Romaniello on Vinkovetsky, 'Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867'

Ilya Vinkovetsky
Matthew Romaniello

Ilya Vinkovetsky. Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867. Oxford: [Wettingen], 2011. 272 S. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-539128-2.

Reviewed by Matthew Romaniello (University of Hawaii at Manoa)
Published on H-Empire (June, 2011)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed

Meeting Russia’s American Frontier

Scholarly interest in Russia’s American colonies has been enjoying an academic renaissance in the past decade. Beginning with the Meeting of Frontiers exhibit at the Library of Congress, there has been a revival of interest in Alaska as a Russian frontier. Ilya Vinkovetsky’s book follows several others in the past three years from Western academic presses.[1] The subject has been of no less interest in Russia, though the results have been intended for a more popular audience.[2] 

Despite the flourishing interest, the Russian American outposts have been relatively understudied, and have yet to be incorporated successfully into American history much less that of the Russian Empire. Part of the difficultly may be the complex narrative. Russian merchant companies pursued the fur trade across the Bering Strait to the Aleutian Islands and eventually Alaska in the late eighteenth century. The largest of these, the Golikov-Shelikhov Company, established in 1781, managed to build a permanent settlement on Kodiak Island in 1784. By 1799, the Russian American Company (RAC) had been assembled from the diverse earlier companies (including the Golikov-Shelikov) to hold a chartered monopoly on the American trade. In 1807, the colonial capital was moved east from Kodiak to a newer settlement on Sitka Island just off the Alaska coast, and subsequently the RAC established an outpost at Fort Ross in northern California (1812-41) and dabbled with a possible Hawaiian outpost (ca. 1815). Navigating initially among British and American interests in Alaska, and the Spanish in California, it was unsurprising that the success of the project varied widely based on geopolitical events. The British Continental System of the Napoleonic era enabled the early push across the western coast of North America; the disastrous Crimean War forced a reconsideration of Russia’s international position, which encouraged the Russian government to arrange the final sale of Alaska to the United States shortly thereafter, in 1867. 

The other recent monographs on Russia’s ventures in and around the Pacific have tackled particular issues or regions. Vinkovetsky, however, offers a broader approach, trying to understand the nature of the RAC and its role in the history of Russian colonial enterprises. He refers to the RAC as a “colonial contractor,” which facilitated both innovations and colonial adoptions from other European empires. He highlights this argument with his focus on the year 1804 as a key date in the history of the Russian American colony, which was the year when one of the two ships of Russia’s first round-the-world voyage reached Sitka. As the circumnavigation was planned to bring Russian exploration on par with its European neighbors, the scientific expedition marked an intentional turn toward the production of “European” knowledge. The RAC itself as a joint-stock company was another European borrowing adopted by the Russian government. From this opening position, Vinkovetsky explores Russian America as a “laboratory” for synthesizing various colonial strategies.

Unfortunately, many of the borrowings carried negative consequences for the local populations, particularly the introduction of new exploitative social hierarchies, none of which existed in Russia’s continental empire. At the top of the list was the idea of kreoly (Creoles), first mentioned by Nikolai Rezanov in his correspondence in 1805, after the Russians had observed the Spanish Empire along the Californian coast. In Russia and Siberia, intermarriages between Russian men and non-Russian women were not uncommon, but children of these marriages were considered Russian. In the American colony, however, these children were kreoly, trained for jobs with the company’s colonial administration and paid less for their work than their Russian or European counterparts. In other words, the children of the RAC were subjugated by their own parents. Another unfortunate adoption was the use of kaiury (unfree laborers). It was a forced labor system, more or less slavery. While taking hostages from local groups to compel compliance with the Russian government had been practiced since the medieval Mongol era (from whom the practice had been learned), hostage-taking had been outlawed for Russian America by the late eighteenth century. As an established Russian institution, hostages had certain rights and privileges, as the long-term goal was to expose hostages to Russian culture and religious practices to guarantee future cooperation. The RAC’s “innovative” use of kaiury as their domestic labor force was far worse. Furthermore, the kaiury were estimated at 10 percent of the population by 1820, making them an integral part of the new colonial regime. 

