Russian Sitka

Fine-boned and impeccably groomed, Betty Goldsbury looks like a princess and indeed she is. Her great-grandfather, Annahootz, was a famed clan chief of the Tlingit Indians, who once dominated almost all of Southeast Alaska. She describes her father as “one-quarter Russian.” His parents were active in the Russian Orthodox Church. Goldsbury is one of a number of Sitka residents of mixed Russian-Tlingit ancestry.

Every October 18, for nearly 30 years, Goldsbury donned a 19th-century styled dress and bonnet to portray another princess, Maria Maksutova, the beautiful, young wife of the last governor of Russian America. Despite hard October rains that pour down nearly every year, Goldsbury put on the dress and mounted steps 60 feet to the top of Castle Hill – the highest point in town and a commanding promontory that overlooks the islands and channels of Sitka Sound.

Princess Maksutova was one of the sad Russians on hand on October 18, 1867, when the Imperial Double Eagle was lowered from a Castle Hill flagpole and replaced by the Stars and Stripes. Russia’s 126-year adventure in North America had come to an end – the U.S. had purchased all of the Great Land – Alaska – for $7.2 million – just two cents per acre. Princess Maksutova is said to have been so overcome by emotion when the Russian flag was lowered that she fainted.

Present-day Sitka residents – happier with the outcome – commemorate the Transfer each year with a week-long small-town Mardi Gras of performances, feasts and parades, culminating with the re-enactment ceremony atop Castle Hill. Until the mid-1990’s, Goldsbury was a fixture each year, in the role of Princess Maksutova.

While dignitaries and visiting bagpipers march in the parade, Sitka residents portray all the principal figures that took part in the original Transfer Ceremony – a local glazier plays Prince Maksutov, an investment advisor plays American Major General Jefferson C. Davis, a Union officer who was no relation to the Confederate president. American and Russian troops line up, along with a few score of onlookers. Ron Conklin (more about him later) plays Davis’ Russian counterpart, Captain Alexei Peshchurov.

The only principal not present was also absent during the 1867 ceremony. In fact, Aleksandr Baranov died nearly 40 years before, in 1819. Yet no man was more responsible for the successful Russian colonization of Alaska. Russian-America stretched from the western tip of the Aleutian Islands to the southern border now shared with British Columbia. Baranov established a colony as  far south as Fort Ross in Northern California (see Russian Life, July 1997) and envisioned more colonies south of Alaska.

How important was Baranov? The 1,584-square mile island containing Sitka is named Baranof Island. In present-day Sitka you can do business with: Baranof Realty, Baranof Seafoods, Baranof Chiropractic and Baranof Motors, to name just a few. You can drive on Baranof Street to Baranof Elementary School. After all this activity, you may want to retire to the Baranof Island Bed & Breakfast. After all, you’ll need to rest up for the annual semi-formal and costume fete, Lord Baranof’s Ball.

Born in Kargopol in 1747, Aleksandr Baranov was a fur trader who didn’t arrive in Alaska until 1791, as manager of the Russian-American Company’s colony. A shrewd and flexible realist, Baranov managed to increase the Company’s holdings, first from Kodiak and later from Sitka. Sitka – the Tlingit name – had two strong attractants – a large protected harbor right on the North Pacific Great Circle Route, and waters that teemed with sea otters, whose luxuriant fur was prized in China. Baranov also advanced the colonies’ interests by actively trading with vessels from many nations, especially America. He employed Aleuts, Finns, even Englishmen.

But he had trouble with the fierce Tlingits who dominated the region. When Baranov first viewed Sitka, Tlingit long houses stood atop Castle Hill. Baranov established Redoubt St. Michael six miles up the coast. But relations between the settlements soured and in1802, Tlingits killed all but a handful of the 150 Russian and Aleut inhabitants and burned the fort.

It took an incensed Baranov two years to mount a flotilla of four small ships and 300 baidarkas (kayaks) containing Aleut warriors. Luck was with Baranov. A Russian war frigate heard about Baranov’s troubles and sailed from Hawaii to meet him at Sitka Sound. The ship’s heavy cannon pounded the Tlingits, who retreated 60 miles to another island. fled the area en masse. Baranov made strategic Castle Hill the site of his own home – although the opulent “Baranof’s Castle” – for which the hill is named – was not built until long after Baranov himself had left the colony.

