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  • Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804–1867
  • Sharyl Corrado (bio)
Ilya Vinkovetsky , Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804–1867 (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2011). xiii + 258 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-539128-2.

In this slender volume, Ilya Vinkovetsky, associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (Canada), places Alaska not only within the history of imperial Russia, but in the international arena of nineteenth-century overseas colonization. Only recently has Russian America begun to receive the scholarly attention it merits, a fact Vinkovetsky attributes to the political, financial, and linguistic barriers that have hindered both Russianists and Russians from specializing in an American state. Yet Alaska is an anomaly not only for its 1867 sale to the United States. Vinkovetsky describes it as unique in Russian history in at least three ways. First of all, it was a Russian colony, in fact, "the one and only part of the empire that was explicitly and officially defined as a colonial possession" (P. 6). Second, as emphasized in the book's subtitle, it was, moreover, an overseas colony, and as such posed challenges unfamiliar elsewhere in Russia's vast contiguous empire. Third, Russian America was exceptional for its position [End Page 509] under the Russian-American Company (RAC), a joint venture between the state and private merchants established in 1799 to serve as a "contractor of empire" by exploiting North American resources and extending the empire's reach across the Pacific. While nineteenth-century Russians designated their North American possessions not as a "colony" (singular), but in the plural – "Russia's colonies in America" (P. ix), Vinkovetsky draws attention to the parallels between Alaska and European overseas colonialism by using the singular, "colony," noting that the territory was administered from a single center. He likewise employs the somewhat fraught term "colonialism," explaining that "not using it … [would] ignore or minimize the parallels between Alaska and other 'colonial' arenas around the world" (P. 11). Vinkovetsky demonstrates that Russian America functioned as a hybrid, both a natural extension of the traditional Siberian fur trade and a modern overseas mercantile colony guided by global market forces. In his extensive examination of political, social, economic, and cultural history, Vinkovetsky explores not only how the discourses of colonial representation translated into colonial realities but also how both the metropole and its colony redefined and renegotiated their interrelationship and their roles in the world.

When Russia entered the age of global maritime circumnavigation in 1804, Alaska began to shift, both in practice and in the Russian imagination, from Siberian frontier into a Russian colony. The increasing frequency of sea voyages – Vinkovetsky lists sixty-five between 1803 and 1866 (Pp. 41-45) – dramatically altered the demographic composition of the colony, with educated Europeans replacing Sibiriaki and Cossacks in the colonial administration. Among other differences, the educated Russians who arrived via the South Seas were more conscious of social, ethnic, and racial identities, often positioning themselves as enlightened noblemen protecting the Noble Savage from exploitation by Siberian promyshlenniki. While to the Sibiriaki, the line was blurred between the Old and the New World, when Russian naval officers were assigned to serve as governors beginning in 1818, remote Russian outposts turned into perceived centers of European civilization. This led not only to shifting social, racial, and ethnic categories but also to a transformed view of Alaska in the Russian metropole. 1 Commenting on the music and theater he experienced [End Page 510] during his visit to the administrative center of Novo-Arkhangel'sk (Sitka) in the early 1840s, a Russian observer stated, "In normal everyday life… Sitka seems nearer to Petersburg than the great majority of our provincial cities" (quoted on P. 37). Yet the cultural nearness he described demonstrates a perception at odds with the experiences of the majority of the colony's inhabitants, indigenous or Russian. The entire territory of Russian America never had more than 900 Russians, most of whom lived in Sitka and Kodiak, many in material conditions little better than those of the Natives. The Russian-American Company increased profits by employing as few Russians as possible. In this...


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