Tracing Alaska’s Russian Heritage

Source: Smithsonian

July 7, 2016

Russian Orthodox crosses in the time-and-weather-worn cemetery of Ninilchik's Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel are a testament to the heritage of the village. (Nathaniel Wilder)
Russian Orthodox crosses in the time-and-weather-worn cemetery of Ninilchik’s Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel are a testament to the heritage of the village. (Nathaniel Wilder)

Every summer a conga line of tourists in campers and RVs
chugs the 220 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to the town of
Homer, a picturesque fishing port with panoramic views of
Kachemak Bay. About three-quarters of the way into the
trip, the travelers descend a hill and cruise into the
hamlet of Ninilchik, population 880. A few visitors turn
off the highway to photograph the village’s Russian
Orthodox church—a graceful, white wooden structure
with a green metal roof, five golden onion domes, and a
commanding view of the icy, 10,000-foot volcanic peaks of
Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna, 50 miles across Cook
Inlet.

Most tourists, however, drive on, not realizing that
Ninilchik’s unremarkable facade—a convenience
store and gas station, a couple of restaurants, a motel,
several low-slung office buildings, and a collection of
modest houses—belies the village’s
extraordinary place in Alaska history and culture. That
hidden history lives on in a handful of elderly residents
who speak a Russian dialect that has been passed down from
generation to generation since the village was founded in
1847, when Alaska was part of the Russian Empire.

Ninilchik Russian is, in some respects, a language frozen
in amber, with vocabulary and expressions dating to an era
when Russia was engaged in a tenuous colonial enterprise
in the vast territory that would eventually become
America’s 49th state. This tsarist-era version of
Russian—along with other Russian customs and
habits—remains in use because until the Sterling
Highway connected Ninilchik to the outside world in 1950,
Russian descendants here were largely cut off from other
communities. They lived an isolated, subsistence life in
which a trip to the nearest trading post meant a 40-mile
mush on a dogsled.

During several days in March, I visited some of
Ninilchik’s Russian speakers—people such as
Joe Leman, 96, a slight man with a full head of gray hair.
Leman is a descendant of Ninilchik founder Grigory
Kvasnikoff, a somewhat obscure figure who may have been a
lay missionary and an employee of the Russian-American
Company, the tsars’ colonial arm in Alaska. Leman
and the other men and women who still speak Ninilchik
Russian are of Russian-Alaskan native heritage, and so I
was accompanied on my rounds by Tiffany Stonecipher, the
elders outreach coordinator for the Ninilchik tribe.

Leman smiled when he saw Stonecipher at the door and
invited us in.

“Zdrastvuite,” I said.

“Zdrastvuite,” Leman replied, beginning a
conversation that mixed English with both modern and
archaic Russian. He recalled an early-20th century boyhood
that was as much Siberian as it was Alaskan—a life
in which the Russian Orthodox Church played a central
role, Russian foods like salmon pie, or pirok, were
frequently on the table, and the village’s oldest
residents could remember a time when Alaska was governed
not from Washington, D.C., but from the imperial capital
of St. Petersburg.

**********

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of
Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States on
October 18, 1867, for $7.2 million, or about two cents an
acre. Although Russia’s colonization of the
territory remains a relatively obscure chapter in world
history, the acquisition of Alaska by the administration
of President Andrew Johnson has had enormous economic and
strategic value for the U.S. In the history of American
land deals, it is second in importance only to the
Louisiana Purchase.

For Russia, the sale was the logical conclusion of a
colonial venture that had begun with the first Russian
landing on Alaska’s shores in 1732. This endeavor,
based on a lucrative trade in the luxurious pelts of sea
otters, had become shaky by the early decades of the 19th
century, when 700 Russians, strung largely along the
coast, were trying to exert sovereignty over hundreds of
thousands of square miles of territory in the face of
increasing British and U.S. encroachment. In the words of
Ty Dilliplane, an archaeologist specializing in
Alaska’s Russian period, the remote territory was
the “Siberia of Siberia”—a place hard to
supply and even harder to defend.

