- Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867
Ilya Vinkovetsky's Russian America follows a number of recent scholarly works addressing Russia's only overseas colony. The subject has proved contentious for historians both in Russia and North America, with Lydia Black's synoptic and polemical Russians in Alaska, 1732-1867 (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2004) serving as a lightning rod for discussion. In many ways Vinkovetsky's new book, which covers the second half of Russia's hundred-plus years in the New World, takes the opposite approach from Black. Russian America is a dispassionate, technical autopsy of the structures and practices that gave strength to the Alaskan empire. In these goals the book is eminently successful, and it will likely serve as the standard work on the subject for many years. Just as importantly, Vinkovetsky for the first time has made a strong case for Russian America's inclusion in broader discussions of European empires.
Vinkovetsky takes as his starting point not the traditional question about Alaska—why did the Russian empire in America fail?—but rather, what structures allowed it to persist for so long? Russian [End Page 440] America's answers hinge on two recurrent fulcra. First, Russia produced a hybrid imperial strategy, composed of elements taken from its own Siberian expansion plus some tactics borrowed from Western European imperialism. Before around 1800 Alaska had been run by the same Sibiriaki (common Russians in Siberia) who had colonized much of the land east of the Russian heartland. They were men who pursued a violent but flexible imperialism based on intermarriage with local women and the lucrative collection of fur tribute. Whatever this model's merits for a terrestrial empire, the Russian state found it insufficient to deal with its first attempt at an oceanic empire, a venture undertaken, moreover, in a part of the world fiercely contested by other European empires. Several innovations marked a new approach. First, in 1799, St. Petersburg chartered the Russian American Company, the empire's first joint-stock enterprise. As Vinkovetsky puts it, the RAC served as a "contractor of empire" (p. 66), a way of pushing the risks and most of the costs of overseas management on the empire's subjects, while still bringing profits and prestige to the state. The company was conceived in imitation of the British joint-stock companies, and was thus part of the recognition that Alaska would be a very different Russian frontier. Following the first Russian round-the-world voyage, 1803-1806, which delivered supplies to the ailing colony and defeated a Tlingit force at the site of the future capital of New Arkhangelsk (Sitka), Russian America diverged even further from the rest of the empire. The naval officers who were prominent expedition members imported European ideas of racial difference and pushed for a greater cultural transformation of the subject people there. After 1820 the naval officers themselves would run the RAC and Alaska, taking the colony even further from its beginnings as an offshoot of Siberian expansion.
Russian America's second fulcrum involves the colony's dependence upon the pelts of the sea otter and fur seal for its existence. The problem from the Russians' point of view was that they were poor maritime hunters and thus depended entirely on Alaska's natives to make the empire work. Nor, in contrast to other North American fur-trading ventures such as the Hudson's Bay Company, could the Russians supply the indigenous people with enough trade goods to encourage voluntary hunting. Therefore, they enveloped Aleuts, Koniags, and (to a much lesser extent) Tlingits within the hierarchy of more traditional monarchical and estate structures, which meshed poorly with ideas adopted from Western Europe. Such tensions were manifested in the curious use of the word "Creole" in Russian America. The term, borrowed from the Spanish, was used only in Alaska, and it had none of the original's ethnic precision and little of its stigma. In a sense, the Creoles were a [End...