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In 1721 Peter the Great proclaimed Russia an empire. Russia was already a huge country stretching from Europe to the Pacific Ocean. But unlike England, Spain, Netherlands, France, and other European imperial powers, Russia did not have overseas possessions and colonies, and all of its massive territory was linked to each other. The New World was a place with immense riches and resources, and Russia wanted a piece of the pie, despite being almost 3 centuries late to the colonization of the Americas. Much has been told about colonization by the Western European empires, but Russia’s attempts to colonize the Western coast of the Pacific Ocean has not been discussed as much. In this episode, we are going to describe the Russian colonization of the Americas. The good news is that you can visit Alaska right now and for a more fun activity than colonization: the sponsor of this video Fishing clash is a fishing simulator that is eager to provide that opportunity in the comfort of your home! Catching fish was on your brain but you can’t go to your
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established European states and any meaningful territorial gain there would cause a lot of blood and casualties. Possible southward expansion was problematic too, since the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran were still formidable foes. To the North, there was ice and cold. To the East was Siberia, a tough and an extremely cold land, albeit rich for such valuable commodities as fur and since it was sparsely populated, there would be less resistance to the Russian advance in that direction. By the 1640s explorers, settlers, and trappers reached the Pacific Ocean in their quest to push as far East as they could through Siberia. It is even said some members of the expedition of the Russian explorer Semyon Dezhnyov to the further East point of Asia, which is now named after him, at some point settled in Alaska after the shipwreck threw them on its shores and lived in the places called Kyngovey and Russkoe Ustye. There are numerous indications of existence
of such settlements in Alaska from letters by travellers and stories of indigineous people, but no hard archeological or other evidence has been found about its existence. The first hard historic evidence about the Russian expedition discovering Alaska is linked to the voyage of Afanasiy Shestakov and Dmitry Pavlutskiy, who saw the shore of Alaska and mapped it, onboard their ship Saint Gavriil. In 1741, the Danish cartographer Vitus Bering at the service of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great sailed to Alaska through what is now called the Bering Strait, once and for all proving that there was no land link between Eurasia and Americas and landing on Kayak, Shumagin and other islands on the Alaskan shore. As early as 1743, a group of Russian merchants sailed to the Bering Island to get fur, a step which would be replicated by other groups of merchants, trappers and adventurers. One of the earliest Russian pioneers in the Alaskan fur trade
was The Shelikhov-Golikov Company, which established the first permanent colony in Alaska on the island of Kodiak 90 kilometers away from the shore of Alaska, which would be called Pavel’s Harbor in 1784. Russian fur traders tried to dissuade one of the owners of the company, a merchant from Irkutsk Grigoriy Shelikhov from establishing a permanent settlement there, since earlier a group of Russian hunters were killed by the indigenous people. Shelikhov repeated the strategy of earlier European colonizers of America by forcing the indigenous people into submission through massacre. On 17 August 1784 the Awa’uq Massacre by Shelikhov’s expedition claimed the lives of 2000-3000 Inuits, while another thousand were taken prisoners. In the late 1790s, Imperial bureaucrat Nikolay Rezanov was sent to inspect Shelikhov’s company in Irkutsk and ended up marrying his daughter. Following Shelikhov’s death, Rezanov effectively inherited Shelikhov’s
enterprise in Russian America and was able to interest Emperor Pavel in expanding in Alaska. In 1799 the Russian American Company was established on the basis of Shelikhov’s possessions in Alaska with Alexander Baranov becoming the first governor of Russian America. It was similar to other colonial companies of other empires, for example, the East Indian Company, where all of the affairs of colonies, from military to trade, was governed by the company, which in principle acted as a representative of the state. In 1801 the company’s headquarters were moved from Irkutsk to Saint Petersburg, which was followed with Emperor Alexander I and other members of the Russian royal family becoming stakeholders in the company. These developments increased the prestige of the Russian American Company and boosted the Russian effort to colonize Alaska. Nikolay Petrovic Rezanov was appointed the director of the company, which received a 20-year long monopoly over all territories and possessions North of 55
degree latitude. The headquarters of the company in Alaska was established in New Archangel, Novo-Arkhangelsk in Russian, a new settlement built in the unfrozen gulf of Sitka in 1799. The contact between the Russian colonizers and the local indigenous people ranged from aspects like trade to indigineous people working for the Russian American Company as hunters and trappers, while Russian settlers tried to bring some agricultural innovations to the indigenous population. We already mentioned the episode of the massacre by Shelikhov’s expedition, as Russians treated the indigenous population as uncivilized savages and acted as conquerors.The Tlingit people were not happy with the Russian presence and this soon led to conflict as the Tlingit people attacked New Archangel with a unit of 600 people commanded by its chief Katlian. The attack on Fort Mikhail and a small unit led by Vasiliy Kochesov practically massacred many Russians and Aleutians working for the Russian American Company and burnt the Russian settlement.
