of Alaska" throughout the Pacific. Baranov traded with Hawaii, used American ships when he had no ships of his own to carry furs, and managed, in spite of poor support from the RAC and the inevitable loss of ships and men, to make large profits for the firm.

When he was replaced in 1818, the auditor sent because of the rumors of corruption, found the accounts balanced to the penny. In fact, he was so impressed he wrote a biography of Baranov.

The authors worked from original sources whenever possible, always a good thing for history. However, while the biography is good, they tried to cover too large a field. The entire history of Russia in Alaska is a major topic; it would have been better if they had confined themselves to Baranov.

Still, it makes a good read, although too flattering to its subject. Hagiography is better left to the saints.

D. L.

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