Not everyone in the U.S. saw the Alaska purchase as a
bonanza. Critics of Johnson and Secretary of State William
Seward, who oversaw the negotiations with Russia, derided
America’s purchase of this northern
territory—twice the size of Texas—as
“Seward’s Folly,” “Johnson’s
polar bear park,” and “Walrussia.” But
today—given Alaska’s key military and
strategic importance in the Arctic, its huge stores of oil
and gas, its enormous quantities of salmon and other fish,
and its seemingly limitless expanses of wilderness, which
cover most of the state’s 663,000 square
miles—it’s hard to imagine the U.S. without
its Last Frontier.

To celebrate the acquisition of Alaska, officials in
Anchorage and Sitka, the former Russian colonial capital,
are planning a grand sesquicentennial bash in 2017. Some
residents are even suggesting it might be an opportunity
for the next U.S. president and Russian leader Vladimir
Putin to mend tattered relations and hold an Alaska summit
meeting.

**********

The Holy Assumption Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai is one three designated National Historic Landmarks. (Melissa Lake, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)
The Holy Assumption Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai is one three designated National Historic Landmarks. (Melissa Lake, Smithsonian.com Photo Contest Archives)

Today, a century and a half after the Russians decamped,
vestiges of the tsars’ colonial enterprise remain.
The most obvious legacy is on a map, where Russian names
mark point after point, from the Pribilof Islands in the
Bering Sea to Baranof Island in southeast Alaska to all
the streets, cities, islands, capes, and bays in between
with names like Kalifornsky, Nikiski Chichagof, Romanzof,
and Tsaritsa.

By far the strongest living legacy of the Russian colonial
era is the Russian Orthodox Church, most of whose
worshippers are Alaska natives or the offspring of
Russian-native unions. Intermarriage between Russian
colonizers and indigenous people from groups such as the
Aleut, Alutiq, and Athabaskan was widespread, and today
roughly 26,000 of their descendants—known since the
colonial era as Creoles—worship in nearly a hundred
Russian Orthodox churches statewide.

“That number may seem insignificant, but consider
that about half of Alaska’s population [of 740,000]
lives in and around Anchorage and that there are entire
regions—the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak Island, Prince
William Sound, and the Kuskokwim-Yukon Delta—where
the Orthodox church is the only church in town,”
says Father Michael Oleksa, a leading historian of Russian
Orthodoxy in Alaska. “Small as we are numerically,
we cover a huge area.” These legacy communities are
supplemented by newer settlements of Old Believers, a
Russian Orthodox splinter group that arrived in Alaska in
the second half of the 20th century.

Three of Alaska’s Russian Orthodox churches have
been designated National Historic Landmarks, and 36 are on
the National Register of Historic Places. One of them is
the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel in Ninilchik,
built in 1901. On a blustery March afternoon I stood in
the cemetery next to the church, where weathered, listing
white Orthodox crosses were interspersed among more modern
gravestones bearing names like Oskolkoff, Kvasnikoff, and
Demidoff. From the bluff above the village, I looked down
on a ramshackle collection of wooden houses and across
Cook Inlet to the towering, snowy peaks of the Chigmit
Mountains. Gazing past the onion domes, I found it easy to
imagine that I was not in the U.S. but in some rugged
backwater of the Russian Far East.

**********

Russia’s expansion into Alaska was an extension of
its rapid eastward advance across Siberia in the 16th and
17th centuries. Cossacks, joined by merchants and trappers
known as promyshlenniki, hunted ermine, mink, sable, fox,
and other furbearers as they subjugated, slaughtered,
co-opted, and extracted payments from Siberian indigenous
groups. By 1639 the promyshlenniki had reached the Pacific
Ocean, and roughly a century later the tsars dispatched
navigators such as Vitus Bering to explore the Aleutian
Islands and sail deep into Alaska waters. What they found
in abundance were sea otters, whose furs would soon become
the most sought after in the world, used for everything
from the collars of tsarist officers’ coats to
jackets for Chinese nobles. The Russian-driven slaughter
of the otters would eventually nearly extirpate the
original population of 300,000 in the waters of Alaska and
the northern Pacific.