2 years later Baranov returned to Sitka with more men and forced them to flee after overpowering them in October 1804. Rebuilt Novo-Arkhangelsk would become the capital of Russian Alaska. The occasional confrontation between the Russian American Company and the indigenous population continued until the 1850s, a few years before Alaska was sold to the United States. Along with such obstacles for the Russian expansion in Alaska like the animosity of the indigenous population and harsh weather conditions, one of the major problems for the Russian expansion was difficulty to get the supplies necessary for sustenance of the colonies due to the Bering Strait and waterway between Chukotka and Alaska being frozen most of the year. This proved to be a factor boosting further Russian expansion in the Pacific coast of America. Nikolay Rezanov visited New Archangel with an inspection in 1805. He was horrified with the situation. The capital of Russian America was devastated by the war and at the point of
starvation due to problems with supplies. This was when Rezanov decided to purchase one ship from the British and build another one himself, and take it to California, owned by Spain at the time. These two ships would be called Juno and Avos’, leading to a rock opera called the Juno and Avos being staged in 1979 in the Soviet Union romanticizing the story of love between Rezanov and the daughter of the commander of the Spanish Garrison in San Francisco, Conchita Argüello. Rezanov’s plan was to establish relations with the Spanish in California and trade food supplies for fur. Rezanov secured this deal and ended up developing romantic feelings or acting on the need to ensure regular supplies for Russian Alaska from California, thus deciding to engage with Conchita. Rezanov was Orthodox, Conchita was Catholic, therefore Rezanov left, promising to return in a couple of years after securing the Pope's blessing of this marriage. Rezanov returned to New Archangel with promised supplies and instructed Baranov to explore starting a new colony in
California, which would secure food supplies for Russian America stopping the dependence on supplies from Russia. He died in 1807 failing to fulfill his promise to return to Conchita. As a result, in 1812 Baranov’s deputy Ivan Kuskov sailed into Bodega Bay and founded a settlement to be called Fort Ross, 80 kilometers to the North of San Francisco. 25 Russians and 90 Aleutians settled in Fort Ross, the territory, which at first Spain and then Mexico claimed. But neither these two states, nor the indigenous population used force to assert their right over it, thus the Russians embarked on turning Fort Ross into perhaps a starting point of the Russian expansion in the American territories with milder climate or, at least, making it a supplier to Russian Alaska. The life at Fort Ross was pretty unremarkable. After a short period of time, the population of sea otters hunted for their furs was eradicated in the area following centuries of hunting.
Hunting, fishing, cultivation and herding were the regular pastime for the population of Fort Ross. Construction work was carried out to have lodgings for settlers, along with having dedicated buildings. By 1814 the settlers started a fruit garden and started making their own wine. Three ranchos were started around Fort Ross to produce food both for the colony and for Russian Alaska. The Russian American Company even started building ships in local harbours to sell to the Spaniards. By the 1820s the population of Fort Ross rose to 250 people. But despite all the efforts Fort Ross failed to become a cheap supply point for Russia’s American endeavour. Soon the administration of the Russian American Company decided that it was way cheaper for it to buy supplies from the Hudson Bay Company rather than attempting to become self-sufficient. Moreover, the Russian government was exceedingly understanding that it would not be possible to protect Fort Ross from a potential takeover. Mexico was still claiming the land and actively
encouraged new settlers to live in the area. More and more Americans were settled in the area too. Neither the Russian Imperial government would be able to protect Fort Ross, which was thousands of miles away from the Russian military might, nor the Russian American Company, which was struggling to turn Russian Americas into a profitable business. One of the latest efforts to save Fort Ross was made by Baron von Wrangell who traveled from Sitka to Mexico City in 1836 seeking Mexican recognition for the legality of Russia’s claim to Fort Ross. The Mexicans were ready to compromise on this in exchange for Russia’s diplomatic recognition of Mexico’s sovereignty. A staunch absolutist and hater of everything revolutionary Tsar Nikolay I rejected this proposition. This eventually led to the abandonment of the idea to expand in California. In 1841 Fort Ross and all the possessions of the Russian American Company in the area
were sold to the American Captain John Sutter for 42857 rubles in money and produce. On 1 January 1842, about 100 colonists sailed from Bodega Bay to Russian Alaska, putting an end to Russian colonial aspirations in California. Hawaii was another potential place for expansion of the Russian American Company, which just like in the case of Northern California, at first, arose from the need to supply Alaska. Russians first visited Hawaii in 1804 in connection with their First Circumnavigation of the Globe commanded by Krusenstern and Lysianskyi. Over the next decade, the Russians established trade relations with the local leaders and bought food in exchange for fur. In 1815 one of the Russian ships wrecked near the shore of Hawaii. There are different accounts of what happened next, as some claim that the Russians salvaged the fur and other supplies with the help of the Hawaiians in exchange for the ship itself,
