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Kodiak Kreol: Communities of Empire in Early Russian America by Gwenn A. Miller (review)

From: Ab Imperio
2/2013
pp. 360-363 | 10.1353/imp.2013.0059

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Kodiak Kreol is a reconstruction of the encounter between the Russians and the Alutiiqs in a specific location − Kodiak, Alaska. The study examines the first period of their interaction in the years 1780−1821. Gwenn Miller aims to enrich the available studies on the massive European expansion westward across the Atlantic and the North American continent by depicting the parallel eastward-moving experience characteristic of the North Pacific coast.

In describing the encounter between Russians and the Kodiak people, and the equilibrium established between them, Miller focuses on the Kreol case not only as the product of a cultural interaction but also as a distinctive group in its own right. Analyzing its origins, position within the colony, social identity, and role, she approaches the formation of the Kreol population in Kodiak as a result of not only exogamic sexual contacts but also the sustained policy of the Russian imperial authorities in the colony. Its goal was to produce a population that could be more easily controlled and better comprehended by the Europeans, by means of education and legal separation of this distinctive group in Russian America's society. The author also discusses the phenomenon of Russian imperialism, analyzing its cultural products and patterns, thus also inscribing her research into the field of empire studies. She gives us an insight into colonial life using mostly Russian documentation of an administrative character, enriched by writings of early ethnographers and occasional travel accounts. Nevertheless, she is careful not to ignore the economic aspects of the colony's life: the problem of the satisfaction of material necessities, the imposition of Russian economic practices, or the production of mixed cultural material artifacts.

The complex discussion of the Kodiak Kreol phenomenon is arranged into six chapters. The first chapter provides a summary of the conquest of Alaska: its "discovery." It appears to be merely the last step in the Russian run to the East, the colonization of the vast territories east of the Urals that was sustained by the drive to exploit fur-trade companies. The economy of perpetual expansion of fur hunting throughout the Siberian and then Alaskan territories resulted not only in gradual fauna depredation but also in the destabilization of subsistence economies of the local populations that happened to inhabit the lands affected by Russia's eastward expansion. The diverting of men from their usual seasonal economic routine into longtime hunting expeditions forced women to acquire new tasks and responsibilities. Miller reconstructs the original Alaskan society before the Russian conquest, paying particular attention to the patterns of relationships between individuals in Alaskan traditional society.

The encounter between the Russian newcomers and the local population enters the focus of the book only in the second chapter, which discusses how Russians gained supremacy over the Alutiiq people, and the attitudes they expressed toward each other. Russians settled permanently in Kodiak in 1784, following two decades of maritime exploration. Kodiak remained the nexus of colonial activities only until 1806, when the headquarters of the Russian-American Company supervising the colonization was transferred southeastward to Sitka Island. In 1816 the small missionary staff of the Russian Orthodox Church that had survived the first years of service in Alaska followed the company to the new center. The first clergymen arrived in Kodiak only in 1794, but shipwrecks, disease, and a hostile response from the local tribes decimated their initial numbers. Life was not much easier on the lay colonizers. Mostly skilled in fur trading and preoccupied with sustaining a minimum standard of living, Russian settlers initially did not succeed in developing a coherent system of administration integrated with the imperial government.

In the third chapter, the author describes how the colony took shape, thanks to the determination and strong will of its leader since Kodiak times, Grigorii Shelikov, and through encouragement from the imperial capital across the globe. Testimonies of travelers coming to St. Petersburg and informing the emperor on the conditions and demands of colonial life were extremely important in sustaining the connection between the metropole and the colony. Their firsthand experience of Alaskan life was communicated in the language of enlightened observers, which facilitated their reception in St. Petersburg. In response, the imperial government devised the...



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