Halter on Grinëv, 'Russian Colonization of Alaska: Preconditions, Discovery, and Initial Development, 1741-1799'

Andrei Val’terovich Grinëv
Ian Halter

Andrei Val’terovich Grinëv. Russian Colonization of Alaska: Preconditions, Discovery, and Initial Development, 1741-1799. Translated by Richard L. Bland. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. 354 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-0762-3.

Reviewed by Ian Halter (University of Oregon) Published on H-Russia (June, 2019) Commissioned by Eva M. Stolberg (University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54207

Russian Alaska

With Russian Colonization of Alaska: Preconditions, Discovery, and Initial Development, 1741-1799, Andrei Grinëv widens his already impressive body of scholarship on the history of Russian America. Unlike much of his work, however, this book focuses on the prelude to this history, the decades of voyages and violence that made possible the succeeding decades of monopoly and settlement.

In this work, Grinëv is concerned not only with telling the little-known history of the Russian entry into the North Pacific, but also in presenting Russian colonialism as an example of what he has labeled “colonial politarism.” And though this monograph represents one of the few treatments of this thesis in Grinëv’s translated work, defining Russian efforts in Alaska as “colonial politarism” has long been a theme in Grinëv’s scholarship.[1] Alongside this particular argument is a more general one: that the Russian presence in Alaska ought to be seen as more than the continuation of the same in Siberia, and that it can be understood as a “part of overall Russian and global history” as well (p. 7).

As for sources, Grinëv relies upon familiar archival collections alongside a wide range of Russian historiography that he often deploys as a foil for his own arguments. Throughout the text he seems as committed to making certain historiographical conclusions as he is historical ones; every insight and opinion of Grinëv’s is framed by the insights and opinions—some correct, some incorrect, he finds—of other, usually Russian, scholars. This has the effect of making Colonization as much a historiographical review as it is a historical monograph.

Grinëv’s work is split into five chapters (excluding the introduction and conclusion), ordered chronologically. Chapter 1 opens with Grinëv detailing his understanding of the process of colonization in distinction to related concepts such as expansion and development. His definition—that colonization is a process of incomers extracting wealth for the benefit of a “mother country”—will be seen as noncontroversial, and this distinction is rarely mentioned in the remainder of the text (p. 10). Following this are remarks about the environment of Alaska and a cursory ethnography of its Native inhabitants.

In a section titled “Specifics of Social Structure of the Russian State,” Grinëv enters into a lengthy digression about how best to characterize the socioeconomic structure of the Russian state prior to its expansion into the North Pacific. He concludes that, despite those who argue that Russian society in these centuries should be thought of as feudalist and, eventually, precapitalist, it ought to be thought of as politarian throughout. Grinëv defines politarism as a system founded upon “the supreme ownership by the state of the basic means of production and of the person of the direct producer” (p. 20).

In support of this conclusion, Grinëv argues for close attention to the relationship between Russian people and the Russian state from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. Such attention will lead one to the realization that, in the wake of crises, Russian society chose, again and again, to draw close to the state as a means of both political and economic security. Chapter 1 concludes with a review of the history of Russian expansion into Siberia, with emphasis on the politarian society that emerged and the cruelty towards Natives—in the form of physical violence, tribute, and amanatsvo—that would repeat itself across the Pacific.

Chapter 2 concerns the first attempts by the Russian state to discover, for itself, what lay across the water from Chukotka and Kamchatka. Grinëv begins the chapter with an appraisal of scholarly speculation concerning voyages to Alaska prior to 1732. He dismisses the possibility of Novgorod refugees fleeing to Alaska in 1571, though he remains uncertain about two 1647 expeditions that may have reached its shores. Grinëv then enters into the history of the first (1732) and second (1741) Kamchatka expeditions with an eye toward the role of the central government.

There is a short detour into another mystery of Russian American history: that of the fate of Captain Chirikov’s men who, in 1733, went ashore in the Alexander Archipelago and failed to return to the ship. Grinëv finds the account from Tlingit oral history most convincing: that Chirikov’s men joined the Tlingits they had met, favoring life among them to that aboard Chirikov’s ship. As for the Kamchatka expeditions themselves, Grinëv concludes that their failure to meet the government’s expectations meant that the state had grown far less interested in the eastern ocean, which meant the impetus for exploitation fell to the “enterprising Siberian Cossacks and merchants” (p. 91).