By hostage-taking and killing, Russian promyshlenniki
subjugated the indigenous Aleuts, who were skilled at
hunting sea otters from their kayaks, and pressed them
into service as the chief procurers of otter pelts.
Government support of the promyshlenniki’s efforts
in Alaska gradually increased, culminating in 1799, when
Tsar Paul I granted a charter to the Russian-American
Company to hunt furbearing animals in Alaska. In effect,
the company ran the colony until the territory was sold in
1867.

“Alaska was certainly a colonial venture, but
without a strategic plan,” says S. Frederick Starr,
a Russia scholar with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced
International Studies who has studied Alaska’s
Russian period. “The Russians groped their way into
it, with the government supporting these venturesome guys
who were basically after pelts. The whole story suggests a
kind of haphazard, unfocused quality, though there are
moments when they try to get their act together and send
out bright people to turn it into a real colony.”

A 1741 chart traces Danish explorer Vitus Bering's voyage from Kamchatka to North America. Tsars dispatched explorers as part of the process of Russia's eastward expansion. (Universal History Archive/UIG/Bridgeman Images)
A 1741 chart traces Danish explorer Vitus Bering’s voyage from Kamchatka to North America. Tsars dispatched explorers as part of the process of Russia’s eastward expansion. (Universal History Archive/UIG/Bridgeman Images)

**********

Unearthing remains of the Russian colonial period has
fallen to the likes of archaeologist Dave McMahan, a
soft-spoken 61 year old who served from 2003 to 2013 as
Alaska’s state archaeologist. Long fascinated by the
colonial period, McMahan became especially intrigued by
the fate of a star-crossed Russian vessel, the Neva, which
played a pivotal role in the Alaska colony.

A 110-foot frigate, the Neva was one of the first two
Russian ships to circumnavigate the globe, an expedition
that lasted from 1803 to 1806. During that voyage the Neva
stopped in Sitka, where it played a decisive role in a
Russian victory over the native Tlingit. It later became
one of the vessels supplying the Alaska colony from St.
Petersburg.

On January 9, 1813, the Neva was within 25 miles of Sitka
when it ran aground in thick fog. It was pounded against
the rocks a few hundred yards off Kruzof Island, a
23-mile-long link in the Alexander Archipelago
that’s dominated by a dormant, 3,200-foot volcano,
Mount Edgecumbe. Thirty-two people drowned in the frigid
water; 28 made it ashore, where two soon died. Twenty-four
days later a rescue party from Sitka picked up the
survivors.

The sinking of the Neva was legendary in Alaska maritime
lore, not least because of rumors that the ship was
carrying gold. “Like all good shipwrecks in Alaska,
the interest was all about the wealth that supposedly was
on board,” says McMahan. However, he notes, no
Russian-American Company records support the claim that
the Neva was laden with precious metals.

Using survivor accounts, satellite and aerial photographs,
and the tale of an abalone diver who’d seen cannons
in the waters off Kruzof Island, McMahan calculated where
the ship likely had gone down and where the survivors
might have huddled onshore. “Everything pointed to
this one spot,” he says.

In the summer of 2012 McMahan and his colleagues went
ashore on a storm-tossed stretch of beach. Above it, on a
terrace, their metal detector got a major hit. Digging
down, they found a cache of nine Russian axes from the
early 19th century, identifiable by a distinctive barb on
the blade’s head. “We were just in
shock,” recalls McMahan.

Confident that they’d found the survivors’
camp, McMahan and his co-workers sought permission to
explore further from the U.S. Forest Service and the Sitka
tribe, whose traditional territory encompasses the area,
and secured funding from the National Science Foundation.
It took three years to clear those hurdles, and last July,
McMahan and a team of eight Russians, Canadians, and
Americans returned to Kruzof for an arduous dig, plagued
by near-constant rain and a handful of grizzly bears that
kept wandering past their camp to feast on a rotting whale
carcass at the water’s edge. The team uncovered
dozens of artifacts that pointed to a group of people
struggling to stay alive until they were rescued: a crude
fishhook made of copper, gunflints that had been adapted
to strike against rock to start a fire, musket balls that
had been whittled down to fit guns of a different caliber.
They also found part of a navigational instrument, ship
spikes, and food middens.

