Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867

Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867

Ilya Vinkovetsky

Reviewed by Stephen Haycox

In this important book, Ilya Vinkovetsky of Simon Fraser University places the story of Russia’s American experiment fully within the history of colonialism. Russian America was a unique colonial adventure, he argues, in which the tsar’s government supported, if it did not encourage, exploitative policies that served the profit orientation of the Russian American Company, while at the same time implementing progressive measures meant to recognize the humanity of the indigenous population and impress other nations with the humanitarian character of Russia’s imperialism.

Distinguishing sharply between the Siberian merchant and promyshlennik beginnings of the colony -- before formation of the Russian American Company and its later administration by the Russian Navy -- Vinkovetsky posits that the many circumnavigation voyages, without which the colony would have been unsustainable, transformed the nature of the American venture. These brought it to it a level of organization and professionalism borrowed in part from other nations’ imperial networks, but they were also the result of innovations that were responsive to the colony’s unusual ecological and economic character. Though the Siberian promyshlenniki were familiar with sub-Arctic conditions, negotiating the formidable seas between Kamchatka and Alaska took a significant toll on men and material. Supply from the many circumnavigation voyages largely overcame that obstacle. But that was possible only because the Russian population of Alaska and California (Fort Ross, eighty miles north of San Francisco) never exceeded 900. The number of “Creoles,” mixed heritage offspring from indigenous women and Russian men, was generally twice that number. Profit from the sale of fur peltry was the only reason for the Alaskan venture, never the establishing of a new society.

The small Russian population necessitated reliance on both the Creoles and the Native people for labour, management, supply, and companionship; both Creoles and Natives were accorded codified legal standing under Russian law. Building on their rudimentary, elementary colonial education, a number of Creoles received further training in Russia and became important functionaries in the Company.

Drawing on an impressive command of both Russian and English-language sources, Vinkovetsky provides intriguing insight into the sustained Russian effort to “Russify” the indigenous people with whom they had constant contact. Managers directed policy toward generating among the Natives an appreciation of the efficiencies and predictability of order, with the design of rendering them more accepting of Russian authority. Education played a significant role in that policy, as did conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity. Vinkovetsky provides a particularly salient analysis of the work of Ioann Veniaminov, Bishop Innocent, who contributed substantially to the Russification effort by providing evidence, in his Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District, of the Natives’ capability and adaptability. They should be viewed, he argued, not as an impediment to the achievement of colonial aims, but as an asset.

The Russian experience in North America proved valuable as the Russian empire expanded into the Asian Far East after the 1850s, an area of much more interest to Russia than Alaska. Following on the Alaska experience, the tsar’s government treated the area as a colony rather than an expansion of Russia proper.

Given the eventual decision to sell Alaska, Vinkovetsky describes the American venture as a failure. But that conclusion seems inconsistent with his argument that the Russians manifested substantial adaptability in the colony and elsewhere utilized the lessons learned there. His demonstration of this thesis will make the book very useful to historians and anthropologists alike.

Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867
By Ilya Vinkovetsky 
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 270 pp, $54.95 cloth

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.

BC Studies 178 (Summer 2013)