Sitka Part II – The Russian Story

6/22/19. On Board Alaska Airlines Flight 73 to Anchorage

We don’t learn a whole lot about the role of Russia in American history because, outside of Alaska, the Russian influence is pretty much non-existent.  Spanish, French, and even Portuguese explorers made first European contact in much of the continental US.  Maybe there were a few Russian immigrants in the late 1800s.  And, of course, after World War II, the Cold War with Russia, played an important role in determining our history.  But our early history contained little or no interactions with their culture.

The single exception to that generalization is here in Alaska where Russia is the focal point for the early history and their influences are deep and broad in this region.  Vitus Bering, although of Scandinavian heritage, was actually sailing for the Russian czar when he began his explorations of the far -northern Pacific and Arctic oceans.  At the time, the big unknown question was whether North America and Asia were connected.  (That made an obvious difference to czar Peter in establishing the borders of his empire.)

Bering and subsequent explorers worked their way across the Aleutian Islands searching for sources of sea otter furs, which became even more valuable than beaver pelts, especially for making hats in Europe.  Russia laid claim to much of what we now know as Alaska, especially the coastal areas, by placing markers defining the area as Russian land.  Natives were treated badly, as Europeans do, and the groups here, like throughout the continent,  also suffered severely from European diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis, killing off as much as half of the local populations.

In 1799, a couple of boatloads of Russians established Old Sitka, about 7 miles north of the present town’s location.  The local Indian groups, Tlingits, resisted the new presence and in 1802, destroyed the town and sent the Russians home.  The Russians even had to ransom some of their own.  

Alexander Baranov didn’t take too kindly to being so handsomely defeated.  He returned two years later and re-established the Russian town in its present location, heavily fortifying it.  Pummeling the Tlingit village with canon (from Castle Hill, behind the hotel we stayed in), the Tlingit fought on for several days.  Eventually, sensing they couldn’t compete against canon batteries, they simply retreated to another location across and up the river.  An uneasy acceptance of both sides took hold.  And they developed a trading relationship.  By 1808, Russia had created the Russian American Company to manage the affairs of their far flung colony and designated Baranov as its leader.  He named Sitka the capital of Russian America. 

Tea Time with the Bishop

Part of the charter of the company was a stipulation that the company was to provide support and financing for missionary efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church.  In 1840, Bishop Innocent arrived and, in his own home, established an orphanage and a schoolhouse primarily for Tlingit children, since Russians didn’t really stay too long in Sitka.  Largely because the Bishop took the time to research and learn the native culture and language, the Tlingit came to embrace Russian Orthodoxy and support Bishop Innocent.  

Russian Bishop’s House

The Old Bishop’s House was constructed in 1844 and is now a part of the Sitka National Historical Park.  We took a ranger guided tour through the building and learned much about the Bishop’s life and work.  The downstairs served as the orphanage and school house, while the upstairs housed his residence as well as his personal chapel.  

Bishop’s Personal Chapel

He also had built St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, located just down the street, which contains the three main altars for what became known as The Cathedral of Alaska.  As Archbishop, he became the spiritual leader for thousands of Russians and natives throughout the state.  The cathedral is still a central part of the faith in the new world.  (As an interesting aside, there are no pews in the cathedral; their worship services are held standing up!)

St. Michael’s Cathedral

Eventually, the fur trade dried up and Alaska became too difficult and expensive to manage for the Russian empire.  They sold it to the U.S. in 1867 for just two cents per acre – and thought they were getting the bargain.  

The Center of the Russian Orthodox Church in America

Russian influence is evident anywhere you go in Sitka.  Many street names are American, but just as many or Russian.  I ate terrific Russian pork dumplings in a bacon cream sauce at Baranof ‘s Fish Market restaurant.  And, right across from the Russian Orthodox Cathedral is the Russian Christmas Shop with huge collections of nested Russian dolls – some of them 30 deep.  I remember having a set when I was a kid, so I bought my granddaughter a set for Christmas.  And, yes, they were made in Russia!  Sitka is as much Russian as it is American, and that is rather unique in the U.S.

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