Russian America in Russian and American Historiography

Article excerpt

Dawn Lea Black and Alexander Yu. Petrov, eds. and trans., Natalia Shelikhova: Russian Oligarch of Alaska Commerce. xlix + 237 pp. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1602230736. $29.95.

Mitropolit Kliment (Kapalin), Russkaia Pravoslavnaia Tserkov" na Aliaske do 1917 goda. 607 pp. Moscow: OLMA Media Grupp, 2009. ISBN 978-5373016186.

Sonja Luehrmann, Alutiiq Villages under Russian and U.S. Rule. xx + 204 pp. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1602230231. $19.95.

Gwenn A. Miller, Kodiak Kreol: Communities of Empire in Early Russian America. xvii + 216 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0801446429. $55.00.

Ilya Vinkovetsky, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867. xiii + 258 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0195391282. $49.95.

The five books reviewed here investigate the history of Russian America, which was sold to the United States in 1867 and became Alaska. Before that date, Russian America was a part of the Russian Empire, which extended to the North American continent. Works on the subject must thus deal with both Russian and American aspects of the area. Few specialists possess equal expertise in both contexts; and this, combined with language barriers and the peripheral location of Russian America/Alaska to both Russian and American national historiography, has hindered scholarship on the region.

Yet with the publication of the three-volume Istoriia Russkoi Ameriki (History of Russian America), edited by the late N. N. Bolkhovitinov, and the increasing attention the field is receiving from serious Russian and Western scholars, the field is definitely progressing. (1) Even so, it continues to be marred by some historians' nationalist sentiments. Russian nationalists have been increasingly attracted to Russian America's history, which they see as a tragedy for Russia. (2) Similarly, there is an American nationalist narrative in some writing on Russian America, which criticizes the Russian period and celebrates the American presence in Alaska, in what is nearly a mirror image of Russian nationalist historiography. (3) Such authors tend not to know the Russian language or Russian history. The flaws in both bodies of work underline the need for serious scholarship on the topic to navigate between two national and historiographical extremes. The books under review here do begin to fill this need, although with varying success.

The first book under consideration, Dawn Lea Black and Alexander Petrov's Natalia Shelikhova: Russian Oligarch of Alaska Commerce, is a collection of primary sources on the wife of Grigorii Shelikhov, who established the first permanent Russian settlement in what would become Russian America. She accompanied Shelikhov on his conquest of Kodiak between 1783 and 1786 and played a key role in securing the approval of the Russian American Company (RAC) as a monopolistic trading company in 1799 after Shelikhov's death in 1795, as has long been acknowledged. However, she has not been studied in her own right and is shown here as a canny businesswoman who protected her company from a host of ill wishers after her husband's death. These primary sources, including many of Shelikhova's letters, as well as petitions, reports, and the like, are important for scholars because they enrich our understanding of the early history of the RAC and deepen our appreciation of the difficulties Shelikhova had in defending her interests. The conflict between Shelikhova's company and its rivals is apparent in the sources, as is her mobilization of a broad range of contacts to prevail over them. It is useful to have these materials together in one volume.

The introductions to the book as a whole and to the documents, which are chronologically arranged in six chapters, however, are somewhat diffuse and give footnotes only for direct quotations. Even paraphrased archival sources lack references that would allow scholars to find the original source in each case. …