August 22, 2021

Four Russian Treasures in North America

Four Russian Treasures in North America
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Juneau, Alaska Amanda Shirnina

In North America, there are a handful of nineteenth-century buildings constructed by the Imperial Russian government that are still standing.

The Russian-American Company was a fur-hunting enterprise in and around Alaska from the beginning of the nineteenth century until 1867, when Russia sold the territory to the United States. The company was an official arm of the Russian government headquartered in St. Petersburg, with naval officers presiding over Alaska as colonial administrators.

In California and Alaska, four Russian buildings still stand. Plus, a multitude of more recent representations of the Russian past surround Alaskans – especially in southern coastal Alaska, where fur-bearing animals like seals and otters formerly filled the water.

Original Building #1: Rotchev House, Fort Ross, California

Fort Ross Rotchev House
Rotchev House at Fort Ross, California, right. Note the fortress wall. | Panoramio user MARELBU

Fort Ross – Ross coming from Rossiya – is about two hours north of San Francisco by car. Why California? The Russian-American Company needed fresh produce for its settlers in Alaska, while Alaska (namely, the aptly dubbed Swan Lake in Sitka) provided ice to the California enterprise. The fort was, naturally, on the Pacific coast so that ships from Alaska had easy access. On Spanish-owned land, it was active until 1841.

Only the Rotchev House, pictured above on the right, was actually built by the Russian-American Company. The fortress wall and other buildings, including a Russian Orthodox chapel, have been reconstructed to match the originals. Alexander Rochev was the last administrator of Fort Ross in 1841.

California's Russian River is named for the Russian-American Company's activity in the area. The Russians originally called it Slavyanka reka, which Wikipedia seems to suggest could mean Slavic Woman River, not realizing that a Russian river is just a word in the feminine case.

Original Building #2: Kodiak History Museum, Kodiak, Alaska

Baranov Museum, Kodiak
Baranov Museum/Kodiak History Museum, former Russian magazin, Kodiak, Alaska. | Flickr user James Brooks

The Kodiak History Museum is housed in the original Russian-American magazin (store) building in the first of two capitals of the Russian enterprise in Alaska. (The second was Sitka, discussed more below.)

The museum was formerly named the Baranov Museum, for Alexander Baranov, the first governor of Russian America (Russian Alaska). The name has completely disappeared from the museum's website, except for a single mention on the "History of the Museum" page. In 2019-2020, Baranov's image took a hit due to his role as a colonial oppressor of Alaska Natives. In 2020, Sitka's Baranov statue, pictured below, was moved from a park bench area to a museum.

Baranov Statue, Sitka, Alaska
Baranov Statue, Sitka, no longer... um, sitting. He is blocking St. Michael's Orthodox Cathedral with his giant head in this photograph. | Amanda Shirnina 

Original Building #3: Russian Bishop's House, Sitka, Alaska

Russian Bishop's House, Sitka, Alaska
Russian Bishop's House, Sitka. Check out that lush grass! | Amanda Shirnina

In 1804, the Russian-American Company moved its headquarters from Kodiak to Sitka because sea otters and northern fur seals were being depleted around Kodiak. The Russian Bishop's House is now a National Park Service holding, with furniture sent by the Romanovs themselves and a consecrated, active Russian Orthodox chapel inside. The yellow exterior walls and red roof reveal the color scheme of nearly all of the original Russian buildings that no longer stand. This color palette is visible all over St. Petersburg in older buildings; even Fyodor Dostoevsky noted in his novel Crime and Punishment that the whole city felt grossly yellow.

Most of the chapel's objects date to 1842. A National Park Service brochure describes the Russian Bishop's House as the "capitol of Russian America."

Original Building #4: Building No. 29, Sitka, Alaska

Building No. 29, Sitka Alaska
Building No. 29, or Tilson Building, Sitka. | Amanda Shirnina

Building No. 29 was a Russian-American Company employee residence in the early 1850s. It houses Log Cache Gifts & Jewelry, which a Google search suggests has not survived the pandemic. The Russians called it Building No. 29, but it has also been called the Tilson Building and the Staton Building for its American-era owners.

While Building No. 29 is the only privately owned of the original Russian historical treasures in North America – which could signal danger – a plaque attached to the building suggests that it is managed by a Staton family trust to ensure that its "historic beginnings remain steadfast." It is also on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and a U.S. National Historic Landmark, along with the other three buildings on this list.

Other Treasures

There are too many vestiges of Russianness in Alaska to mention here. But let's highlight a few gems.

You will not find too many Russians in Alaska today, although some Far Easterners moved here after the Soviet Union ended in 1991. The state's biggest city, Anchorage, has at least 3,400 Russians out of 216,000 residentsAnchorage has a Russian immersion program in its public schools that allows its mostly non-Russian students to grow up nearly bilingual. Many Alaska Natives have Russian last names, usually with "ff" at the end instead of "v."

Both Sitka and Juneau, Alaska's capital city today, have pelmeni-making operations. Juneau's downtown "underground midnight cafe" of "authentic homemade Russian dumplings," Pel Meni, includes two funny additions: hot sauce and curry. The local favorite inspired a series of YouTube videos depicting "pel money" as the drug of choice on the streets of Juneau. Check out the first mockumentary, Pel Meni: A 30 Day Addiction (Part 1 and Part 2), and the second, Pels, Inc.

For the second film, Andy Khmelev, a Russian Juneau resident, was so enthusiastic about playing a vodka-drinking, heavily accented American stereotype of a Russian that the film creator wrote a role for him.

St. Michael's Orthodox Cathedral
St. Michael's Orthodox Cathedral, Sitka. | Amanda Shirnina

Sitka has a reconstructed Orthodox church at the literal center of town, St. Michael's Cathedral. Drivers have to drive around its island to get through downtown. When the original St. Michael's burned down in 1966, the Russian Bishop's House chapel served the community's mostly Alaska Native worshippers until a replacement was built.

Russian Souvenir Shop, Sitka, Alaska
Grandfather Frost Russian Christmas Store, Sitka. | Amanda Shirnina

St. Michael's has a souvenir shop that also sells Orthodox candles and the like. It joins many other Russian souvenir shops in Sitka and Juneau, including Sitka's "Russian American Company" store that sells authentic St. Petersburg-made matryoshka dolls and other souvenirs ranging from a few dollars to top-flight goods. Douglas and Olga Borland own the store, which has a lovely website where you can order your own souvenirs to anywhere in the world. They have a unique collection of Alaska-themed Russian matryoshki.

Baranov Totem Pole, Sitka, Alaska
Baranov Totem Pole, Sitka. | Amanda Shirnina

Sitka also has probably the world's only totem pole featuring the Imperial Russian double-headed eagle. Baranov graces the very top but does not look too graceful. George Lewis, a Tlingit native man, built the totem pole in 1940.

Alaska Day 2017
Alaska Day 2017, the 150th anniversary of the transfer. | Amanda Shirnina

Since international travel is a challenge right now, maybe you should scratch your Russia itch now by checking out Russian Alaska and Russian California. If you do, skip the cruise ship and go to Kodiak and Sitka, Alaska, by yourself, and Fort Ross, California. Add Juneau, Alaska, if you have the time and money.

New Archangel Dancers, Sitka, Alaska
New Archangel Dancers, Sitka. The group began as a way for the wives of fishermen often away to entertain themselves and the city's many cruise ship passengers. / Amanda Shirnina

If you want to learn more about Alaska's Russian period than we can cover here, we recommend historian Ilya Vinkovetsky's book, Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1804-1867 (2011).

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