Matryoshka Dolls, Russian Princesses and Onion-domed Cathedrals - An Unexpected Alaska

Published: 08th September 2008
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Most cruise passengers and tourists coming to Alaska expect to see whales and glaciers, bears and mushing dogs, and national historic parks and gold rush towns, saloons and houses of ill repute - but few are prepared for the rich evidence of Russian history.

In fact, very few are even aware that for a period of time, a fairly hefty chunk of history, Russia actually controlled Alaska.

The Russian occupation of Alaska began in the mid 1700s when Russian explorers like Vitus Bering started to delve further into the area, and when fur traders began to settle at places such as Iliuliuk on Unalaska.

Today, Unalaska, located on the Aleutian Island chain, offers visitors a glimpse of that past with the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Ascension. Built in 1825, complete with red roofs, green onion domes and a small churchyard, the church was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970 and was recently restored in 1998. It now houses one of the largest collections of religious artifacts and icons in the United States.

As the fur trade grew and more Russians ventured into the area, the first permanent Russian settlement in Alaska was established in 1784 by Gregory Shelikoff and his fur company on Kodiak Island, a settlement that was moved 8 years later to the site of the present-day Kodiak.

Kodiak still retains much of its Russian flavor, complete even with Russian street names.

The Baranov Museum, a warehouse built in the 1790s by Alexander Baranov to store furs, is the oldest remaining Russian structure in the state and houses a fine array of artifacts of Kodiak's time as a Russian settlement.

Other Russian themed attractions include the beautiful Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church established in 1794 complete now with icons and references to Saint Herman, the first priest canonized in the USA. There is also the Veniaminov Research Institute Museum which showcases bibles and icons used by the Orthodox missionaries in the 1800s

An annual Kodiak event at Monks Lagoon celebrates the canonization Father Herman and the Saint Herman's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kodiak is named in his honor.

In 1799, with the Russian fur trade in Russia booming, Alexander Baranov, the new head of the late Gregory Shelikoff's company, established a new settlement of New Archangel that became the capital of Russian America. It was later to evolve into the present town of Sitka.

Sitka is located on the coast of what is now appropriately named Baranof Island.

Pride of the town is St. Michael's Cathedral, a bright blue, onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church that dominates Sitka's skyline. Although the original cathedral built in 1844 was destroyed by fire in 1966, the reconstructed church, where a living congregation continues to worship, features many of the icons and reliquaries that were salvaged from that fire.

The Russian Bishop's House, part of Sitka National Historical Park, is the oldest Russian building in Sitka. Built in 1842 for the Bishop Ivan Veniaminov, now Saint Innocent, of the Orthodox church, the buildings have been restored to reflect its time as a school, chapel and residence.

The 107 acre Sitka National Historic Park also interprets the site of the battle between the Tlingits and the Russians in 1804. Battles between indigenous peoples and Russians were disastrous for Alaska Natives, as were the foreign diseases that white explorers brought to the land.

One of the more romantic attractions is the Lutheran cemetery where visitors can find the grave of Russian Princess Maksoutoff, the wife of Alaska's last Russian governor, Dimitrii Maksoutoff.

And to complete the picture, Sitka's own New Archangel Dancers perform authentic Russian dances for visitors to the the town - usually when the cruise ships arrive.

But the reign of the Russians in Alaska was coming to an end. Already by the early 1800s the Americans were starting to take over part of the fur trade that had been established by the Russians, and it was just a matter of time before, in 1867, US Secretary of State, William H Seward offered Russia $7,200,000, or two cents per acre, for Alaska.

Many Americans called the purchase "Seward's Folly" and considered it a waste of money. But it wasn't long before gold was discovered, triggering several prospector stampedes north.

Alaska became a territory in 1912 and finally a state in 1959 and the Russian occupation of Alaska became a distant memory - but for those willing to look beyond the usual attractions of a trip to Alaska, the evidence of that time, and pride in it too, lives on.


A freelance travel writer for a number of years, Kevin Retief now publishes several travel web sites including Travel Tidings Alaska at http://www.traveltidingsalaska.com - a free Alaska travel guide about Alaska tourism and Alaska vacations with travel information on everything from Alaskan cruises to cheap hotel rates, maps and weather.

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