Alexander Dolitsky: Alaska Day remembrance of Russia’s expansion into Siberia and Alaska



Russia, Alaska’s nearest neighbor, is the largest country on Earth, occupying a considerable portion of Eurasia, including almost all natural–extratropical climatic belts. Russia is 6.612 million square miles (11 percent of the Earth’s land area) compared to U.S. 3.797 million square miles and Alaska’s 663,300 square miles.

The northern region, extending from Kola Peninsula in the west to the Chukchi Peninsula and Komondorskiye Islands in the east, covers 4.4 million square miles. Russia’s Arctic population counts approximately 2 million people, about half of the people living in the Arctic worldwide. 

There are 26 ethnic minorities indigenous to the Russian north, ranging from Aleuts (300) to the Nenets (30,000). These groups consist of less than 30,000 members each, and they perpetuate some aspects of their traditional ways of life and inhabiting the northern and Asian parts of the country.

Together, they number about 260,000 individuals, or less than 0.2 percent of Russia’s population of about 146 million. Ethnic minorities of the Russian north do not include Buryats, Yakuts and Altaians.

Taking these figures into account, it appears obvious that the northern territories play an important role in the Russian socio-economy. In order to understand economic and cultural significance of the contemporary Russian north, the process of its exploration and colonization by the Russian Empire should be known.

The most important aspect of the ethnohistory of the people of the high north was the process of exploration and colonization of Siberia and Alaska by the Russian Empire’s officials. The process of exploration of the northern territories in the seventeenth century caused a significant transformation of population, strengthened conflicts between local ethnic groups, and changed modes of production and material culture of the aboriginal population, among other effects.

Russian officials did not wish to exterminate the aboriginal northern population, but rather, in cooperation with local native leaders, to reform them into good and meticulous suppliers of valuable furs.

From the point of view of Russian officialdom, the process of exploring the North American territories presumably had the same rationale as in Siberia; the Russians viewed North America as a geographical continuation of their politics (Alekseev, [Explorations of the Far East and Russian America by the Russian People]. Moscow: Nauka, 1982, p. 86). The Russians used a socioeconomic and political strategy in North America similar to that used in Siberia, imposing the local head tax (yasak) and strengthening their influence.

The process of colonization of the eastern territories was quite elaborate. One of the peculiarities of the aboriginal populations of Siberia, the Far East, and northwestern North America was the absence of any State organization. Lacking an institutional defense against the sophisticated social organization and military superiority of Russians, the native population had to accept Russian dominion and consequently agreed to pay them yasak.

Another peculiarity in the Russian population of the eastern territories was the absence of serfdom. Oppressed Russian peasants who had escaped from their landlords in the European part of Russia often fled to Siberia or the Far East in order to attain freedom.

The Russian authorities, surprisingly, instead of having them prosecuted, had promoted them into government jobs. When the government had thus established its control over the northeastern territories, the commercial people (promyshlenniki and kuptsy) began organizing commercial companies (artels) and markets (yarmarkas and bazaars), and the Russian Orthodox Church began sending missionaries to the East.

Thus, in contrast to peasant movements, which had a spontaneous character, the organized government expeditions to the East already had in place a colonial system, i.e. the imposition of regular yasak and the extension of State territories.

After discovery of the Aleutian Islands and southern Alaska by Europeans, series of commercial expeditions to North America from Siberian and Far Eastern Pacific ports (Okhotsk and Nizhne-Kamchatsk) took place. Between 1743 and 1786, Russian Government Treasury received from North America commercial products (primarily fur and sea mammals) worth 193,798 rubbles (100 paper ruble in 1792 was equal U.S. 72.00 dollars. Then, it could purchase 10 medium–size Russian log houses). 

In addition, they collected products worth 42,394 rubbles in yasak (Makarova, [Russians in the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the eighteenth century]. Moscow: Nauka, 1968, pp. 55, 81). One effect of these enterprises was a significant increase in the Russian population in North America.

In 1794, the Russian population in Alaska was over 800, compared to 500 in 1788 (Alekseev 1982: 38-39. In 1799, the population in Russian America controlled by Russians was about 8,000, which included only 225 Russians (Fedorova, [Russian Population of Alaska and California]. Moscow: Nauka, 1971, pp. 140–141).

Russians in North America hunted sea mammals, fished, built ships, and attempted to cultivate some crops. Several Russian settlements were established in the Aleutian Islands, on Kodiak Island, on the Kenai Peninsula, and southeastern Alaska.

By the end of the eighteenth century the Russian-American Company was founded in Alaska. The company monopolized all commercial enterprises in Russian North America and held almost all political power in the region. Until the U.S. government purchased Alaska in 1867, Siberian-North American contact was very close. The Russians’ management of Alaska always represented the interests of the tsarist government and was carried out in cooperation with their Siberian partners and supporters.

It is also important to stress that many historic material and textbooks published prior to the 1990s describe the Russian period of Alaska’s history as a bloody and ruthless colonization of northern territories. Russia’s Eastward expansion into Siberia, the Far East, and Alaska was motivated by exploration of new hunting territories. Often Russian explorers were ruthless toward an aboriginal population, but overall this movement was much more humane than colonization of Australia or colonization of North American territories in the Lower 48. The aboriginal population in Siberia and Alaska had not been placed on reservations or dislocated from their homeland as they were in the Lower 48.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1976; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

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  1. That is a fascinating column!
    Thank you for sharing this interesting (but too brief) history of Arctic Russia and Alaska.
    I will be getting one of your books for more.

