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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

Russian Reflections

Was Alaska sold for a song?
It is customary to consider that the USA bought Alaska together with adjacent, islands with overall area of 1.5 million square kilometres for $7.2m in gold, which works out as about 2c per acre. These figures are printed in Russian and American literature as well as in various atlases. But was there a sale at all, or was it more like the USA paid Russia so that it would finally leave the American continent? In the first part of a two-part series, Yury Samoilov takes us back to the mid-eighteenth century when fur-hungry Russia colonised Alaska.
Yury Samoilov

Fur rush

By the author

or local residents of the Chukotka-peninsula, Russian-Alaska was a place they had known about for a long time. They regularly rode there on sleighs pulled by deer across the Bering Strait in the winter and on boats in the summer to exchange goods with natives of Alaska.

Such journeys took a single day. Intensive colonization of Alaska began only after Russian seamen, Vitus Bering and Alex Chirickov, reached the American continent in the summer of 1741 on the three-masted sailing ships, Saint Peter and Saint Pavel. Tales of a huge number of fearless fur-bearing animals wandering along the shores who were not afraid of human beings got Russian hunters excited. Disregarding the risks involved, they rushed to the new, unknown lands, set up fortified settlements, showing no mercy on animals or natives. A mass extermination of sea otters, the pelts of which were highly valued on world market, and other wild animals was started.

After a few years, American and British hunters joined in, enraging local Indians who mounted many, mostly unsuccessful, rebellions against the aliens.

The Russian-American Company

To hold back foreign competitors, Russian hunters decided to unite their efforts, and in 1799 set up a powerful monopoly with the name “Russian- American Company” or RAC. The company was a joint-stock company founded solely with Russian capital.

The tsarist elite, having benefitted greatly in monetary terms from RAC, not only acquired part of the company’s stocks, but decided to make use of it for the expansion of the Russian Empire.

The first governor of Russian colonies in Alaska was Aleksander Baranov, a merchant from the small Russian town Kargopol.

One of his descendants, Zoja Afrosina who is alive today, found out quite accidentally about her kinship with her eminent ancestor. She was informed that her uncle (a relative of Baranov), had left her heritage. She discovered a large number of previously unknown documents, concerning Baranov’s private life. He apparently literally went native and married the daughter of Indian chief and had two children by her. The full biography of Baranov is described in a new book on Alaska written by historian Allan Engstrom, which was presented in March of this year in the State Historic Museum in Moscow.

From 1741 for 12 years, a considerable part of Alaska coast and most of its adjacent islands, the Aleutian and Kuril islands were colonized and explored. Baranov dispatched his assistant Ivan Kuskov in 1812 to set up in California. He created a settlement called Fort Ross, about 80 kilometres from where San Francisco stands today.

Fort Ross

Alexander Baranov

Fort Ross had a short history of only 30 years. At first it thrived thanks to the fur trade, but this was short-lived, as almost all sea otters in the vicinity were soon exterminated and the rich soils on which wheat, barley, fruits and vegetables were cultivated were soon exhausted. The then governor of the Russian colonies in Alaska, the future admiral Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel, tried to save the fort from destruction.

Descendants of Wrangel live, and still live, in the USA, Russia and Sweden. The most famous of them was Peter Wrangel who was an officer in the Imperial Russian army and later commanding general of the anti-Bolshevik White Army in the final stages of the Civil War.

Ferdinand von Wrangel came to an agreement with the revolutionary Mexican government about the apportionment to Fort Ross of a large tract of land on condition of acknowledgment of Mexico by Russia. But Tsar Nicholas I who despised revolutions, categorically refused to have anything to do with Mexico. In 1841, Fort Ross was sold for $30,000 to a farmer from Sacramento named John Sutter. Later on, the fort was repeatedly resold and a hundred years was almost completely decayed. In the 1930s, thanks to the efforts of American and Russian emigrants, the fort was completely restored to its original state and transformed into a national museum - Fort Ross State Historical Park.

The author of these article who grew up in San Francisco, happened to visit this splendid park with his father, who was working in Soviet consulate there in the 1940s.

In retrospect, there is no doubt that the sale of Fort Ross was, as far as Russians go, an unforgivable blunder. Tsar Nicholas I totally failed to understand the strategic importance of California. To rub salt in the wou, only seven years after the fort was sold, a rich deposit of gold was discovered nearby, a discovery that preceded the California gold by seven years. The gold rush led to the rapid construction of roads, schools and infrastructure.

Novo-Arkhangelsk. Drawing by I. G. Vosnesensky

A hard choice

The sale of Fort Ross was the first step towards the liquidation of the Russian-American Company (RAC) whose profitability had been hit with the decline of sea otters. In the last five years it lost money, which annoyed the tsarist elite, accustomed as they were to fabulous dividends.

The economic position and prestige of Russia noticeably worsened after its defeat in the Crimean war, at least in comparison to the rising might of Great Britain, France and the USA. The prestige of the 20 main settlements in Alaska, including Novo-Arkhangelsk ,which had a population of 3,000 people on Baranov island, also suffered.

Most of these settlements were situated on the narrow western coastal strip of the Gulf of Alaska, which was separated from the huge, practically uninhabited, continental part of Alaska by a mountain chain.

A Russian village in present-day Alaska

No borders as such were established by the Russian settlers. The only thing that the Russians could do, and even then not always, was to put somewhere on the hill not far from their wooden forts, the posts or crosses with notices attached to them: “This land is the possession of Russian Empire”.

They made further attempts to make their settlements more legal, they also buried iron boards bearing the emblem of the Russian State in copper, with the same text underneath.

Russia had two main choices as to how to what to do with its Russian colonies:

  • either to render financial help to Russian American Company (RAC) and set up an Alaskan State administration, which would involve not only administrative expenses, but also stationing regiments of troops and the naval ships, to defend territories Russia claimed as her own possessions; 
  • or to leave Alaska, preserving its prestige.

As we all know, the latter course of action was adopted. But how and why, will be discussed in the next article in the July edition of Passport.

Anchorage by Evgeny Datsko

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