Written by Vladimir Moss



     Russia has had an imperial and missionary presence on the American continent since the eighteenth century. Probably the first Russian Orthodox Christian in America was Colonel Philip Ludwell III, a third-generation Virginian and a relative of George Washington.[1] But the first solid results for Orthodoxy took place far to the north in Russian Alaska. 

     The opening up of Alaska began in December, 1724, when Peter the Great sent the Danish navigator Vitus Bering to explore the borders of America. “Sail on vessels to the north,” he wrote to him, “and, based on current expectations, because no one knows where it ends, see if it appears that this land is part of America… You are to seek where Asia and America split.” Vitus discovered what is now known as the Bering Strait.[2]

     “In 1741,” writes F.A. Golder, “Vitus Bering’s expedition to the Gulf of Alaska opened up the region to an army of Russian traders and trappers, lured there by the plentiful supply of seal and sea otter pelts. By the end of the eighteenth century, Alaska had become a Russian territory, with outposts stretching across the Aleutian Isles to Sitka. Many of the Russians lived on equal terms with the native peoples dwelling in their traditional sod houses and adopting the local customs. Some of the wealthier traders would even adopt young natives and send them back to Russia to be educated.

     “This, unfortunately, was not the rule everywhere. The fierce competition for the lucrative fur trade led to the sometimes brutal exploitation of the Alaskan natives. Specifically on Kodiak Island, Gregory Shelikov’s and Ivan Golikov’s trading company was infamous for its abuse of the native people. The Kodiak men were enslaved in the hunting of sea otters, while the women were routinely abducted; hunger and physical abuse became common.

     “Into this grim situation [the Valaam monk] St. Herman and the nine other missionaries sailed in 1794 [at the command of the Holy Synod]. Despite the terrible conditions they endured – lack of food, insufficient clothing and shelter, and persecution by the Russian traders – the missionaries eagerly began their preaching of the Gospel. One would expect few of the natives to embrace the religion of a people they were resisting. Amazingly, the opposite occurred: almost every member of the Alutiiq tribe became Orthodox.”[3]

     By 1815 Alaska already had its first saint - St. Peter the Aleut, who was martyred by Roman Catholics in San Francisco. The most famous member of the Alaskan mission was St. Herman, who died in 1837 and was canonized in San Francisco in 1970. And there were others…

     "From 1823," writes Archpriest Lev Lebedev, "there begins a second special Church mission, whose most prominent representative turned out to be the young priest Fr. John Popov-Veniaminov, later Metropolitan Innocent of Moscow and Kolomna. This great and wonderful man was born in 1797 in the village of a poor village reader near Irkutsk. He finished his studies at the Irkutsk seminary, where he displayed great interest both in theological and in secular sciences. In 1823, with the whole of his family, wife and children, he arrived at the island of Unalaska and began his apostolic ministry among the Aleuts, Kadyaks, Eskimos and Indians of the west coast of Alaska and Northern California (the city of Novo-Arkhangelsk on the island of Sitka). Teaching the local inhabitants various arts and household crafts, he with their help built a church, introduced schools, work-houses and hospitals, and baptized thousands of natives without ever resorting to violence or any pressure, but acting only through love and the word of truth. Fr. John mastered six local languages, and studied and described the everyday life, manners and anthropology of the bribes, the local geography and climates, becoming a true father of the 'wild' peoples, or, as St. Herman of Alaska used to say about himself, their 'nanny'! For the Aleuts he composed an alphabet and translated the Gospel of Matthew and some necessary prayers and other books into their language. His works on the ethnography of the peoples of Alaska, California and the adjacent islands are still used in science to this day and are considered models. Even then, during his lifetime, they were highly valued by the academies of science of Russia and Europe! Father John Popov-Veniaminov continued the best traditions of the Russian missionaries of Siberia, the Altai and the Far East. In those times that was not simple, it demanded courage, asceticism. The point is that the interests of the apostolate of the Church in those places often contradicted the interests of the Russian-American Company (RAC), which traded in furs and sea animals. 'Industrial' people and RAC officials sometimes displayed cruelty, and sometimes were inclined mercilessly to exploit the natives, although one has to say that these were excesses, but not the rule! As a rule, even our 'industrials' behaved in a friendly and fraternal manner to the native population of America. Shelikhov considered marriages between Russian and Indians as very desirable. There were mixed marriages. The children from these marriages (Creoles) often turned out to be very capable people, while some of them attained high rank in state service in Russia. Catherine II and Paul I prescribed only friendly relations towards the natives under threat of punishment. A special decree of Emperor Alexander I ordered the RAC 'first of all to venerate humanity' in all the peoples of America, and in no case to resort to cruelty and violence. Russia often sent notes of protest to the USA, whose merchants sold firearms to the Indians. The USA replied that they were 'free', and that they could not ban this trade in death... But in the 19th century among our workers in RAC there were people who were completely foreign to Orthodox, who simply did not understand it (for example, the RAC's 'chronicler', Khlebnikov). And sometimes it was difficult for our missionaries to defined whom they had to enlighten first of all - the Aleuts and Indians, or our own people, the Russians!... In such circumstances only an all-encompassing (spiritual and secular) education of the apostles of America, like Fr. John Popov, could force some of the officials of RAC to venerate the Church and her missionary work. In 1840, on the recommendation of Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov), who had become friends with Fr. John, Tsar Nicholas I appointed the priest Popov-Veniaminov, who had been widowed by this time and had accepted monasticism, as the first bishop of the newly formed Kamchatka, Kurile islands and Aleut diocese. When the Tsar gave this name to the diocese, people remarked to him: 'But Your Majesty! There is not a single church on the Kurile islands!' 'Build them!' snapped the Emperor. That is how the new hierarch of the Russian Church Innocent (Veniaminov) appeared..."[4]

