Alaska Reflection by Genrietta Churbanova

Aug. 10, 2022

Princeton University’s Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies’ trip to Alaska constituted a unique opportunity to study the history of Russian America and witness the lingering effects of Russian presence in the region firsthand. REEES’ trip not only opened a door into a comparatively little-studied affair in Russian history, but it also gave me new and unexpected insight into the whitewashing of U.S. history.

            Before the trip, what little I knew of the United States’ purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire was captured in Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1867 painting The Alaskan Treaty. The painting shows Russian Minister to the United States Edouard de Stoeckl with his hand hovering above a giant globe, presumably convincing U.S. Secretary of State William Seward that the U.S. should purchase Alaska. Per the painting, the negotiations for Alaska were conducted by well-dressed white men in a richly furnished room. Eventually, the U.S. purchased the territory at a famously low price: a mere $7.2 million, or less than 2 cents an acre. Thus, Alaska passed from white man’s hand to white man’s hand.

            But, while in Alaska, the former Russian territory told a different story than The Alaskan Treaty: one of Russian interaction with Native Alaskans, not European Americans. Hence, Leutze’s The Alaskan Treaty is a poor visual representation of Russia’s involvement in Alaska because the painting perpetuates the whitewashing of American history. Rather than attempting to summarize one hundred-odd years of Russian contact with Native Alaskans, I will instead offer an alternative work of art through which to understand Russia’s time in the territory.

A more accurate and informative visual representation of the history of Russia in Alaska—and more specifically, the history of Russia in Tlingit territory—can be found in Sitka’s Baranov Pole. The Baranov Pole commemorates the 1805 peace treaty brokered by first Governor of Russian Colonies in Alaska, Aleksandr Baranov; the treaty ended the Tlingit Russian War. The Baranov Pole features Tlingit symbols alongside the double-headed eagle, the Russian Empire’s coat of arms. It is topped by a seemingly naked Baranov, a detail which throws the pole’s very meaning into question. Although Baranov was supposed to be clothed, the pole’s carvers left him bare. Consequently, the pole appears to be ridiculing rather than commemorating Baranov. The Baranov pole thus illustrates the Russian Empire’s complex contact with the Tlingit people and shifts the narrative of Russian America from one dominated by white men to one highlighting agentive Native Alaskans. Here it is important to note that the Baranov Pole does not tell the story of Russians’ interactions with other Native Alaskans, such as the Yup’ik and the Unangan.

            Ultimately, learning about Native Alaskans’ interaction with Russians highlighted the (incredibly obvious yet tragically often overlooked by European Americans) fact that the vast majority of Alaska’s history is Native history. The story of Russian American is not the story of De Stoeckl and Seward, but rather that of Native Alaskans and those Russians who crossed the Bering Strait.