Chapter 3, “Opening Up of the Aleutian Islands by Russian Promyshlenniki, 1743-83,” is Grinëv’s effort to provide a single account of the conquest and subjugation of the Aleutian Islands and their Native inhabitants. Here, Grinëv details a succession of violent contacts between promyshlenniki and Aleuts, though he is careful to remind the reader that the historical image of promyshlenniki in the Aleutians as a roving gang of brigands and exiled convicts is without basis. Instances of criminals or individuals without passports becoming employed as promyshlenniki was “more the exception than the rule” (p. 100). Similarly, Grinëv notes that there were those who never wished violence against Natives—but it appears they, too, were more the exception than the rule.

In chapter 4, Grinëv focuses on Russian Alaska in the 1780s, beginning with G. I. Shelikhov’s invasion and settlement of Kodiak Island in 1784. The history that Grinëv provides is much the same as other, similar works, but here he takes aim at what he identifies as the habit of some scholars to treat Shelikhov as a “Russian Columbus.” Grinëv is quick to point out that “Shelikhov did not discover anything new” (p. 151), and that he ought to be more associated with violence and cruelty than with exploration or development. In Grinëv’s telling, Shelikhov is no more than a shrewd, unscrupulous merchant who did everything in his power to advance his personal interests.

Chapter 5 covers a number of topics, including the introduction of A. A. Baranov as governor of Shelikhov’s Northeastern Company, conflicts between Shelikhov’s men and those of the Lebedev Company, and the founding of the Russian settlement in Yakutat Bay. Perhaps the most illuminating section is Grinëv’s summary of the “system of exploitation of the dependent Native population” established by Shelikhov, practiced by Baranov, and present through the rest of Russian American history (p. 197). Here, Grinëv wants to make another historiographical argument: that scholars who have characterized dependent Natives as either slaves or employees have missed the mark. To call them employees is to misunderstand their economic relationship to both company and emperor, and only a proportion of dependent Natives—the kayury—lived in a condition of de facto slavery.

In his conclusion Grinëv returns to the colonial politarism thesis, restating both the argument and his evidence. Grinëv maintains that an attention to economic relations within Russian America will reveal that the colony did not have a “capitalistic character,” as some imagine, but rather a “politaristic” one (pp. 226-27). Nowhere is this more apparent, he argues, than in the sharp divide between the “exploiter group” of Russians and the “dependent Natives” (p. 227). For Grinëv, this politarian distinction is essential, both for understanding the nature of Russian colonialism in Alaska, and for comparing it to other, similar systems of colonialism.

For anglophone readers, Russian Colonization may prove an invaluable source of information about a period that has received little treatment in the English-language literature. However, those readers who do not have at least a passing familiarity with the Russian historiography on the topic may find themselves lost, on occasion, when Grinëv discusses his opinion in comparison to the larger body of (mostly Russian) scholarship.

And for those readers who do have a familiarity with this historiography—Grinëv’s own work, especially—there is little new that Grinëv, or others, have not written about elsewhere. Indeed, his attachment to the politarian thesis in this work obscures some of his more interesting conclusions: about Chirikov’s men, about the origins of promyshlenniki, or about the correct way to characterize dependent Natives. Unlike the politarian thesis—appraisals of which can be found even in anglophone scholarship—these findings are unique to this text, and are better representative of the insights that one usually associates with Grinëv’s work.[2]

And despite Grinëv’s occasional attention to contingencies on the ground (as in chapter 3), he can be faulted as well for relying upon unwieldy, monolithic conceptions of the “state,” or “Natives.” Grinëv’s contention that Russia had been in the grip of unceasing politarian rule since the fifteenth century, however, demands the construction of such monoliths. Had he taken the time to elaborate upon his use of these notions—or pointed to literature which does—his analysis might have been spared this additional obfuscation.

One may wonder whether or not Russian Colonization would have been better as a collection of essays by Grinëv—nearly every chapter could function as a self-contained whole. With this, Grinëv’s own smaller, more revealing conclusions would be disentangled from the centuries-spanning politarian thesis which, in monograph form, ultimately burdens his narrative.


[1]. Andrei V. Grinëv, “Kolonial’nyi politarizm’ v novom svete,” Etnograficheskoe obozrenie 4 (1996): 52-64.

[2]. For an excellent review of the politarian thesis and “colonial politarism,” see Sonja Luehrmann, “Russian Colonialism and the Asiatic Mode of Production: (Post-)Soviet Ethnography Goes to Alaska,” Slavic Review 64, no. 4 (2005): 851-71.

Citation: Ian Halter. Review of Grinëv, Andrei Val’terovich, Russian Colonization of Alaska: Preconditions, Discovery, and Initial Development, 1741-1799. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. June, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54207

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.