     St. Innocent’s labours, together with those of Archimandrite Macarius in the Altai and Archbishop Nicholas in Japan, give the lie to the idea that Russian Orthodoxy in this period was "ossified" or "paralysed". In fact, the labours of these men, supported by the Tsars, proved both the vitality of Russian Orthodoxy and the continuing vitality of the Church-State "symphony".

     In the Tsar's encouragement of the American mission "was reflected, as in a drop of water, the essence of the politics of the Third Rome - the widening of the boundaries of the Church. In her expansion to Alaska and Northern California, to the possessions of Japan and China, and to the sands of Central Asia, Russia derived not only commercial and military-strategic advantages (although these, too, were not of little importance), but brought to the new lands the light of her Orthodox Faith and spirituality. Besides, as has already been pointed out, she related to the peoples of these new lands with great respect. In contrast to the expansion of the Roman Catholic church, the Russian Orthodox Church and state did not convert one people to Christianity by forcible means! Amidst the pagan tribes of Siberia, the North, the Far East and America, the Russian spiritual missions were very active in preaching the Word of God, building churches and monasteries, hospitals, homes for invalids and the elderly, providing medical help and what would now be called 'social security', often quarrelling because of these good works with the local secular bosses. As regards the Mohammedan peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus, here there was almost no missionary work. After the unsuccessful attempts to create spiritual missions for the Tatars and Kalmyks in the 18th century, Russia renounced special ecclesiastical missions in Mohammedan areas distinguished for their strong predeliction for Islam. Orthodoxy was not imposed on the Mohammedan people; they were left to live freely in accordance with their own customs, but Orthodox churches naturally arose on their lands for the Russians who had settled there, so that all those desiring it among those peoples received the opportunity to learn Orthodoxy!"[5]

     However, in 1867 the Tsar sold Alaska and the Aleutian islands to the United States for $7.2 million.[6] Could the need to pay for the armies in Central Asia have motivated this unexpected decision? Or the cost of defending 10,000 Russians and 40,000 Indians against the expected influx of American explorers and settlers?

     A third possibility was the threat from Britain, who had fought Russia in the Crimean War, when the Unites States was Russia’s only ally: “The deal was born not of the Russian Empire’s rivalry with the United States, but through both countries’ competition with Britain, whose Empire made it the most powerful nation of the age, one with a truly global presence.

     “Russia and Britain had already face off in the Crimean War, which had begun in October 1853… Though as the name suggests, the conflict was concentrated on Russia’s south-west flank, it also spread to the Pacific, when a fleet of Russian cruisers based in Siberian ports threatened Britain’s trading links with California. A combined British and French squadron was assembled at Honolulu and on July 29th 1854 it set sail in pursuit of the Russian ships. Having taken the weakly defended port of Sitka in Alaska, they then headed south for Petropavlovsk, which ended in catastrophe for the allies.