while others claim that King Kaumualii of Kaua’i Island confiscated everything. The ship captain Bennett reported the latter to the Russian governor Baranov. Whatever happened, Baranov sent doctor Georg Anton Schaffer with a mission to lure the Hawaiian king Kamehameha into giving the monopoly of the trade of sandalwood as compensation for the losses due to the shipwreck. After initial distrust, Doctor Schaffer was able to establish a positive relationship with King Kamehameha and his wife through his medical services. As a token of appreciation Kamehameha granted Schaffer some land in Honolulu. Schaffer and his expedition embarked on building a fort on this land and started flying the flag of the Russian-American Company there. After that, Schaffer traveled to Kaua’i to parley with Kaumualii regarding the lost cargo and profits. Kauai’ was the only island still not conquered by Kamehameha, who ordered the Russians to stop any construction and remove their flag. The Russians understood the futility of resistance and followed Schaffer to Kaua’i. The king of Kaua’i, Kaumualii was in desperate
need of allies in his struggle against Kamehameha and agreed with the Russians to pay the compensation for profits lost from the shipwreck in sandalwood. Kaumaulii also signed a secret treaty with Schaffer, pledging his allegiance to Russia in exchange for Russians supporting his war effort against Kamahemaha with 500 men and weapons in 1816. Soon Schaffer completed the construction of Fort Elisabeth. Kaumualii also granted RAC the entire district of Hanalei, where Schaffer began building another two forts called Alexander and Barclay. Kamehameha was growing restless about the expansion of Russian presence on the islands. Around that time the Russian military brig Rurik under the command of Lieutenant von Kotzebue arrived in Hawaii in the middle of his global voyage in late 1816 and immediately encountered 400 men loyal to Kamehameha, who was concerned that the Russians had arrived for the conquest of Hawaii. Rurik immediately left without even visiting Schaffer or other members of the Russian
American Company. Kaumualii interpreted this incident as lack of the Russian interest in Hawaii and expelled the Russian American Company from Kaua’i deeming them useless for his cause. RAC would make occasional voyages to Hawaii to trade and purchase supplies for Alaska, but overall the Russian adventure in Hawaii was over before it even started. Schaffer’s adventurism cost the Company a lot of money. With failures in California and Hawaii, Alaska was all that was left for the Russians in the Americas. New Archangel remained the capital of the Russian American Company and by 1811 had more than 200 Russians and almost 1000 indigineous people living there. Throughout the existence of the Russian American Company, a school, a church, an arsenal, mills, different workshops and up to hundred houses for lodging. Russian naval officer Lavrenty Zagoskin, who visited New Archangel in the 1840s described a wooden town
with around hundred wooden constructions without squares or any other types of common spaces. Fur remained the main commodity of export from Alaska, as nothing was yet known about gold or especially oil there. Missionary expeditions to convert the indigenuous people to Orthodox Christianity were not particularly successful either due to small population Alaska and weak presence in California, among many other reasons. Towards the end of its presence in the Americas, the Russian Orthodox Church claimed to have 12000 followers there. We do not know if that figure was an exaggeration, but even if it was, it was a meager figure for more than 1 century of effort. Towards the-mid 19th century, it was becoming increasingly clear for the Russian leadership that the American adventure failed to bring the benefits everyone hoped for. Cost of maintenance of Russian Alaska outweighed whatever profits were made from fur trade, a situation exacerbated by a dwindling animal population.
Maintaining the Alaskan colonies just did not make sense for the Russians anymore. The Russian population in the American colonies decreased and the creole and indigenous population stagnated with dropping profits, which was usually a demonstration that the colony was failing. Moreover, Alaska’s remoteness posed a challenge for its protection from a possible foreign threat. Development of the railroad infrastructure in North America resigned the Russian leadership in the belief that sooner or later the United States would start paying more attention to Alaska and settling it. Britain was considered a threat too. These sentiments rose with the Russian defeat in the Crimean War. As Alaska was bordering with the British colonies in the South, the Russians thought that any threat arising from there would make the fall of Alaska inevitable. Thus, Russia decided to sell its possessions in Alaska to the United States. On 30 March 1867 Russia and the United States signed an agreement. According to this agreement,
Russia sold all its possessions in the Americas to the United States for 7.2 million dollars. A few decades later gold was discovered in Alaska. A century later oil was discovered. Russia was going to lose out on all of these profitable enterprises. Russia’s adventure in the Americas is a curious event. Russia wanted its own overseas empire and the political and geographical logic pushed them eastwards towards Alaska. But harsh conditions, along with the presence of rivals like England and Spain, who had already established themselves in the continent, and later the United States, posed significant obstacles for Russian expansion in the area. Maintenance of colonies was a burden on the finances of the Empire, the perspectives in the area looked increasingly gloomy, and it seemed unprotected from any outside attack. That is why Russian colonialism in the Americas ultimately failed. There are still indicators of past Russian presence in the Americas through mostly geographical names and interest by history buffs and some nationalist politicians in
the subject: “What if Russia did not sell Alaska to the United States?”. Once again, thanks to Fishing Clash for sponsoring this video! Don't forget to download the game using our link in the description and get your 20$ welcome pack. Downloading and playing the game would support our channel! More videos on Russian history and the age of colonization are on the way, so make sure you are subscribed and have pressed the bell button to see it. Please, consider liking, commenting, and sharing - it helps immensely. Our videos would be impossible without our kind patrons and youtube channel members, whose ranks you can join via the links in the description to know our schedule, get early access to our videos, access our discord, and much more. This is the Kings and Generals channel, and we will catch you on the next one.
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