Russian America

Russians arrived on the western shores of North America after crossing their Eastern Ocean in 1741. After an initial period of exploration, they settled down for a full century until relinquishing their colonies to the United States. From 1799 to 1867, the colonies were governed by the Russian-American Company, a for-profit monopoly chartered under the deathbed instructions of Catherine the Great.

The Russian-American period has been treated unkindly by historians from both sides. Soviet-era accounts, though acknowledging the skill and courage of Russian adventurers, saw this Tsarist experiment at building a capitalist, American society as fundamentally flawed, casting the native Aleuts as exploited serfs. American accounts, glossing over our own subsequent exploitation of Alaska's indigenous population and natural resources, sought to emphasize that we liberated Alaska from Russian overseers who were worse, and would never be coming back.

Careful study of primary sources has convinced me that these interpretations are not supported by the facts. The Aleutian archipelago was a spectacularly rich environment with an unusually dense, thriving population whose physical and cultural well-being was devastated by contact with European invaders. But, as permanent colonists, the Russians were not so bad. The results were closer to the settlement of Greenland by Denmark than to our own settlement of the American West.

Although during the initial decades leading up to the consolidation of the Russian-American Company there was sporadic conflict (frequently disastrous to the poorly-armed and vastly-outnumbered Russians) with the native population, the colonies soon entered a relatively stable state based on cooperation, intermarriage, and official policies that provided social status, education, and professional training to children of mixed Aleut-Russian birth. Within a generation or two the day-to-day administration of the Russian-American colonies was largely in the hands of native-born Alaskans. As exemplified by the Russian adoption and adaptation of the Aleut kayak, or baidarka, many indigenous traditions and technologies (including sea otter hunting techniques, and the working of native copper deposits) were adopted by the new arrivals, reversing the usual trend in colonization, when indigenous technologies are replaced.

The Russians instituted public education, preservation of the Aleut language through transliteration of religious and other texts into Aleut via an adaptation of the Cyrillic alphabet, vaccination of the native population against smallpox, and science-based sea mammal conservation policies that were far ahead of their time. There were no such things as "reservations" for the native population in Russian America, and we owe as much to the Russians as to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 that this remains true today.

The lack of support for the colonies by the home government (St. Petersburg was half a world away, and Empress Catherine's instructions a fading memory) eventually forced the sale to the United States, but also necessitated the resourcefulness and local autonomy that made the venture a success.

Russian America was a social and technological experiment that worked, until political compromises brought the experiment to a halt.