     “Even so, Russia remained fearful of British ambitions in the Pacific. Vancouver island, just off the mainland of western Canada, was already a British Crown Colony and the population of neighbouring British Columbia was increasing rapidly, as gold prospectors rushed west. Plans were advanced to incorporate the territory formally into the Empire. This meant that Britain’s possessions in North America would now share a land border with Russia.

     “Alaska was difficult to defend, given the awesome supply lines, and so Tsar Alexander II decided to sell up. In 1859 he approached both Britain and the US as potential buyers. The former showed little interest, while the latter was too distracted by the impending Civil War to give it enough thought. When the war came to an end in 1865, interest was rekindled and the tsar instructed his ambassador in the US, Edward Stoeckl, to begin formal negotiations with Secretary of State, William Seward. Not only did the potential deal offer a considerable expansion of US territory – at more than 600,000 square miles it is twice the size of Texas – and a strategic location between Russia and British North America, but it was also a useful distraction from the fraught issue of post-Civil War Reconstruction. 

     “After an all-night negotiating session, the treaty was signed at 4 am on March 30th, 1867. The agreed price was $7.2 million, equivalent to around $20 million today, which works out at about two cents an acre.

     “Captain Alexei Peschkurov handed over the territory to his opposite number with the words:

     By authority from his Majesty, the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the territory of Alaska.

     “Just a few Russian fur traders and Orthodox priests remained behind and it was not until the Klondike gold rush of 1896 that Alaska attracted new settlers in numbers…”[7]

     However, the Orthodox Aleut Indians also remained behind – it was, after all, their native land. And it is said that they wept as the Russian flag was taken down for the last time… “Although the treaty guaranteed the rights of natives to remain Orthodox Christians, these articles were largely ignored by U.S. officials and Protestant missionaries. At the end of the nineteenth century many Alaskans could speak Russian, English and a native language, but were still considered uncivilized by the authorities. A systematic persecution of the native and Orthodox culture was initiated. Russian and native languages were forbidden to be used in schools. Soon a policy of assimilation was implemented, and the traditional life of the Alaskans began to wane…”[8]

     From a financial point of view, the deal was probably a mistake - there were gold deposits under the Alaskan soil.[9] But from a spiritual point of view, too, it was a dubious deal. As we have seen, Alaska, in contrast to Central Asia, had proved to be fertile territory for Russian missionaries, and the Indians were therefore not merely colonial subjects but brothers in Christ. What could justify the abandonment of thousands of brothers in Christ to a heretical government (even if the church buildings remained in the hands of the Orthodox, and permission was granted to the Russian Spiritual Mission to continue its work in Alaska)? Was not the Third Rome obliged to protect the interests of her converts in the New World?

     As it turned out, Divine Providence protected the Orthodox Indians where the Russian tsar did not: in 1917 Russia herself came under the yoke of the atheists, so from that point of view it may have been just as well that the Orthodox Alaskans found themselves within the borders of another State.


May 18/31, 2017.


[1] Nicholas Chapman, “Orthodoxy in Colonial Virginia”, November, 2009.

[2] Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Romanovs, London, 2016, p. 140.

[3] Golder, Father Herman, Alaska’s Saint, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2004, pp. 7-8.

[4] Lebedev, Velikorossia, St. Petersburg, 1997, pp. 302-303.

[5] Lebedev, op. cit.

[6] The full text of the agreement:

[7] “The US Buys Alaska from Russia”, History Today, March, 2017, p. 8.

[8] Golder, op. cit, pp. 12-12. Fr. Geoffrey Korz writes: "Until about 1900, the Alaskan native languages had a thriving literature and press under the auspices of the Orthodox Church, until American rule enforced an 'English-only' policy" ("The Alaska Code: Rare Alaskan Orthodox Manuscripts brought back to life,"

[9] M.V. Krivosheev and Yu.V. Krivosheev, Istoria Rossijskoj Imperii 1861-1894 (A History of the Russian Empire), St. Petersburg 2000, pp. 130-137.

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