The team will return this summer to continue digging and
to search offshore with more advanced sonar equipment.
They hope to locate cannons or other artifacts from the
sunken ship.

**********

The Neva’s intended destination was Sitka, known
then as Novo Arkhangelsk (New Archangel). The outpost
served from 1808 to 1867 as the headquarters of the
Russian-American Company and for a time was the largest
port on the Pacific coast of North America. Rising above
the center of the present-day city, population 9,000, is
Castle Hill, the site of the company’s buildings,
now long gone. McMahan was the lead archaeologist on a dig
at the site in the 1990s that turned up roughly 300,000
artifacts, many of them attesting to the cosmopolitan
nature of Sitka in the 19th century: Ottoman pipes,
Japanese coins, Chinese porcelain, English stoneware, and
French gun parts. Sitka then had its own museum, library,
and teahouses and became known as the Paris of the
Pacific—hyperbole, to be sure, but Sitka was the
best this untamed land had to offer.

A 19th-century engraving shows New Arkhangelsk, former headquarters of the Russian-American Company, now the city of Sitka. (De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images)
A 19th-century engraving shows New Arkhangelsk, former headquarters of the Russian-American Company, now the city of Sitka. (De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images)

One of the residents with a direct link to the
town’s Russian history is 79-year-old Willis
Osbakken. His grandmother—Anna Schmakoff, whom he
knew as a boy—was of Russian-Alaska native descent.
She was born in 1860 and before she died, in 1942, was one
of the last people alive to have witnessed the historic
1867 transfer ceremony on Castle Hill, when the Russian
flag was lowered and the U.S. flag raised. Schmakoff, then
seven years old, recalled one thing above all, Osbakken
says. “She didn’t really understand why all
the Russian people were crying. But her impression was
that they were crying because the American flag was so
much prettier than the Russian one.”

In the heart of Sitka sits the handsome, gray wooden St.
Michael’s Cathedral, built in the 1840s and long the
seat of the Russian Orthodox bishop of Alaska. The
cathedral burned down in 1966, and later was rebuilt and
restored to its original condition, with sailcloth
covering the walls and silver, brass, and gold icons
glittering under a graceful dome. Attendance at St.
Michael’s has dwindled to a few dozen regular
worshippers. But Father Oleksa says that although
Alaska’s Russian Orthodox Church is losing members
in larger towns and cities, it’s still going strong
in rural areas and native villages.

“Secular trends are not as powerful,” he says.
“The simple reason is that whether it’s
agrarian living or subsistence hunting and fishing, the
more your life depends on a direct relationship with the
natural world, the more religious people tend to
be.”

The church’s continuing strength among Alaska
natives is largely because the church defended indigenous
rights during the Russian period, frequently clashing with
the Russian-American Company over its mistreatment of the
native population. Church leaders, particularly Ivan
Veniaminov, later canonized as St. Innocent of Alaska,
supported native culture and held church services in
indigenous tongues—all in contrast to many future
Protestant and Catholic missionaries.

In the last decades of Russian rule the Russian-American
Company supported the church and its schools and began to
treat the indigenous people more humanely. But by the
1850s Russia’s Alaska adventure was becoming
increasingly untenable. Sea otter populations had been
nearly depleted. In 1856 Britain, France, and Turkey
defeated the Russians in Crimea, and Tsar Alexander II was
preoccupied with paying for the war, enacting military and
legal reforms, and freeing Russia’s serfs. The
California gold rush, which began in 1848, also drove home
to the tsar that if gold ever were discovered in Alaska,
there was no way the feeble Russian presence could hold
back a flood of Americans and Canadians.

“This was just one step too far for them, and so
they said, To hell with it—we’ll sell,”
says Starr. “It was an offer of real money at a time
when they really needed it.” And by selling to the
U.S., a close ally, Russia would forever keep Alaska out
of the hands of Great Britain’s Canadian dominion.