Novo-Arkhangelsk, as Baranov named his new town, was at one point not only the capital of Russian-America, but  also the most substantial European settlement on the West Coast of North America. At its height in the 1840’s and 1850’s, some called the town the “Paris of the Pacific.” When Seattle barely existed and Los Angeles was mostly a mission, Novo-Arkhangelsk boasted a metal forge and a sawmill, a college and a 40-bed hospital, even a scientific station. Ships from many nations stopped at Sitka Sound to trade. With the arrival of steamships, engines were at first just repaired, then wholly fabricated right in town.

St. Michael’s Cathedral, the most famous – and most photographed – building in Sitka, still sits smack dab in the middle of the town’s main street. It is an active church whose congregation celebrates Russian Christmas and Easter, weddings and funerals. The building is a replica exactingly rebuilt after a 1966 fire razed the original, built between 1844 and 1848. The night of the fire, townspeople rescued precious icons, fabrics and texts from the burning building. Miraculously, then-Bishop of Alaska John Slovin had sent the original blueprints to Washington, D.C. only three months earlier.

“If he hadn’t done that, we’d have lost our cathedral,” said Father Elia, the priest of St. Michael’s since June, 2006. A Yup’ik Eskimo from a village near Bethel in Southwest Alaska, Father Elia is slender and soft-spoken. It’s hard to believe he’s a former U.S. Marine and village police officer. He went to seminary in Kodiak for four years and was delighted to be posted to Sitka.

“There’s not a lot of places where saints who were canonized walk on Earth,” said Father Elia. “There’s a lot of (my) predecessors who are very remarkable.”

For creating enduring Russian influence in Alaska, the Russian-American Company was eclipsed only by the Russian Orthodox Church. And there is only one Russian who could be said to have had more influence on Alaska than Baranov: Ioann Venyaminov, who rose from priest in Sitka to Metropolitan in Moscow and was ultimately canonized as Saint Innocent (see “The Baptizers,” Russian Life, August 1996).

Born near Irkutsk, Venyaminov was a giant of a man, a skilled carpenter and fabricator, a master of languages and a brilliant scholar. Posted first to the Aleutians, then to Sitka, Venyaminov translated Orthodox liturgies into Native tongues and, as Bishop, encouraged his priests to treat the Natives with kindness and understanding – a novel concept for most Russians in Alaska. Venyaminov traversed the Great Land by ship, kayak, dogsled and on foot, establishing parishes wherever he went. He is credited with converting more than 10,000 Natives to Christianity.

In Novo-Arkhangelsk, skilled Finnish and Tlingit carpenters built Venyaminov a large, square log building, which became the headquarters of the Orthodox Church in Russian-America. It contained a number of bedrooms, studies and parlors. A gorgeous Chapel of the Annunciation still fills with the faithful on special occasions.

Even after the transfer of Alaska, the church in Russia continued to support the priests in the former colonies, at one point spending more on education in Alaska than the Americans. But after the October Revolution in 1917, that support ceased. Financially-strapped church leaders rented out portions of the building as apartments, but the structure badly deteriorated. The church owned the building right up into the late 1960’s, then sold it to the National Park Service. In 1973, the NPS embarked on a 15-year, $5 million effort to restore the house to its former glory. Every part of the building was dismantled and then restored, using original or replica materials to bring the house back as close as possible to the way it would have looked in 1853. Each room is fully restored down to wall coverings, furniture, silverware, even bed linens.

The result is a jewel . As Sitka National Historical Park historian Kristen Griffin said, it is unquestionably the finest and most intact example of Russian colonial architecture anywhere in the Americas. As Griffin and her archeologist husband Gene stroll through the two-story structure, they point out many fascinating details.

The ship-building techniques used in the original construction of the Bishop’s House include massive, hand-hewn squared logs and broad planks that fit together so precisely, they needed little chinking. Sailcloth was used over the ceiling. The walls are smooth, either from authentic period wallpaper or from Company paper documents that were pasted up, then painted over. High thresholds were installed to retain heat in the rooms, and multi-chambered brick stoves used baffles to wring the value out of every little bit out of fuel.

“Having been in other (colonial) structures, this was really the house for the Bishop,” Griffin said of the painstaking craftsmanship and authentic furnishings. “This house was a center for education and enlightenment and for the finer things available in the colonies.”

