Alaska's last frontier - in colonial history. Study of Russian-American past spurs international cooperation

FOR students of the colonization of America, the last research frontier corresponds with the last geographic frontier - Alaska. So claim those who attended the Second International Conference on Russian America in Sitka, Alaska, the one-time capital of the czarist empire that stretched from Alaska to northern California and Hawaii.

Merchant-governors of the Russian-American Company and Russian Orthodox churchmen built Sitka, then called New Archangel, into the most civilized settlement on the west coast of North America. When San Francisco was little more than a mission, New Archangel's 2,000 residents could boast of shipyards and forges, a magnetic observatory, and formal balls at the governor's mansion on Castle Hill.

In 1867, after William Seward, secretary of state to Abraham Lincoln, persuaded Congress to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, the Stars and Stripes was first raised over the territory in a transfer ceremony in this Pacific Coast village.

At last month's conference, scholars and enthusiasts from six nations and 10 states - about 300 in all - shared the results of research gathered since the first conference in 1979. Only a small number of specialists study the Russian-American colonial period, said conference chairman Lydia Black, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska.

But the smallness of the field offers rewards. Investigations into the history of French, English, and Spanish colonization on this continent are described as ``old hat'' by Richard A. Pierce, professor emeritus of history of Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, and an organizer of the conference.

``With the other areas, it's awfully hard to get something that is really new,'' Dr. Pierce said. ``With the Russian-American period, I can do something every day that no one else has really gotten into. In this field, you have a chance to make truly new contributions.''

``The Russian period is ... somewhat exotic - there is a great dearth on that period,'' added Pierce, who is compiling a biographical dictionary of key figures from the era. ``The language is unfamiliar, and source material is hard to get.''

Complicating research, too, is the inaccessibility of colleagues in the Soviet Union. Conference organizers worked months to obtain Soviet representation and invited 13 Soviet scholars. In time for the program printing, the Soviets announced five would attend. Then Dr. Black received a personal letter from one of the scholars, stating that processing of documents for four Soviets, all from the Academy of Sciences, had stopped. Two weeks before the conference, the Soviets insisted on an extended stay in Alaska, including visits to remote native villages, Black said. The conference organizers turned to the International Research and Exchanges Board, which agreed, but on condition that American scholars be allowed a similar visit to Siberia.

The Soviets refused, and only one Soviet scholar, Valery Shubin of the Soviet Ministry of Culture and the Sakhalin Regional Museum, was allowed to attend.

But such politics do not stop progress in the field. Developments reported at the conference ranged from discovery in the Soviet Union of four maps used by the British explorer Capt. James Cook to the acceptance as historical documents of traditional native oral accounts, calling into question some previous accounts written by Europeans.

Scholars also previewed an exhibition of native artifacts, many of which were collected by explorers and never displayed in their homelands. The collection of more than 500 pieces will open at the Smithsonian Institution in next September before touring other United States cities, Canada, and the Soviet Union.

``Many people are totally unaware that the Russians had a presence on this continent,'' said Ernest Suazo, superintendent of the Sitka National Historical Park.

``That's true on both sides of the Pacific,'' said Pierce.

With the exception, perhaps, of Sitka. The 8,000 residents of this fishing community see constant reminders of the town's Russian past: The main street forks around St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Each October on Castle Hill, citizens re-enact the flag exchange and the 1867 transfer.

Children attend Baranof Elementary School and play on Shelikof, Verstovia, and Maksoutoff Streets. And the New Archangel Dancers, a Russian folk group, are frequently hailed as ambassadors of the community's heritage.

Since 1973, the National Park Service has spent $5 million restoring the Bishop's House, the oldest example of Russian colonial architecture in the hemisphere. The structure was built in 1842 for Russian Orthodox Fr. Veniaminov, also known as Bishop Innocent, who followed the wave of wild, exploitative fur hunters spearheading Russian influence into the New World.

Mr. Suazo instigated the second conference to glean more information for the Bishop's House restoration project, scheduled to be completed in autumn 1988.

In this era of Russian glasnost, US officials hope such efforts will extend beyond the academic world.

``You will produce information that will not remain on the shelf,'' said Suazo in welcoming the conferees. ``You are citizen diplomats.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.