  2. The Russians likely actually freed slaves in southeast Alaska to some extent. The late UAS History Professor Wally Olson wrote a short book about the Taku River, commerce with the interior, etc. The area passed from Native to Russian, and then to British and ultimately American control. Olson estimated that under local Native control 60 percent of the area population were slaves captured from areas up and down the coast and from the interior. European and American control brought an end to slavery although slavery was so entrenched that some estimates extend it into the 20th century!

    • To Kayak: Wally Olson was my close friend. He was a thorough researcher and knowledgable anthropologist/historian.

    • Slavery was entrenched from southeast AK all the way into Puget Sound. Tlingits and Haidas were famous for slaving raids to the south, as the southerners were much weaker. Living conditions for slaves were brutal, as these individuals were expendable.
      Our grandparents referred to the Siberian Yupiks from St. Lawrence Island as pirates. They raided the Bering Straits region inhabited by Iñupiaqs. With the advent of wokeness replacing history, its not spoken about anymore.
      Or the war zones in the Nulato Hills, between Iñupiaq and Koyukon Athabascans. Women were often kidnapped.

      • We all know this though. I lived on St Lawrence Island for a few years. They’ve always been their own kind of people proud of their heritage and even their language differs from regular yupik dialect. When you get off an airplane at the airport in Gamble, you’re greeted with a big old sign that says this is private property. But it wasn’t just from St Lawrence Island down to Seattle. The plains Indians fought with each other. Over a water hole or a better hunting ground or had better looking women. We go fight the next village over take what we wanted and come back and then somebody do it to us in the next year or two. It’s not a whole lot different than Columbus and manifest destiny. White people just had greater numbers and better weapons.

  3. Dolitsky touches on serfs. Our schools don’t teach history, so most Americans have no idea that slavery has always been the norm throughout history until recently.
    Tsar Feodor III formally converted Russian agricultural slaves into serfs in 1679.
    Peter the Great converted household slaves into house serfs in 1723.
    The status of a serf was somewhat equivalent to an indentured servant in America, except it was hereditary for life and children were born serfs. Indentured servitude was a set contract and entered into “willingly”.
    The vast majority of Russians were serfs, until emancipated in 1861. Again following the 1917-1921 revolution and communist consolidation, all Russians, except for communist party members were again enslaved.
    As Alaska Natives, we must thank God every day to be born on American side of Bering Straits.
    These modern college indoctrinated morons who run Native Corps and Native Health and citing “tribal” authority are dangerous to the health and well being of all Natives. Relinquishing constitutional rights for “tribal” authorities must be resisted by all means. History repeats itself through ignorance. Our children and grandchildren must not be exploited by these ethically bankrupt and corrupted modern day commisars.

    • To Brian: Excellent writing!! You wrote something that I am reluctant to write for various reasons. Several days ago I was removed from the Juneau Jewish Congregation group; probably for my writing. They did not explain why and I did not ask. So, keep sharing your knowledge and insights. Thanks.

      • Alexander,
        It is currently rare to see historical articles like yours that are simply factual and not published to manipulate, but rather educate the public. Truth is so much more interesting than fiction.
        There was a time education was referred to as disciplines commencing at 1st grade. A teacher or professor presented the facts and expected the students to form their own development. Differing views and arguments were encouraged not suppressed.
        It is a disturbing trend that the response would be to remove or ban your writings instead of using as a basis to challenge beliefs factually and refine positions after reflection consideration.
        The combination of suppressing Christianity and the fascist impulse to cancel discussion and promote false narratives in American schools and universities is adversely affecting our children.
        The push to tribalism for Alaska Natives is the single largest threat to deprive our children and grandchildren of their rights and ability to enjoy the highest level of living conditions and individual freedom achieved on earth by any society.
        State sponsored ignorance is a key component to pacify and control populations, and is best accomplished as the Russians did by cooperating with local leaders, giving them power and benefits to control their own people and accept being exploited.
        Ironically, these local leaders are more selfish, ruthless and effective at exploiting people self identifying to the same “tribe” than an “outside” leader ever could be.
        The concept of being a free, independent thinking and educated American must be extinguished as it prevents consolidating a fascist society.

    • Brian, my own Polish great-grandparents were born, and lived a fair part of their lives, as serfs in the Russian Empire. They were not officially freed until just two years before US slaves were freed under the Emancipation Proclamation.
      Note, however, that I take this as just one among many historical facts of my heritage, and certainly not as something whereby to claim four-generations-removed victimhood.

      • Jefferson,
        European borders are very fluid. Poland was partitioned out of existence, and the history of the valiant efforts by Poles to reclaim their nation is complex. There were Polish armies fighting each other under Austrian-Hungsrian and opposing Imperial Russian commands in WWI, even so they shared a common burning desire to reclaim Poland as independent.
        The most valued slaves in history were eastern Euopean “Slavs”. As the last region encompassing a large area including modern day Poland, to remain pagan, it was deemed lawful to enslave Slavic people long after the institution was abandoned in the rest of Europe.
        The Ottoman Turks valued the fair and beautiful Slavic women as sex slaves in their harems, and would pay a premium for them on the open market.
        The Polish people, along with Ukranians were constantly exploited and deprived of their national identities for centuries by larger powers to the west, east and Islamic south.

  4. The truth is often discernable by how much criticism it triggers. Generally, any utterance receiving little or no critical response, but rather mostly concurrence, has had most truth filtered out.

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