August 01, 1996

The Baptizers

The following text is exerpted from the book A Land Owned by Russia, by Isai Belenkin and Alexander Tropkin, to be published in Russia later this year. The book describes the assimilation of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and northern California by Russian explorers in the 17th-19th centuries, and the work of traders and missionaries in that period. Illustrations from the personal archives of Alexander Tropkin.

Russians came to the Americas in the 17th century. The following few hundred years was rife with the inevitable clash of cultures: Russian and Aleutian, Russian and American (native and non-), Russian and Spanish. An important chapter in this conflict centers on Russia’s first Orthodox missionaries to Alaska. From the 1790s to the 1830s, a devoted and ambitious group of Russian missionaries sought to make their mark on America. Yet, as was wont to happen on the great frontiers, missionary zeal was often misguided by human foibles.

The missions to Alaska were set in motion by the ‘Russian Columbus,’ Grigory Shelikhov.* In 1793, Shelikhov authored a ‘Petition’ to the country’s leadership. In it, he called for ‘a good priest and clergy’ to be dispatched to America. This initiative served to trigger the penetration and rapid spread of Orthodoxy across the whole of Russian America and the United States. As he resolved to submit his petition to the Holy Synod, Shelikhov linked the need to baptize the aboriginals of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands closely with the task of enlightening these tribes and giving them access to Russian culture.

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