When Russia transferred Alaska to the United States, the
tsar handed over sovereignty of the territory, but the
property rights of Alaska natives were ignored. For the
next century the indigenous peoples and the U.S.
government battled over the issue. It was finally resolved
in 1971, when the U.S. Congress passed the Alaska Native
Claims Settlement Act, under which the government paid
nearly a billion dollars to Alaska’s indigenous
peoples and returned 40 million acres to native groups.

In effect, the American government bought Alaska a second
time. And on this occasion Washington had to dig far
deeper into its pockets than it had 104 years before.

**********

In Ninilchik the Russian era lives on through people like
Joe Leman, his wife, Selma, and their nearby neighbor,
Nick Cooper, who gets together with Leman from time to
time to drink a beer and speak Russian. They reminisce
about their hardscrabble boyhood, when families with 10 or
12 children survived on salmon, moose meat, and vegetables
from their gardens. And they recall outsiders taunting
them because they were of Russian-Alaska native heritage
and spoke a foreign tongue, which some called the
devil’s language.

As a former Moscow correspondent who speaks Russian, I
found it both strange and fascinating to converse with
people speaking a dialect dating back to the time of
Alexander II. When Leman and I chatted, he used some words
I’d never heard in Russian. “Moose” in
Russian is los, but Leman called the animal a sahat, a
variant of a Siberian word for moose that’s almost
certainly linked to the Siberians who played a key role in
the Russian-American Company. Speakers of Ninilchik
Russian also occasionally use words that haven’t
been used in Russia since Chekhov’s time, such as
chihotka for tuberculosis. They call a toilet a nuzhnik,
literally the “necessary place.” When local
residents traveled to Russia in the 1990s and used that
expression, the Russians were taken aback, but they
nevertheless grasped the meaning.

For nearly 20 years Wayne Leman, Joe’s nephew, and
the husband-and-wife team of Andrej Kibrik and Mira
Bergelson, two prominent linguists from Moscow, have been
studying these and other distinctive characteristics of
the time capsule dialect. They’ve compiled a
dictionary of roughly 2,500 words, pieced together by
speaking with old-timers. “It was a tremendous
surprise,” recalls Kibrik, who works at the Russian
Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Linguistics.
“We saw people who did not know how to write a
single Russian letter speaking good Russian. But they were
somewhat reserved, because they had been told by some
people that their Russian was substandard.”

Leman, Kibrik, and Bergelson hope to publish a complete
Ninilchik Russian dictionary, including recordings of the
village’s speakers, in conjunction with next
year’s sesquicentennial celebrations. The project
holds special meaning for Leman; in his 66 years he has
seen Ninilchik transformed from a Russian village into a
community where the Russian period is little more than a
faint echo. “When I grew up in the village, Russian
was still spoken fluently by many people,” he says.
“Back then people would say, ‘We are
Russian.’ We were certainly culturally Russian.
Those who were members of the Russian Orthodox Church
maintained religious holidays. We ate Easter bread. People
sang in Old Church Slavonic.”

The year after Wayne Leman was born, the road from
Anchorage arrived, and with it came English-speaking
homesteaders from the outside. Statehood in 1959 increased
the pressure to assimilate, and in the ensuing decades the
percentage of Ninilchik residents who spoke Russian as
their first language steadily decreased. As the vestiges
of old Ninilchik disappeared, Leman felt compelled to
preserve what he could of the village’s history,
language, and culture. He wrote a 632-page book,
Agrafena’s Children, that documents the
history of the Russian-Alaska native families of the area.
And he launched into the project with Kibrik and
Bergelson.

“It’s been a personal journey for me to record
the words I grew up speaking,” says Leman.
“Today there is a little bit of the Russian language
left in Alaska, and it’s most viable in Ninilchik.
But soon that will be gone as well. That’s why
we’ve been working so hard to preserve the language.
Other than places like Ninilchik, the rest is in the
history books.”

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