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Exploring Who Was Who in Russian Alaska University News

By Sara Hoover


Biographer Andrei Znamenski
Biographer Andrei Znamenski
With all the recent attention on Alaska, it’s no surprise that Dr. Andrei Znamenski is writing biographies of the state’s major players. But he’s not covering former Gov. Sarah Palin or World Series pitcher Curt Schilling; he’s going further back.

Znamenski is covering individuals like Kotlean, a chief of the large Native American tribe Tlingit. When Alaska’s capital was the small town of Sitka and still a colony of the Russian Empire, Kotlean wreaked havoc on “Russian America.” By the early 1800s, Russians feared Kotlean once they realized they weren’t going to be able to control him. He was one of the reasons Russians eventually sold Alaska to America.

It is colorful people like Kotlean that Znamenski and co-investigator Dr. Andrei Grinëv, professor of history at St. Petersburg Humanitarian University of Trade Unions in Russia, are capturing in their biographical dictionary, Who was Who in Russian America: A Comprehensive Biographical Dictionary, 1741-1867. They hope the dictionary will become the most comprehensive biographical reference edition on Alaskan people during the Russian period.

An assistant professor of history in the College of Arts & Sciences, Znamenski received a $7,000 grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum to support his research. The 700-page book will highlight Russian, Native American, American, German and Finnish men and women who contributed to the history of Alaska. The time period covered is when the Last Frontier was still a territory of the Russian Empire from the 1750s until 1867 when it was sold to the United States.

“The purpose of the project is to highlight the lives of not only the prominent people, like explorers, officers, captains, but also common folk: interpreters, scouts, some Native American elders, some women interpreters who were somewhat behind the scenes,” he said.

Another purpose is to correct misinformation on who was in Alaska during this time.

“The biggest misconception is since Alaska belonged to Russia, Russians were there. Russians were only a small percent, maybe 20 percent of all people who came there. Eighty percent of the Russian population were serfs, almost like slaves. They were enslaved peasants. They could not move around. So that’s the reason why there were no people coming from Russia proper. That is why we use the word Russian as applied to Russian- American with quotation marks. It’s not exactly true.”

Many settlers were Finnish people and Baltic Germans from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

“Finland was one of the major places. Half of the newcomers came from Finland,” he said.

That is why Znamenski will use part of the funding to go to Helsinki to dig in archives and research Finnish navigators, scouts and sailors for inclusion.

An estimated 3,000 people is the goal to be profiled in the biographical dictionary.

The settlers represented only only a handful of inhabitants of Russian America.

“There were no more than 800 settlers,” said Znamenski. “It’s a meager number. That’s nothing. So, they had to rely on American Indians, Inuit people or on mixed-blood people called Creoles. It was multicultural, a multi-ethnic enterprise. That’s what it was.”

Tlingit Chief Kotlean is profiled in Znamenski�s book.
Tlingit Chief Kotlean is profiled in Znamenski’s book.
The biographical dictionary will reflect this multiethnicity, including the first chief administrator of Russian America, Alexander Baranov, and his Tlingit wife. Previous biographers referenced him, but none mention his wife.

Another person profiled is Alexander Kashevarov, the son of a Russian settler and a native woman. He was sent to Russia to study at a naval college and became a navy officer and eventually a commander, which was very unusual.

The book will also cover Anuita of Sitka, a Tlingit woman who acted as a cultural broker between the local Tlingit and newcomers in the 1790s. She tried to prevent bloodshed between the two groups on many occasions and previous biographers have not focused on her.

To be published by the University of Alaska Press, the biographical dictionary will be simultaneously available in Russian and English.

“That’s how I specified it in my proposal. The Alaska Humanities Forum wants that done to reach out beyond modern America,” said Znamenski.

The book is already half written and will be completed by January 2010. The print run will be approximately 1,000, but the main goal is to put it online 10 months after completion.

One reason for an online version is the book’s main audience — descendants.

“It will be online because one of the purposes is to give a chance to descendants of those people to trace their genealogy. That was one of the reasons we started doing it. It will be a good genealogy source.”

Another audience is historians and writers who tend to make mistakes in spelling and years of life, which creates discrepancies in historical works. Besides an American audience, the book will also be marketed internationally to Finland and Russia, where there is strong interest in the history of Alaska.

The biographical entries will include birthplaces, life spans, background, contributions and different versions of individuals’ names.

The project is a way of coming full circle for Znamenski, who started this research while a graduate student. His co-investigator, Grinëv, was also working on the history of Russian America. They noted both had accumulated information on personalities absent from reference books covering Alaska during this time period. Grinëv came up with the idea and the two decided to combine their research.

“This project is like going back to the roots of my original research in graduate school in Toledo and my first books I published,” said Znamenski. “Everything started in1993 when I picked up this topic that was not covered by anybody. My co-investigator and I are trying to finish what we didn’t finish earlier. It’s like a step back to finalize the research we started because we feel that it needs to be completed by sampling these biographies.”

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Last Updated: 12/21/12