In strategic corners of the house, NPS restorers found hidden sprigs of Devil’s Club, a potent local medicinal herb used by Tlingits to this day.

“This was to protect the house and the priests,” Griffin said. “It’s one of those interesting cross-cultural connections.”

In 1969, another member of St. Michael’s clergy influenced a group of non-Orthodox Sitka women. The women were in a local Scottish folk dancing group until their bagpiper left town. They approached Bishop Theodosius for information on Russian folk dances and the cleric was more than forthcoming. He lent the women a series of records and books with pictures of costumes and the description of dances. Bishop Theodosius even served as a dance consultant.

“Although he didn’t dance himself, he would say `Try this’ or ‘No, no, that’s not quite right – put your arms this way,’” said Karen Grussendorf, a retired school librarian. “We worked with him for two years after that.”

Grussendorf was one of the original handful of women who became the New Archangel Dancers, performing traditional dances from Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and Moldavia. Throughout the last decades of the Cold War, the dancers proudly performed before hundreds of thousands of cruise ship passengers visiting Sitka, as well as Russian dignitaries and visitors. They performed extensively in the Western U.S. and Canada. And they have taken their act overseas — including numerous trips to Russia. Today, the group numbers more than 40 active dancers. And Bishop Theodosius didn’t suffer from his time as a choreographer. He later rose to become Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church in America.

In the summer of 1988, the wave of glasnost hit Sitka. Fourteen sailors from the Naval Academy in Vladivostok were given permission to recreate Vitus Bering’s original voyage of discovery and arrived in Sitka in two 30-foot sailboats. Within a day, townspeople were taking the sailors into their homes.

A Russian research vessel came to town for a fisheries conference and a dozen or so ordinary Sitkans were invited onboard for a party that lasted well into the night and whose exact details are guarded to this day, although they apparently involved vodka.

Russian archeologists, who had been studying colonial architecture in St. Petersburg and Moscow were greatly moved by the restored Bishop’s House.

It became a common occurence to hear Russian again spoken on the streets of Sitka. By the end of the 1990s, Sitkans were traveling regularly for business and pleasure to Vladivostok and elsewhere in the Russian Far East.

Remember Ron Conklin who plays Captain Alexai Peshchurov at the annual Transfer Ceremony reenactment? Conklin is the superintendent of Sitka National Cemetery – the first U.S. National Cemetery built west of the Mississippi River. He is an unlikely Russian: Conklin’s office is filled with flags and patriotic signs, but he is also responsible for sprucing up the uniforms worn by the 16 or so “Russian sailors” who march with him in the parade. One day this spring, Conklin helped a grateful Tlingit woman from Juneau tramp through the snow to find the grave of her ancestor in the Old Russian Cemetery — one of Sitka’s 14 cemeteries.

The roots — and feelings — run deep. Tlingit leaders aver they prevailed over the Russians because they are here and the Russians are gone. When, in 1989, a wealthy local family celebrated 40 years in business in Sitka by donating a bronze statue of Baranov to the city, someone vandals slipped up in the night and hacksawed off Baranov’s nose. Sawmarks on the neck indicated they intended to behead him.

In October of 2004 — the 200th anniversary of the “Battle of 1804″ — Irina Afrosina, a direct descendant of Aleksandr Baranov, arrived in Sitka to participate in grief and reconciliation ceremonies with members of the Kiksadi Clan of Tlingits, who had fought the Russians. The ceremonies lasted a full day and some of them were private. Eugene Solovyov acted as a translator.

Solovyov emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1977, when he was 12. In 1992, he visited Sitka and eventually decided to move here and open a fine arts gallery. Solovyov said he enjoys the Russian influence in Sitka, which reminds him of growing up in Moscow and St. Petersburg. His accent, he finds, helps him make sales to tourists delighted to meet a “real” Russian in Sitka. To Russian-speaking Solovyov, Maknahti Island near Sitka Airport also means “Overgrown Island”  and Starrigavan means “Old Harbor.”

Yet he said the grief and reconciliation ceremonies touched him very deeply.

“Hearing both sides and hearing [Afrosina’s] reaction and seeing [Kiksadi elders’] reactions and the reconciliation that happened between them,” Solovyov said, “that’s the time I felt the most Russian here, that somehow I was still related to the Russian history of the place.”

Originally in Russian Life,  July/August 2007