The turn to more coercive social policies may have been a result of the quest for colonial profits. The causal force behind Russia’s geographic expansion was the need for new furs for the Chinese market. As Chinese consumers became interested in sea otter fur, Russian traders pursued sea otters first in the Aleutian Islands, then Alaska, and as far south as California. However, the traders quickly discovered that hunting sea otters was better left to native hunters, who had long since developed the appropriate skills and tools to capture this elusive animal. This phenomenon, Vinkovetsky suggests, “remained a constant feature throughout the history of Russian America and marked another departure from Siberia, where the Russians usually equaled or surpassed the Natives as hunters” (p. 32). Therefore, the need to force local hunters into Russian service was far greater in America than in Siberia, resulting in the RAC’s reliance on its coercive labor system. 

Interestingly, while the focus on the RAC remained on the profits of the fur trade, there are glimpses throughout the book of the company’s attempt to diversify its interests. In the 1820s, the RAC sought permission to open an office in Haiti, presumably to pursue new goods including sugar. By the early 1850s, the company became actively involved in the tea trade from China, which ultimately “became the Company’s chief source of income,” an aspect of the company that has received little, if any, attention before this (p. 71). However, Vinkovetsky does not follow these comments with an explanation of the changing nature of commerce, as his focus is primarily on the relationship between the RAC and the indigenous populations of Alaska, which remained centered on the fur trade until the sale of Alaska. 

With Vinkovetsky’s focus on the social aspects of the American colony, the decision to create a joint-stock company to guide American colonization remains rather unclear. In the eighteenth century, the Russian state directed (as much as possible) the exploration of the northern Pacific, particularly the Kamchatka peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. Catherine the Great’s government directed outposts to be established, officials to be appointed, and the trade to be regularized. However, after her death, the state commissioned the establishment of the RAC, consolidating varied merchant efforts into one umbrella, while also leasing the territory of northern America to the company for its efforts. Was the turn one of Tsar Paul’s many rejections of his mother’s policies? Was the adoption of a joint-stock company an idea to present a more competitive face to Russia’s primary competitors in Alaska--the British Hudson Bay Company? In either case, the timing remains peculiar. The Muscovy Company, England’s first joint-stock company, operated in Moscow since 1555, so the knowledge of such a commercial enterprise had long been in Russia’s purview. Was it the success of the East India Company following the Battle of Plassey? Vinkovetsky is clear that greater knowledge of European colonial enterprises had filtered into Russia, but this awareness is not necessarily linked to the odd choice to experiment with the joint-stock company.

Understandably, part of the difficulty in clarifying this problem is that the relationship between the RAC and the Russian government was never clear. Like other joint-stock companies, there were company charters issued by the government that outlined rights and obligations, but the government intervened in internal policies when it chose. Vinkovetsky’s text is filled with numerous examples of the porous boundaries between state and company. Over the history of the RAC, the balance definitely shifted toward the state. After 1844, the RAC’s main office in St. Petersburg was staffed primarily by state and military officials, resulting in the company’s council being disbanded. In Vinkovetsky’s view, “the charter company was a convenient mask--when needed, the state could distance itself from its activities, or, on the contrary, embrace them, depending on the interests of the day. From the state’s point of view, the charter company could be directed--or ordered--to acquire new territories; if the acquisition was successful, the state gained new land and resources” (p. 68).

Vinkovetsky successfully demonstrates Russian colonial innovations in its American colonies. More important, his work reveals that adopting European colonial ideas was not to the advantage of the local population, as the system was perhaps more exploitative than the “traditional” mechanisms of Russian colonial rule. Was the problem the transition to “foreign” colonial models or the application of “modern” colonial economics? In either case, asking the question opens up new areas of comparison for all scholars of empire.


[1]. This includes John R. Bockstoce, Furs and Frontiers in the Far North: The Contest among Native and Foreign Nations for the Bering Strait Fur Trade (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010); Gwenn A. Miller, Kodiak Kreol: Communities of Empire in Early Russian America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010); and Elena Govor, Twelve Days at Nuku Hiva: Russian Encounters and Mutiny in the South Pacific (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010).

[2]. See the discussion in Andrei A. Znamenski, “History with an Attitude: Alaska in Modern Russian Patriotic Rhetoric,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 57 (2009): 346-373.

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Citation: Matthew Romaniello. Review of Vinkovetsky, Ilya, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. June, 2011.

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